Oversharing?

17Jun14

So I had a huge argument on Twitter, mainly with @biolady99.

I shared a link to the news story that teachers are going to be given training about helping students with mental health issues, including recognising the early signs of problems (EDIT: new guidance as .pdf) I think this is great. I think this is really important. But I pointed out that this is more than a little ironic seeing as the support for students with identified mental health needs is, shall we say, uneven.

A long discussion followed, and as usual many of the points were hard to make clearly because of the 140 character limitation. So here I am, with three ideas I want to get out of my system by clearly expressing them.

Pointing out a problem isn’t whining

Complaining about something we can change ourselves is whining. Complaining about something minor could be considered whining. Stating a problem isn’t whining, especially when you point out a possible solution.

I stand by my original implied criticism, that before (or more reasonably, as well as) ensuring teachers are trained to spot mental health issues in our students, we should make sure there is somewhere to send them. Of course we must be sympathetic and informed in the classroom. Of course we should be able to flag up concerns in a structured way. But when CAMHS are overstretched and underfunded, identifying an issue doesn’t help my students in my classroom today. Not when they may have to wait months for appointments, let alone a useful diagnosis and treatment.

What I object to is, once again, the assumption that having us teachers do yet more will solve the whole problem. There must be an adequate service for us to refer students towards, with trained specialists. If a primary teacher notices a child has an odd gait and they help the parents make a referral to the local orthopedic service, then the experts take over. By all means give us information, training and time. But don’t pretend we’re specialists, whether we have personal experience or not.

Sharing In A Classroom Isn’t Always Okay

Of course my life affects my teaching. Only an idiot would suggest otherwise. But there’s a big difference between using life experience to inform your professional judgement, and sharing personal details with potentially vulnerable students. I absolutely respect colleagues who choose to be open about potentially sensitive aspects of their personal life. But I hope they do it in an informed way.

When I speak to my own children, I do so as a parent. I can say things to them I wouldn’t say at work, to my students. I can choose to share things that I think they will learn from, because I will be the one dealing with the consequences. As a teacher, I am in a professional role and this means I am in a privileged position.

That means I rarely speak about politics; the closest I have come is telling students, when asked, that I voted against the BNP and why. I am careful, when talking about religion – inevitable during topics about evolution or the Big Bang – to make clear I am talking about evidence, and data. With older students I might explain how some of a religious persuasion are happy to accept their text as metaphorical in some respects, while others struggle to reconcile religious claims with scientific data. I will, when asked, tell them that I consider myself an atheist and a humanist, but I wouldn’t explicitly tell them that I think their beliefs are mistaken.

I would see personal medical issues as just that, personal. I’m happy to tell kids I’m asthmatic. Occasionally I’ve discussed – when relevant – my other biological oddity (no, not horns and a tail). But I can see two very good reasons to be cautious, both about welfare.

Firstly, and selfishly, giving kids information can make you vulnerable. Sad but true – you only need one student with a grudge to use that information and your life can be very difficult. Kids can be merciless when they find something they see as a weakness, whether it’s a stutter, a twitching eyebrow or something more.

Secondly, I would see this as potentially unprofessional. Students can look up to us; we are, like it or not, in positions of authority. If my children heard graphic details of a teacher’s surgery in primary school, I would have reason to complain. If a 14 year old, when challenged by a parent about self-injury, responds that “Miss X said they did/do it.” then it will raise all kinds of questions about professional boundaries. It’s a very fine line between open discussion and promotion. (And no, I couldn’t see this applying to sexuality, before anyone accuses me of homophobia – although the paragraph above may apply!)

It’s about what we say and how we say it. Telling my students I have 2.5 children isn’t unprofessional. Telling them how they were conceived or the details of childbirth would be.

I’ve seen guidance about how mental health issues of staff should be handled within the school setting. I’ve seen and fully support the campaigns such as Time To Change hoping to end discrimination and stigma around mental health issues. But I think we need to remember that just as doctors would hesitate before sharing their own health concerns with a patient, we should think twice. I’d love to hear about any specific examples suggesting that teachers should share sensitive personal issues like this with our pupils.

What I do online=/= what I do in the classroom

Finally, it was suggested that because I’ve tweeted about – for example – religion and politics, that this makes me unprofessional. I blogged ages ago about how teachers need to make a stand for their own personal life to be seen as separate from their professional persona. In the ‘real world’, I swear. I very occasionally drink alcohol. (Cider, in small quantities, because I’m a lightweight.) I eat more chocolate than I should.

None of those make me unprofessional. They make me human.

If sharing opinions outside my classroom about religion, politics, sex or anything else makes me unprofessional, then something’s gone badly wrong. If students choose to follow me on twitter (I block them when I can, but my professional account is unlocked and will stay that way) then they’re choosing to be exposed to those non-workplace opinions. And to be bored senseless about teaching stuff, incidentally.

