Andrew Vine: A lack of respect behind the online abuse of teachers

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WHEN the schools go back next week after the Easter break, spare a thought for what the teachers could face.

Not just the stresses and pressures of being in the classroom, or the commitment of time outside school preparing for lessons, nor the challenges of helping young people with complex emotional problems or difficult home lives.

There’s something else besides which too many teachers have to face that should play no role whatsoever in their lives, and yet they have to cope with it.

It is the increasing menace of bullying, abuse and threats levelled at teachers on social media, by pupils and their parents.

According to the NASUWT which held its annual conference over the Easter weekend, the number of teachers subjected to abuse in the last 12 months has almost trebled, with 60 per cent of the 1,500 union members polled saying that something had been posted about them online, compared with 21 per cent in 2014.

This vile tirade of insults about race, gender, sexuality or appearance is affecting teachers’ health and undermining their confidence, making them the victims of an insidious undermining of their authority by unruly adolescents and woefully inadequate parents.

A relative of mine who teaches is all too aware of this lurking threat in the background of her working life. Comments have been posted about her on social media by children.

All of them have – so far – been kind and positive, as they have been about all the other teachers. They have been the words of well brought-up children who attend a good school and have a warm bond with its staff. They enthuse about the school’s activities, express excitement about what lies ahead each term and talk about their favourite subjects.

But a line has been crossed that makes my relative and many of her colleagues uneasy, because never before have children had a forum to pass judgment on their teachers.

The tone of the posts could so easily change at the whim of a disgruntled child, lashing out in anger at being told off, determined only to cause hurt in retaliation.

It cannot be right that children who are at school to learn – and obey the rules – have the power to put their teachers under the severe emotional pressure that insults and abuse bring.

Even worse are the parents who condone this sort of behaviour and add their own abuse.

The picture that emerges of households like this is deeply unappealing – indisciplined children doted on by parents who set no boundaries and see no wrong in hurling the most cruel insults or threats at teachers who devote their lives to helping the young.

In a generation’s time, the children setting out to hurt via social media will be sending their own offspring to school, and one shudders to think at the level of indiscipline and nastiness their teachers will have to endure, given that it will be condoned not only by parents but grandparents as well.

The growth in the level of online abuse of teachers speaks not only of the erosion of the traditional relationship with pupils, but of the collapse of the pact between home and school.

Schools often have to cope with children whose parents have abdicated their responsibilities to keep them under control or instil basic civilised values such as politeness and consideration for others.

The accord between home and school that children are taught the same values in both underpins formal education. Without it, teachers face an uphill struggle.

The attitude on the part of some families that it is acceptable to level abuse via social media is a particularly nasty manifestation of the ingrained unruliness teachers encounter in some young people.

Stamping out online abuse of teachers in the wide-open world of social media is going to be an uphill struggle.

Schools’ instinctive compassion and sense of responsibility for their pupils mean that the first step must always to be to make culprits see the error of their ways, to learn something positive and grow as a person.

If that doesn’t work, though, teachers need to have the confidence that they will be backed up if tougher action is required, such as the exclusion 
of an offender.

It is a coincidence that the survey of how much abuse teachers are suffering has emerged nearly 10 years after Tony Blair stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street after his 2005 election victory and pledged that the promotion of more respect in society would be one of his government’s priorities.

A decade on, an incoming government would do well to 
put respect high on its agenda once more, and let schools 
know that they have its full support in cracking down on the abuse of staff. Our teachers deserve no less.