I can happily say that this blog has built up a modest, but loyal following over the past five years: thanks, in no small part, to the numerous articles that cover the proactive, technical elements of teaching and classroom management. Most of my readers consider themselves to be ‘reflective practitioners’: recognizing that there’s always more a teacher can learn about practical pedagogy. In contrast, however, we very rarely focus on the subtle, yet stupid, things we can do to really mess things up. This is probably because we feel that we are already aware of which behaviors to avoid. We are professionals, after all.
This mentality, however, brings an intrinsic level of risk along with it: risk which, unfortunately, increases as corporate culture, teacher standards and ‘group-think’/collective perceptions shift (and there have been major shifts in all of these areas over the past ten years). In my personal opinion, many teachers these days are unaware of the ‘low-key’ things they could be doing which may one day result in an awkward situation to solve, disciplinary action or even dismissal.
My aim today is to shed light on this mysterious ‘intrinsic risk’, and offer my thoughts on how to mitigate that risk. I won’t be covering the blatantly obvious (e.g. having a criminal record, stealing from school funds, taking drugs on school premises, etc.), but I will be covering the blatantly not-so-obvious. I will cover one area of risk per week: and this week we begin with how we interact with our colleagues.
Risky Behaviour #1: Being too relaxed around colleagues
Your colleagues are NOT your friends. I’m sorry to phrase that so directly, but that phrase really does need to be rammed into our collective teacher-brains. Whilst we can, of course, have wonderful interactions with our colleagues: working harmoniously and even enjoying a night-out or two at the local bar, we must always remember the importance of professional distance.
Intergender dynamics at school
One area of workplace kinetics that has changed rapidly over the past decade is that of intergender dynamics. Sexual harassment allegations in American workplaces, for example, rose sharply in the wake the #MeToo movement in 2017. Here in 2020, we’ve already seen some shocking statistics related to allegations in the workplace:
- Oxford University reported a 15-fold increase in sexual harassment and violence allegations in one-year
- 700 women from across the entertainment industry in Denmark signed an open letter in support of Sofia Linde: A Danish TV presenter who came forward with allegations that a former colleague propositioned her during a live broadcast twelve years ago. An extract from this open letter is given below, and offers a revealing insight into what is deemed as being unacceptable workplace conduct:
We have all experienced it to one extent or another during our careers: inappropriate remarks on our appearance or clothing; suggestive messages; physical behaviour that crosses the line; warnings about the men to steer clear of at the office Christmas party.’
- In Australia, Victoria’s Equal Opportunities Commissioner reported in August that sexual harassment complaints were up by around 8% since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The overwhelming majority of these complaints have been filed by women against men.
We now find ourselves immersed in a culture in which what one person may deem to be a simple compliment (e.g. “I like your hair today”), another may interpret as being a ‘micro-aggression’, or a remark that is ‘discomforting’.
It’s vital that we keep ALL verbal and non-verbal interactions with colleagues clean and appropriate. It’s also a good idea to keep a paper-trail: e-mail where possible, and have a third-person in the room with you if a one-to-one conversation is necessary (where practical and possible).
What may have once been deemed ‘workplace banter’ or ‘casual flirting’, may now land you in a lot of trouble. In addition, physical contact of any form between colleagues could be misinterpreted, or deemed unwelcome by one or many of the parties involved, as a recent case from Pittsburgh demonstrates. Don’t touch unless absolutely necessary (e.g. touching someone’s shoulder briefly during a conversation is unnecessary) – this rule has to be in-place at school (our workplace), and should be communicated to everyone on training days. This goes as far as touching people’s arms, shoulders or hands briefly during a conversation [N.B. Many female colleagues have done this to me over the years, but I would be foolish to think that I could get away with doing the same to them. Is that a fair dynamic? To what extent do you think this will change over the coming years?]
Staff parties are not for partying
I’ve fallen into this trap before: getting too inebriated and ‘relaxed’ when socializing with colleagues. For some people this can lead to things being said, or done, which one would never say or do when sober.
It might be okay to get drunk and act like a clown with your mates from your hometown on a Saturday night. It might not be okay to do that with your colleagues. Is it worth taking the risk? I don’t think so.
The basic message of all of this should be that as teachers we place a high-level of trust in each-other. As people-oriented professionals, we need to be especially careful with what we say, suggest and do around our colleagues.
Be professional, be friendly, help out and remember to maintain professional distance.