Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

It's too easy for pupils to bully teachers in the internet age

Challenging: In the classroom

Pupils have always said foul things to teachers. Or at least a handful of them have. But that's enough to make any teacher feel very miserable and demoralised.

My book, Please Miss We're Boys, describes some of the horrors I had to put up with in 1968 when I was a raw recruit. Things don't change much.

But that was to my face – and they were, of course, exploiting the naivety and inexperience of the 21-year-old me.

There are usually limits to what even the rudest (most disturbed?) child, or adolescent, feels able to say to someone's face. But social networking, whether it's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever, has a dehumanising way of destroying any sort of inhibition, restraint or sense of appropriateness, so that some people feel able to say almost anything about, or to, anyone. And, as every teacher knows, kids will egg each other on to see who can be the most outrageous.

So I'm saddened, but not altogether surprised, that a National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NAS-UWT) survey of 7,500 teachers has shown that more than a fifth of them report online abuse – some of it quite appalling – from pupils via social networking.

So what can or should be done about it? Well, of course, slander, defamation, threats and so on should be reported to the police, as 11% of those teachers say they did – although three-quarters of those report that they got a sympathetic hearing, but no action.

It really needs a few cases leading to some stern and very public action to demonstrate clearly to all that this behaviour is not acceptable. Come on, Mr Plod. Stir yourself.

But that's dealing only with the symptoms. We also need to get at the cause. I think much more needs to be done within education itself – probably with much younger children – so that the ideas are embedded early about the responsible use of social networking.

It can be such fun, so useful and such a good learning resource if it's used well. But, somehow, we have to teach children and young people that it mustn't be misused.

Just because you've learned to ride a bicycle, that doesn't make it okay for you to use it to menace pedestrians. In the same way, you don't use social networking to abuse or threaten people.

Most of the teaching children get about social networking concentrates on educating them to protect themselves. Time to shift the balance a bit.

And what about email in all this? My last secondary teaching job was part-time and I didn't want the students in my English lessons to feel disadvantaged by my not being in school every day in case they needed to contact me.

So, in the first lesson, I always gave them my private email address in case there was anything they needed to ask, or tell me – and sometimes to send me their homework. They were usually astonished, because they weren't used to being trusted to that extent. And, yet, teachers' leaders are now complaining that some teachers are harassed and bullied by emails coming from heads and senior staff in their schools.

Of course, it makes sense for everyone to be able to contact everyone else easily out of hours when it's really necessary. But that doesn't mean senior staff, who clearly have inadequacy problems of their own, should be hurling peremptory missives at their staff at 2.30am.

Teachers are entitled to privacy and time off. They should be able to trust both their pupils and their colleagues not to scupper that.

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