Being a professional in school: Dos and don’ts

Written by Andrew Jones. This article was first published in SecEd Magazine’s recent 20-page supplement for early career teachers. You can download it here.

The media loves a good story about wayward teachers. Over the years, I have lost count of news articles that have popped up on my newsfeed telling that a teacher has been banned from teaching for swearing at pupils, drinking on the job, or having inappropriate relationships with sixth-formers.

These teachers are often sacked, prohibited from teaching and, in many cases, publicly shamed in the press and on social media.

The importance of conduct

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said: “What the teacher is, is more important than what he (or she) teaches.”

Yes, we teach, but we also manage behaviour, act as role models, look out for our pupils’ wellbeing, listen to their problems and, when we can, inspire them to be the best people they can be. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to ensure pupils respect us not just for our subject knowledge, our pedagogical prowess and enjoyable lessons, but also for our personal and professional conduct.

It is also important to remember that, while in school, teachers act in “loco parentis”. This means that we have responsibility for the children we teach in their parents’ absence. Essentially, if something goes wrong, we will be held accountable.

The Teachers’ Standards

All ECTs in England and Wales are assessed against the Teachers’ Standards (DfE, 2011) by their induction tutor. This is in addition to following the Early Career Framework (ECF) in weekly mentoring sessions with their teacher mentor (DfE, 2021).

Importantly, whereas Part 1 of the Teachers’ Standards focuses on teaching and learning, Part 2 states that we are “expected to demonstrate consistently high standards of personal and professional conduct”.

To do this, we must respect the integrity and dignity of our pupils, ensure we keep them safe and promote British Values, among other things. If an ECT is deemed to be failing Part 2, they would most likely be placed on a “cause for concern” programme by the school’s Appropriate Body (often a local authority, teaching school hub or similar) and will have a number of interventions from the school to support them. If this does not work, an ECT may not pass their assessment.

Teacher misconduct

The vast majority of us work hard and care about our pupils, but from time to time a minority of teachers bring the profession into disrepute.

Headteachers and governors are primarily responsible for preventing underperformance and misconduct in schools. If they believe that a teacher has acted against the ethos and values of their school, the teacher might receive various warnings and, if that fails, be put on a support programme, including informal or formal “capability” procedures.

If the misconduct is serious, particularly if safeguarding is compromised, a teacher may well end up facing disciplinary procedures and could lose their job.

Serious misconduct that is deemed beyond the scope of headteachers and governors – in the sense that they feel the teacher should no longer hold a teaching position at their or any other school – will be passed to the Teaching Regulation Agency. If the TRA decides that serious misconduct has occurred, a teacher could be prohibited from teaching anywhere in the UK (TRA, 2014). A summary of the case is also published online.

This is very rare however – most of us will never even have to contemplate misconduct charges so long as we adhere to Part 2 of the Teachers’ Standards, follow our respective schools’ safeguarding policies, and most importantly, work hard for the pupils in our care.

Ten pieces of advice

So, here are 10 pieces of advice for ensuring your professional and personal conduct remains exemplary.

Read and understand Part 2 of the Teachers’ Standards: It may seem obvious, but how many teachers really do this? As emphasised, it is wise that you fully comprehend Part 2 of the Teachers’ Standards and how it applies to your role in school. The ideas below will help with this.

Make sure you understand the importance of British Values: I won’t lie, I was cynical when I first read the government’s statutory guidance on “British Values” (DfE, 2014) as I am not sure they are uniquely British. Nevertheless, they do express the importance of some of our society’s most prized and hard fought values, including democracy, individual liberty, rule of law, respect, and tolerance. Teachers should both promote these values in their teaching and ensure they embody them in their own actions. Essentially, if you cannot bring yourself to respect and tolerate other social groups, don’t care for the law and think democracy is a bad idea, it might be best you avoid teaching altogether.

Adhere to your school’s ethos: Please discuss the importance of your school’s ethos with your teacher mentor, induction tutor or line manager. Consider its origins, purpose and impact on your school. Some schools also have mission or vision statements, which are worth reading, too. Ensure you promote this ethos in your behaviour and, if relevant, your approach to teaching and learning.

Read your school’s policies on personal and professional conduct: Most schools have a policy directly related to personal and professional conduct, but there may be others you should familiarise yourself with. These could include policies on attendance, social media use, data protection, and disciplinary processes. Hopefully, you will never fall foul of any of them, but it is worth knowing these policies – or at least knowing where to access them – in case you ever need to consult them. Moreover, if you are in a situation where you need to raise a concern about a colleague’s behaviour, then you should refer to your school’s grievance or whistleblowing policies.

Actively model appropriate behaviour: Everything you do could impact the behaviour of your pupils. The influential sociologist Talcott Parsons said the school is a place of “secondary socialisation”, in that pupils will mimic our behaviour and potentially come across additional social norms and values that their parents might not have taught them. Modelling behaviour could include: how to move safely in the classroom and around the school; using appropriate voice levels for different activities; using suitable gestures and body language; demonstrating active listening; practising courtesy and respect, including how to enter a room politely and greet visitors and avoiding things like banter in formal settings.

Dress appropriately: This might seem like a no-brainer, but you must remember that your presentation counts. According to my colleague Marie Parry: “The question to ask yourself is: why are you wearing this and what is the intended outcome? The answer should always be: so you can do your job comfortably while modelling the dress code and standards upheld by your school.”

Check your social media accounts: There are plenty of articles online showing how teachers can get into trouble via their use of social media. First, never befriend pupils on social media, especially on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. The relationships on these are far too informal. Second, review your settings and ensure any personal posts or pictures are private. It is also best to remove anything that breaches Part 2 of the Teacher’s Standards (expletive comments etc). Third, it might be best not to overly mix personal accounts with professional views (I have a Twitter account but it is largely focused on education and my job, not what I did at the weekend or my opinions of Piers Morgan).

Be aware of your political and religious views: Passionate classroom debates on political or controversial issues are often fantastic to behold, but whatever your views might be it is important to remember that Sections 406 and 407 of the 1996 Education Act prohibit the promotion of partisan political views in schools. Headteachers, governors and education authorities are responsible for ensuring that teachers offer an objective presentation of opposing political views, and teachers need to be aware of their own biases (see, DfE, 2022; see also my own recent article for SecEd on this issue – Jones, 2022). This is vital – if we expect students to think for themselves, we must teach them to do so rather than to depend on the opinions of others.

Don’t make a public spectacle of yourself: Of course, we don’t live in a police state and teachers are entitled to let their hair down from time to time. However, your actions have consequences and any behaviour in public that gets out of hand could catch-up with you professionally. You should also be wary of drinking in pubs, bars or clubs too close to your school or within its catchment – just in case you get overheard airing any negative views of students, colleagues and/or parents.

Join a union: Regardless of your politics, if you get into trouble your union will be on hand to advise you. Although they don’t defend the indefensible, they might provide support if you are wrongly or unfairly accused of misconduct, particularly if this is by your own employer.

Further information & resources

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