Grow up – teachers should be trusted

The Guardian - Tuesday 27 October 2009

Is it only one in three teachers who are falsely accused of misconduct, as a survey this week suggests? One might have expected it would be more, children being what they are.

 From the Guardian comment site.

Children are full of mischief and they do – or they did when I was at school – enjoy baiting their teachers. But it is not the fault of the children if a massive bureaucratic machine has been created which, at the first impulsive push of the red button, starts up and cannot be stopped until it has ground up the teacher and spat them out.

On Radio 4 yesterday a former teacher, Matthew Wren, recounted how after being accused of shoving a 15-year-old student who came at him as he tried to break up a scuffle, he was suspended for months, a dreadful experience that lead to him leaving the profession.

It seems an extraordinary story. Surely someone in Wren’s position was entitled to a speedy resolution? What was the effect too, on this boy, of feeling that he wielded such power over an adult in his life who should have had authority over him? Children need strong adults in their lives who can guide them, and seeing such adults undermined and humiliated is not likely to imbue them respect for the institutions in which they learn or to help them to grow into fine human beings.

Anyone who spends time with children knows that this kind of allegation is part of their vocabulary. My son, when he was about nine, told me that his grandmother had tried to strangle him. I might have actually believed him if he had accused some other adult, but I know my mother and she also suffers from severe arthritis. Her side of the story was that she had grabbed him by the jumper as he attempted to escape his chore of clearing the supper table. The bunching up of the fabric round his neck became in his vivid imagination an attempted strangulation. (Too much watching Murder She Wrote curled up on the sofa with his gran may have contributed to this). Had I banished my mother for several months, he would have been the loser. As it was, they were friends again by bedtime.

Speed is of the essence in dealing with incidents like this. In my children’s primary, any incident involving accusations against a child or an adult results in a form being issued, which the child has to fill in at home with the help of their parents, giving the child’s account of what happened. Even by going through this stage of trying to explain to a parent what happened and writing it down, a child’s account, which is often very partial and one-sided, can become a bit more coherent. Other child onlookers give fuller accounts than they might under teacher questioning. The next day these written accounts can be the starting point for a discussion about what took place, without anyone feeling that other people are making assumptions about what went on. After that discussion, the head will in most cases need to make a decision that a line should be drawn under the incident.

This may sometimes takes a bit of moral courage as well as some authority. But there is too much craven buck-passing and back-minding going on in the modern world. Senior professionals in positions of authority need to trust their own judgments and back their staff. They should grow up a bit.