Leadership Dilemma: If a child swears at a teacher what should you do?


Leadership Dilemma: You are the head teacher of a school. A child swears at a teacher in front of other children.  What do you do?

Does such an occurence automatically mean that the child should be excluded from school?

It’s certainly one of the most common reasons for exclusion.

My own point of view has always been to treat every situation as a discrete incident – and make a judgment accordingly. Yet there exists an expectation that where a child swears “directly” at a teacher that classroom order and the digniity of the teacher can only be maintained if the child is punished by a period of exclusion.

What do you reckon?

22 thoughts on “Leadership Dilemma: If a child swears at a teacher what should you do?

  1. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think that a school should have an answer and stick to it. One of the things that frustrates teachers more than anything else is the fact that they are expected to enforce school rules consistently, but then senior management seem to feel that it’s okay to “treat every situation as a discrete incident” as you put it.

  2. I’m not sure that Jaye’s analogy stands up because of the difference in ‘clientele’ between an A&E and a school. Schools deal with young people who are there to learn not just the stuff they would be expected to learn in relation to the academic curriculum etc, but also to learn, for instance, to be ‘responsible citizens’ (to quote a well known document). Is a simple, straight-down-the-line, no-exceptions rule really adequate to deal with the special relationship that should exist between the school and its students?

    It is of course unacceptable for any student to swear at a teacher but some account must be taken of the circumstances that led up to the incident and the circumstances of the incident itself – what if the teacher’s behaviour played a part in provoking the incident? what about the age of the student – is a 5-year-old swearing the same as an 18-year-old? what happened to the student in the run up to the incident? has the student a history of this kind of behaviour? and so on.

    If we take ‘in loco parentis’ seriously, should we not try to treat the problem in the way that a good parent might, where we can? Parents can’t ‘exclude’ their children for such behaviour.

    However irritating it might be to staff, the only responsible course for school management to take is to treat every situation as a discrete situation, but in the context of some clear indication of what is acceptable and what is not.

  3. I think I agree with Robert, where there are inconsistencies in how discipline is handled it makes it very difficult to deal with any discipline issues.

    Discipline isn’t just a case of crime and punishment though:
    If we were looking at this purely from a punitive perspective then yes I think there is space to treat incidents on their own merit (or lack of merit) however a punitive system does not prevent or solve problems. Discipline is not just about ‘dealing with the bad pupils’ is should be about what happens to resolve issues, and to ensure that they don’t happen in the first place.

    I believe a punishment should be absolutely clear and consistently upheld, then the support given to the pupil afterwards can be treated individually.

  4. When we make it automatic, we delegate control of the exclusion process to the child. Given the role of exclusion, and its known relationship to future criminality, surely decisions on exclusion should be carefully, individually, considered by suitably experienced people with the best possible knowledge of the individual circumstances?

    Prisoners are over twenty times more likely than the general population to have been excluded from school.
    49% of male and 33% female sentenced prisoners were excluded from school.

  5. There’s no dilemma in this for me Don. You have to deal with each child individually and all of the circumstances leading up to the incident. I think John has put it very well

  6. My first reaction was to consider each incident individually.

    But then I stopped and thought about it. That is always the excuse for *not* taking sufficient action. Some schools do nothing beyond “having a word” with a child, if that. Some schools decide it by the importance of the teacher (SMT and they are out, NQT and they will be told to do something about their classroom management). One school I was in decided on whether it was “hard or soft” swearing, i.e. how naughty the word was. It turned out it was almoot always soft until you got your union rep involved. If a school followed a policy where the child was always excluded then it would probably be nicer school to be in both as a member of staff and as a student.

    But now I’ve thought about it some more. I know the answer: Exclude in most instances, but let the *teacher* (or other staff member) who was sworn at have a veto if they think there were mitigating circumstances.

