Whose Role Models?

I seem to have been writing a lot more about political issues than classroom practice recently – my apologies. This post is a quick response after I read this recent article from a Year 12 student, as published by the Teacher Support Network. One sentence in particular caught my eye:

“Teachers are role models and should act in a way where there is no room for criticism.”

Now, I have two major concerns about this attitude, separate but linked.

Role Models

Yes, we are role models. We demonstrate, hopefully, good attitudes and behaviour. We show our students what it means to be an adult. Of course, all adults do this, deliberately or accidentally. When we vote, and explain why it matters. When we attend a church for a faith we don’t have, to get our kids into a school we think is ‘better’. When we tap a stranger on the shoulder to return the coin we saw them drop. When we slow down for a safety camera, then speed up again. When we are wait politely in line, ignoring aggressive behaviour from others. Each of these actions, these moments, teaches something about the ‘right’ way to behave. In the classroom, this is part of what is referred to as the ‘invisible curriculum‘. I think of it as an extra subject area, one called ‘Civilisation’.

So yes, teachers are role models. But teachers are people too. I don’t spend my life planning to be a bad example. But equally, I’m not going to spend every waking hour wondering whether I’m being watched by a student. Why shouldn’t I have a life? Why shouldn’t I do the things I choose to do, out of school and off the premises?

Is a teacher being a bad role model if they smoke? What about when they have a few pints at a wedding reception and dance really badly? Or argue with their spouse in public? Should they be obliged to put money in every charity box they pass, simply to play the part of a good role model for any pupils who happen to see them do it? If I choose to hold my partner’s hand in public, or have kids before I marry, is this anything to do with my professional life?

Of course, the other things about role models is that they can inspire change. Sometimes the behaviour we model for pupils is something their parents don’t like – and this time I’m not talking about simple bad habits or minor errors. An openly gay teacher is a role model, but it’s one that some parents might see as unwanted. Homophobia means that lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers still often conceal their sexuality from kids, and sometimes even from colleagues. I would never criticize a colleague for doing this – but equally I feel that telling them to do so, so as not to ‘influence’ children, is ignorant bigotry at best.

I tweeted about this article yesterday and had several interesting responses. @alomshaha pointed out that in questions of faith, or the lack of it, defining a ‘good role model’ is also tricky. I’m sure that the religious parents of some of my students would think my atheism means I’m a bad example to their children. Does that mean I shouldn’t answer questions from kids about my beliefs? Or that I shouldn’t challenge children who tell me that the universe is 4000 years old, that evolution never happened or that human beings are made out of clay? (No, I’m not making that last one up, and no, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically.)

No Room For Criticism.

“I’m not saying that teachers should not have a life outside of school, but just in case of meeting a pupil in a neutral area they should conduct themselves in an appropriate manor.” (sic)

Actually, that’s exactly what you’re saying. Who chooses what is appropriate? If you’re suggesting that there should be no room for criticism, you’re giving all the right to those who choose to complain. Whether it’s smoking, drinking or wearing a bikini, somebody somewhere will object. Who gets to choose the standards teachers are expected to live up to?

I totally accept that there are some actions which cannot be accepted. I happen to agree that teachers who don’t guard their FaceBook accounts are being careless – I choose to blog and tweet discreetly for similar reasons. I don’t think many people would argue for criminal behaviour to be ignored, or actions that represent a risk to the children in their care during the working week. But like everyone else, teachers are entitled to a private life. Nobody cares if a group of shop assistants have a night out and wander into a strip club, or if a bus driver likes to gamble, or if a bank manager takes a life drawing class. So why should teachers be accused of unprofessional behaviour if they spend their own time doing their own thing? Their actions might incite comment, and people will have their own opinions – but that’s not the same thing as saying that criticism is okay.

