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

Duty Calls

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.

An Argument Worth Having?

A student doesn’t have a pen. You loan them a pen. Next lesson, the same student doesn’t have a pen. Now what?

Let’s assume – because I’m a professional teacher and, if you’re reading this, probably so are you – that we’re not talking about a student who (a) has specific needs making pen recall a problem or (b) a student whose family/carers can’t supply a pen. In each case of course it’s our job, as a school, to sort them out. Let’s ignore the students who usually manage it but, like everyone including me, sometimes forgets. No, this is a student who habitually fails to bring a pen to school.

This is a choice.

This student has learned that not having a pen somehow offers a benefit. Perhaps it means they can demand attention, trying to pick a fight at the start of a lesson. They can start conversations with classmates about borrowing a pen, reinforcing friendships or subtly exerting dominance. It means they can waste time and disrupt the starter. Maybe they’re doing this to avoid writing. It’s hard to know.

Of course their motivation is important, but in this case we also have a choice.

  1. Refuse and see them waste more time, complain that we “don’t value their learning,” and perhaps refuse to write.
  2. Give them a pen, without consequences.
  3. Give them a pen, with consequences.
All of these take time. Enforcing consequences takes more time, either within the lesson eg recording names or afterwards for short detentions (or both). This time is increased if we actually expect to get the pen back (in which case our colleagues will face the same dilemma).  Because this is not an ‘and’ situation. Like so many other examples in teaching, this is an ‘or’ situation. Doing this means less time to do something else. There is always a price to be paid, something the government forgets whenever they have a new initiative to promote.
This is learning time. Wasting learning time is not okay.
If a student says they care about their grades, but actually spends every evening on their XBox, then we can reasonably suggest they don’t care that much about their grades. If we say we care about learning, we have an obligation to spend time helping our students learn. Whether you favour group work or teaching from the front, ‘progressive’ or ‘didactic’ methods, inquiry-based or core knowledge, I think we can agree that learning takes time. Less time means less learning. This is not rocket science. (Rocket science is more fun.)Teaching is not just about our subject knowledge. Students come to school to learn about life. To be, for want of a better word, civilised. The same as we’re not born knowing how to use a knife or fork, we’re not born organised. If students learn that they will be provided with equipment that they could reasonably bring themselves, they are learning dependence. We are teaching them to be needy. We are effectively preventing them from becoming self-reliant. We are giving them an incentive not to be responsible for their own pens and, by extension, their own learning.

Of course having a pen doesn’t automatically make a student a good learner. But not having a pen definitely makes it more difficult. Compare this with the things we so often pick up on, such as uniform. Now, I’m not starting the argument about whether having a uniform at all, or a blazer, or whatever, makes a difference. But I think most teachers, asked whether they would prefer students to have a pen or a tie, wouldn’t see this as a difficult choice. So why do we make a lot more fuss about uniform than equipment?
Of course I address this within my classroom. Of course many students learn to bring basic equipment most of the time. There are many lines in the sand we could draw, but this has the benefit of being one most adults wouldn’t really argue with. Even most teenagers find it hard to justify once they’re away from an audience. But like so many other things in school, it needs a united front. I don’t really care about my colleagues’ policies on group work, homework schedules or underlining titles. But if they’re loaning pens out freely when I make a point about the problem, they’re making my life more difficult.

When I rule the world, schools will check equipment instead of uniform at the start of the day. In fact, imagine a school where uniform rules only apply to those kids who have gained three or more debits the previous week. If they want to wear their own clothes, they have to behave. Imagine what that would be like…