    Teaching Blog at: http://oldandrew.edublogs.org
    Latest entry: 24/4/2008

  7. Andrew – Thanks for your comment as I feel it begins to get to the heart of the issue.

    Looked at objectively I think the “treating every incident as discrete” approach is very difficult to argue against – thanks John and David for setting out very powerful reasons against “automatic” exclusion. However, as with most school isssues it’s a lot more complex that it appears at first glance.

    The dilemma facing many head teachers in such circumstances is the tension between the needs of the child and the morale of the teachers in the school. I have often been faced with reports about an incident in class where I could see why the child swore at the teacher, yet the teacher is the person in authority – not to support them can seriously undermine their confidence and appear to give a licence to the rest of the class to behave in similar manner with impunity – before you know it the school has collapsed into anarchy.

    The consequence of such tension is that the head teacher will often exclude automatically – and as you say David – abdicate responsibility to the child whose actions dictate the response.

    Robert – the notion of consistency within the classroom is important yet there are possibly hundreds of decisions a classroom teacher will make in a day about children’s behaviour which require subtle judgments to be made relating to the intention of the child, the circumstances of the event and the background of the child, which will result in inconsistent yet exceptionally professional behaviour from the teacher.

    Yet all too often the head teacher in a school has such flexibility removed by having to automatically respond to the incident in a certain manner. I wonder if Andrew might be on to something here we when he refers the incident back to the teacher (or perhaps teachers) – why not share your reasoning for perhaps not excluding and then ask for the involvement of the teaching staff in helping to make that decision? I know this sounds like yet more buraucracy but perhaps the lack of a shared understanding of our reasons for making decisions lies at the core of this dilemma?

  8. I’m struggling to work out where I stand on this discussion, but I know I agree with this statement! This would be such a simple first step towards a restorative school – having the member of staff in question being more involved with the punishment process. Perhaps it would involve more bureaucracy, but maybe it doesn’t have to? Maybe it could involve the relevant member of SMT having a chat with the teacher before proceeding?

  9. @David Gilmour – there’s an implication in your comment that exclusion somehow is causally linked to prison sentencing. Both are consequences of choices made by free will of individuals. I really don’t get how far people are prepared to go in making excuses for unacceptable behaviour but society is damaged and degraded every single time we accept or excuse it.

    The single most frustrating part of being an educator is the inability of school managers to deal effectively with unacceptable behaviour – swearing at a member of staff being such – because *this* takes the authority away from the teacher and hands it to the child.

  10. @David – Are you suggesting causality between exclusion and future criminality. Surely both are caused by more profound problems.

    @oldandrew – you’re quite right about the fact that sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s who you say it to! I like the idea of involving the teacher, but we need to be careful. I know of teachers who have been “involved”, but felt that strong pressure was put on them to agree to non-exclusion.

    @Don – I aspire never to treat pupils differently because of their backgrounds. In my experience, youngsters with challenging home environments most definitely need clear boundaries and predictable consequences. They also need huge amounts of care and compassion, but bending the rules for them simply complicates matters for them, heightens their sense of being different and sends the message that we expect less of them.

  11. I find this whole debate over swearing really interesting. It seems odd to me that swearing at a teacher carries the automatic penalty of exclusion whereas other behaviours which are potentially physically dangerous do not.
    We have to ask ourselves why children swear and what it means to them. For many children this is the language of the home. They have been spoken to like this from birth and hear it everyday. Some children swear at teachers because they are in a corner, or are out of control, it may be the only place they know to go when they are frustrated or angry, others do it to provoke a reaction(and what a reaction if they get excluded). I think we have to ask ourselves many questions about this. Does the punishment really fit the crime? Although unacceptable, is swearing really as bad as we think? Are we missing something potentially more important if we focus on swearing? Does the teacher really lose their dignity if they are sworn at, is it not the child who has lost theirs?

