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.