Protesting and the role of teachers

It happened towards the end of my NQT year in year six. Two pairs of ashamed eyes struggled to look at me as I asked the usual question: “What exactly happened on the playground?” I already knew some of it, but wanted to hear their interpretations. The boy spoke first. He was often in trouble so knew his best chance was to leave out key details:

“She pushed me into a bush.”

Nothing else. The girl’s turn:

“He followed me around for the whole of break time. He told me I was fat. And a hippo. And that no one liked me because I was fat. And because I was a hippo. I ignored him, but then he drew on my jumper on purpose in pen. He was right in my face.”

There was a pause before she struggled to say the last part:

“He said the reason my dad left was because I was so fat and ugly.”

Both children admitted to what they had done. She confessed because this was her first time she’d ever really broken the school rules. He confessed, reluctantly, because there were several witnesses to his crimes. Once I had spoken to the boy and sent him to sit in silence at the back of my classroom, I spoke to the girl who at this point had just managed to stop crying. The girl was the sort of child that makes teaching easy: polite, pleasant and attentive. Without being asked, she apologised for what she had done. In that moment, a part of me desperately wanted to say,

“You know what? Go back out to play. I’d probably have done the same thing, and I know you’ll never do anything like this again anyway.”

But this isn’t what I said. What I really said was something like this:

“I understand why you were so upset. There will be major consequences for the hurtful nonsense he said to you and the damage he did to your property. However, it’s never right to push someone, even if they say awful things. The moment he started saying nasty things you should’ve told an adult.”

I then dished out the school’s mandatory sanction for unwanted physical contact. In this moment, I didn’t get to express exactly how I felt. I didn’t get to admit that it would’ve taken a saint to have not reacted in that situation, that I felt bad for adding to her obvious feelings of guilt. (After all, she pushed him into a bush. She didn’t do – or intend to do – any actual damage.) No, in this situation it was my job to hold the line; to understand and sympathise, yes, but to hold the line on our school rules nonetheless. I’m wasn’t her father, her uncle, her grandfather or her friend. To her, I was the establishment.

We often forget that as teachers we are, whether we like it or not, establishment figures. Other than perhaps politicians and the police, teachers are the first group who come to mind when people conjur up their own personal representations of ‘the man.’ We all know or have been taught by teachers that would flinch at the thought of being representatives of the establishment – often the ones that call pupils ‘mate’ – but it is the truth. And being part of the establishment brings compromises. It means holding the line. It means that when children don’t turn up to school in order to protest – however worthy the cause – our role is not to encourage. The last thing they want, or need, are their teachers cheering them on. It is our role to hold children to account for their actions. It is our role to show them that civil disobedience comes at a personal cost and that they must carefully weigh up their actions without the guidance of authority figures. The tacit support of teachers for such actions would make the schools the protestors, not the students themselves. Like a mature parent, we provide the safe, responsible ballast against which young people can rebel. Part of being an authority figure is knowing that sometimes there has to be a difference between what we think and what we say.

*** Naturally, the details of the anecdote in the post above have been somewhat altered to protect the children involved.***

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