I really don’t think many Year 12 students would really expect their teachers to be perfect role models, every hour of every day. (Those who have a teaching parent would probably have a particularly interesting viewpoint.) I’d love to see how students expect us to behave, what they would see as acceptable, for teachers as opposed to other careers. Maybe this is a discussion that needs to be had, but the questions should be; “Why do you expect teachers not to be human?” rather than “What would you allow teachers to do in their own time?”

A line needs to be drawn somewhere about what is acceptable and what isn’t. Fortunately, we already have that line. We don’t need every individual parent, or each newspaper editor greedy for sales, telling us what is and isn’t okay. I make my own choices, in my own life. I’m happy to commit to being a role model in the classroom and on the school site. But my private life is mine, and just because I’m a teacher doesn’t give anyone the right to tell me what I can and cannot do.

5 thoughts on “Whose Role Models?”

  1. I think that the original article posted by a sixth former was naive and unrealistic. The very fact that he would wish to avoid a teacher if they met outside of school, and would expect thatbteacher to keep their eyes down illustrates perfectly that his idea of a good role model is seriously flawed. If I meet a pupil out of school I will say hello, or smile, maybe engage in conversation if they are not too embarrassed! In my view it would be rude, and a bad role model to try and avoid a pupil. I live my life according to my own conscience and morals – I am not ashamed of my behaviour, therefore I think I am a good role model. We can never please everyone. Do I offend vegetarians by eating meat, or teetotallers by drinking alcohol, or atheist by going to church etc?? I hope we model a tolerant society where difference is accepted and appreciated. Hopefully this young boy will grow up in a few years and realise his naivety. In the meantime we teachers should continue living our own lives, applying common sense to our public / private life divide as we see fit and appropriate to or own situations.

  2. How can anyone “act in a way where there is no room for criticism”? I can understand this student’s initial discomfort at the realisation that teachers are human beings too, but I don’t think their opinion was sufficiently challenged and discussed before being published.

    Perhaps the thinking behind publishing this piece was in order to expose the student to a variety of responses so that their opinion could be challenged and discussed. I hope so.

    The teenage years are when many of us are at our most opinionated, peer-dominated, conservative…and as such a good time to be exposed to a variety of people and behaviours so that we can form valid opinions about who we want to be. I am pleased that this student had the confidence to express an opinion, and fully expect that this will change over time, mainly thanks to considered responses like yours.

    “Of course, the other things about role models is that they can inspire change.”

    As a parent, I try to teach my children that they shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes, but that they should take a lesson from those mistakes.
    I hope to extend that to tolerating the behaviours and differences of others and making them see that just because they disagree with something it doesn’t neccessarily make it wrong. I also hope that they will feel confident enough to challenge things they believe are wrong, but to do so in a thoughtful way and with a willingness to change their mind in light of new information.

    It would be interesting to go back to this student and see if they would still write the same piece after reading a variety of responses.

    1. Some very good points, on twitter as well as here. Perhaps several of us should reply to his article on the teacher support network – and maybe ask them how supportive it was to give a platform to ideas that are, I’d agree, a little naive. . .

  3. I think you hit the nail squarely on the head with your post.

    I remember taking pupils on a residential years ago. We ate out at a pub and one of the teachers asked if she could have a glass of wine with her meal. I told her of course she could because I wanted the students to see her drinking responsibly. The students had just assumed you drank alcoholic drinks to get drunk – that was their perception. An idealist would say that the teacher shouldn’t be drinking at all, whereas I (as a realist) maintain that the role of the teacher is to prepare children for life after school and that includes understanding that not everyone is perfect (whilst still setting a good example).

    (And the students enjoyed looking at the photos from my civil partnership and always ask how my partner is! Having said that some of my students were amazed to discover that I shop in a supermarket, and that I leave the premises when the school is shut!)

    1. Yes, I’m sure some of my kids think the lab techs charge up the staff in the prep rooms overnight, and dust us off each half term! I’m glad the post didn’t come over as too angry, was quite annoyed about implied lack of a life for teachers.

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