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.
— Ian (@teachingofsci) June 17, 2014
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.
— Ian (@teachingofsci) September 8, 2013
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.