It’s natural to want to be popular with students. But, as Meabh Ritchie reports, trying too hard to gain their admiration could land you in hot water

Mark Spendley seemed like that rare gem of a teacher - one whose genuine connection with his pupils helped to make him a good teacher. He played guitar in a rock band, kept a light sabre in his classroom and was clearly considered one of the coolest teachers at Hundred of Hoo School near Rochester, Kent. One pupil commented on the Ratemyteacher website: “Mr Spendley, you are the best!! Top teacher!! He made me love media studies and he is a good laugh too!! Great personality!” (sic)

In hot water

But Mr Spendley’s behaviour appears to have landed him in hot water. In March, two girls, now aged 17 and 19, claimed to have had affairs with the married man. One of them said she got to know Mr Spendley while helping out with Saturday classes. “Mr Spendley told me I was the Yoko Ono to his John Lennon,” she was quoted as saying in a newspaper.

Mr Spendley was arrested on suspicion of abuse of his position by the police and has since been released on bail. Whether or not he overstepped the mark with his pupils remains to be decided in court, but wanting pupils to like you is something many teachers can empathise with, particularly at the start of their career. 

Everyone wants to be liked

All trainee teachers are told not to concern themselves with being liked by the kids - you are their teacher, not their friend, and you shouldn’t smile until at least Christmas. But teachers are only human and, on some level, particularly on those difficult days, everyone wants to be liked, even by their pupils.
However, the consequence of being too friendly with pupils is that boundaries become blurred, even if the teacher has no intention of being inappropriate, says Jo Badman, a secondary English teacher in north London. “If a child contacts you on Facebook, for example, it becomes hard to step back,” she says.
“Of course you can’t add them as a friend, but the child might expect you to. Also, if you have to discipline someone with whom you have a jokey relationship, it becomes difficult.”

'Unwise behaviour'

Rebekah Wright’s attempts to ingratiate herself with pupils landed her in front of a GTC panel. Although she successfully fulfilled her brief to improve the sixth form results, the GTC heard that “her approach was, at times, unconventional”. This included joking about applying bandages to a student’s pierced penis and discussing pupils’ sex lives. She was sacked from her post, although the GTC later ruled that her behaviour, although unwise, did not amount to unacceptable professional conduct.

Not every school will have a teacher who oversteps the mark. But there is always that teacher at the top of the popularity pecking order, using their social status to their advantage.

Perhaps it is inevitable in a profession that is all about people, and where relationships are so crucial to teachers’ and pupils’ success. Websites such as Ratemyteacher.com and Facebook groups set up to appreciate or pour vitriol on a teacher or school mean that pupils have an easy outlet for their opinions.

Impact on whole school

But the whole culture of a school is affected by teachers who court popularity, as Hissyfit, a teacher on the TES web forum found out: “We have a fuckwit young teacher (well, not much younger than me actually) who wants to be cool and matey with the kids,” she writes.

“You always hear ‘Mr Hughes* lets us/does that/doesn’t mind’, etc. This teacher also dishes out dinner passes so kids can get an early dinner - for no reason other than the kids ask for them. I’ve had kids ask me for them ‘because Mr Hughes gives them out’.”

Not only do these teachers risk jeopardising their career if a casual relationship with a pupil gets out of hand, but they also damage the whole-school behaviour management policies that are the building blocks of most successful schools, says Anna Parker*, who is in her NQT year.

“Other teachers seem to want to be cool and don’t give the consequences as stated in the school rules,” she says. “Too many teachers want to be popular or just take the less confrontational approach of pretending not to see rule-breaking stuff.”

The standardisation of teaching and behaviour policies means teaching is arguably more professionalised than ever, but it also puts a shackle on personality in the classroom, says Conrad Watts, a modestly self-confessed cool teacher at a Surrey secondary school. He always has a good relationship with pupils and, although they denigrate his choice of ties and guitar playing, he says they appreciate the laid-back attitude.

'I do things my own way'

Unsurprisingly, the same cannot be said of his colleagues. “Everybody toes the same line and teachers bitch like crazy if anyone steps outside that,” says Mr Watts. “But trying to homogenise so many different people with different personalities, lifestyles and ways of doing things will lead to failure. As much as I can, I do things my own way and kids respect that.”

Teachers want to be loved as much as anybody else, and if you are working in a school the temptation to narrow the gap with your pupils can be overwhelming. But while laying down boundaries may make you unpopular in the short-term, it could prove the safer long-term option.

*Names have been changed

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