If I was naming and shaming my students on twitter, that would be a problem. If I was openly criticising my workplace or colleagues, I’d be in the wrong. Live tweeting lessons with photos of students without clear consent? Not on. But spending gained time discussing national policies on mental health in young people, implications for the classroom and professional boundaries? That’s not just professional, that’s CPD.

Please comment and respond; I’m particularly interested in any links to model policies about what staff should or shouldn’t disclose to pupils about (mental) health. How do other professions handle it with potentially vulnerable clients/patients? What does the law say and what is the union position?

If you wish to share personal stories anonymously, either take care commenting or email me and I’ll add it stripped of any identifying metadata.

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7 Responses to “Oversharing?”

  1. Great post Ian. In brief: on your first point, I agree 100%. When I started my PhD I set out to help school staff recognise the warning signs of mental health issues so that they could refer them on for specialist support. By the time I finished several years later, that aim seemed laughable, instead I was working on training school to support mental health issues in schools as there simply aren’t enough specialist services available (also, I think schools can do a better job of it when it comes to e.g. lower level self-harm, but that’s a blog post for another day).

    Re sharing in the classroom, Again, I agree. i think we should be teching about MH issues and promoting positive mental health & EWB but this must be done safely, with consistent ground rules. In fact I’m running a session on this at next week’s PSHE mental health conference and will include a chapter in my self-harm and eating disorders on this too.

  2. 2 Helen

    For what it is worth myself and the teachers I work with don’t share their history of drug taking, drinking or smoking, they don’t share their sexual histories and they don’t share medical issues unless they have to (E.g. Off school with acute tonsilitis in my case, but my classes don’t know I am terrified everytime I get a sore throat).

    I know of situations where mental health issues of students have been described as negatively as possible to ensure students get access to the support they need.

    I am a teacher, not a counsellor. I know my students and therefore can spot changes in their behaviour, but I don’t have the experience or the knowledge to help them. I can get them through GCSES, someone else will have to help with suicidal thoughts.

  3. An excellent discussion of the issues Ian – one of our SLT is doing doctoral research into the lack of quality advice and training that is available for teachers regarding mental health. One of the problems they noted in their research was that much of the widely available literature (and I use that in the loosest possible context) is factually inaccurate and not helpful. I’m not sure the government guidelines in their current format are overly accessible, but perhaps that’s the next step.

    I had a student disclose a mental health problem to me this year – the first I had encountered in such a context. Of course I knew what to do in terms of school procedure and who to tell, but what I was much less sure of was how it would be best for me to respond to the student. I wanted to be reassuring and utterly non-judgemental, but did not want to jeopardise my professional position – and I think sharing personal details with students, particularly vulnerable ones in that kind of position, puts you on potentially dodgy ground. Not least because if you start down that road you can quickly find the student building up dependence on you rather than accessing the necessary help.

    It’s a fine line to tread and something that I think teachers need more training on, maybe from early training level (PGCE/whatever) and certainly in school regularly.

  4. I heartily disagree that you would be unprofessional to criticise your workplace if by that you mean programs/curriculum that you’re ordered to teach or standards you’re set to uphold. If you aren’t allowed an opinion on the very thing that you ARE the specialist in then who the fuck can we rely on to improve teaching and learning!? As far as I can tell the biggest obstacle in a country like England to a better standard of education is the deference to twats who have no idea about teaching and learning on the subjects of curriculum and teaching practices.

    $0.02

    H&J

    • 5 IanH

      Thanks for the comment, firstly.

      I’d argue that criticism comes with responsibility. If I have an issue with a workplace, I need to take it up ‘in-house’ before airing dirty laundry in public. If it’s a serious issue, it would of course be raised officially eg with the LA. Making specific criticisms of named colleagues would be unprofessional, and I would never want to make a colleague’s life harder, any more than I would expect them to undermine me when pupils are around. Does that make more sense?

      • I understand and I agree on the name&shame point. When it comes to a discussion about curriculum and teaching practises – you folks are gagged too much. Most teachers I know are terrified to mention anything about their jobs on social media and it seems ridiculous to me. You’re expected to tow the line at work and then you’re not allowed to explore better options and methods outside of work.

        I have teachers and close friends who teach, my girlfriend is a teacher and the thing I hate most of all is that teachers seem to have little influence when it comes to developing the ways the kids are taught. All of that responsibility is taken up by people who mostly have NEVER taught a class. Over-educated triple-degree-ers with a masters in ‘Education’ telling practising teachers what to do.

        The dirty laundry in this regard is being aired anyway but teachers aren’t allowed to join in the discussion.

        All the best,
        H&J


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