  12. As a practising headteacher I do exclude if a pupil swears at a member of staff. I would add that there is a real dilemma created for me when a pupil swears at a member of staff. I am well aware that I am not necessarily resolving the issue by excluding the pupil, but, I do believe that I am taking a step towards reducing the likelihood of the swearing happening again and, importantly, making a public statement that swearing at or threatening staff is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated. In my school, in the past three years, only two pupils have been suspended on more than one occasion for swearing at staff.I.e. repeat offending. Pupils at my school know that swearing at a member of staff is a line they must not cross or they will be excluded. This applies to all staff, regardless of their role at the school or their position. On some occasions, because of the circumstances, I have decided not to exclude. In all such cases the reasons are made clear to both the member of staff concerned, the pupil and the family concerned.

  13. It’s a shame that this discussion centres around the actions and reactions rather than exploring the issue. For me the key issue is addressing the disitegration of the relationship between pupil & teacher.

    Consider what it means for a pupil to swear at a teacher. It means that the relationship between them has become broken. The question then turns to how as a head teacher do I help repair the relationship? If exclusion is the only method used then the underlying tensions and reasons for the swearing have not been addressed. I need to discuss with the pupil and possibly his/her parents the implications of the pupils action. I would give the pupil the option of apologising and addressing the negative attitude to the teacher while having the threat of an exclusion. I suppose (simplistically) I want them to shake hands and get back to work.

  14. Catriona, I understand your point but I think we also need to remember that we are also preparing pupils for life in the “real world”. If we decide that swearing at anyone in school is not a problem, are we really preparing these pupils for the future life of work (would you want someone swearing at you in a shop because they were annoyed at something you said – and would their employer say it’s Ok that’s just what they do at home?).

    I like the idea of involving the teacher and must say that when this has happened to me there hasn’t been pressure and I have found it positive.

  15. @Robert: No, I was being careful not to suggest that exclusions caused criminality. Any relationship will be complex, and will involve lots of other variables. But it’s not hard to imagine that exclusion could contribute to a reduced sense of belonging to the school community, and that this might be a step towards the reduced sense of belonging to the wider community that makes breaking its laws seem acceptable.

  16. A very interesting discussion and many good points.
    I do not like automatic punishments. I have seen them lead to very unjust punishments
    In dealing with a serious incident it is important that the teacher is satisfied with the action taken. A pupil can be withdrawn from all classes while action is decided. It is often a good outcome, if the parent and pupil finish up being grateful to the teacher for not insisting on the most severe punishment.
    The pupil can be kept from classes until a meeting with a parent and can be withdrawn from the teacher’s class for some time. (in consultation with the teacher.)
    It is important that the incident, the action, the apologies and the warnings are recorded in a letter to the parent. The teacher should check the contents of the letter before it is sent.

  17. A thorny and perennial one. In my secondary school, staff expect a swearing pupil to be excluded every time – “zero tolerance” is often quoted. I prefer to look at the whole circumstances, not only the word used, but the lead-up. Surely the first key issue is appropriate action? There can sometimes be a development issue for a teacher too, without undermining their classroom authority, and I often work with that teacher to support them avoiding a similar incident again. This isn’t a soft approach – the pupil’s parents are always contacted, whether they are excluded or not, then I always feedback to the teacher. The first key issue is appropriate behaviour and making it clear what is expected by staff (and an employer) – it’s hard to say “by society” as the “f” word especially is in such daily use in the media, in sport and on the street that I believe we have to balance respect and credibility for staff within that context too. The third key issue then is to involve staff in the decision-making and involve staff within a genuine restorative approach. Time-consuming – yes. Effective – very often.

  18. “Swearing is industry language. For as long as we’re alive it’s not going to change. You’ve got to be boisterous to get results”

    Gordon Ramsay

    I agree Dave the media(quotes like above don’t help I guess) has an effect on this argument and pupils I think often use this form of language out of frustration and without knowing the real effect and harm it can cause to others. The conflict situation that arises from these incidents can often lead to a chance or opportunity to solve more deep rooted underlying problems. as for a solution in the school I agree with Dave ..too many variables.

  19. “Consider what it means for a pupil to swear at a teacher. It means that the relationship between them has become broken.”

    No, it doesn’t. Plenty of pupils swear at complete strangers with whom they have no relationship at all.

    Moreover, relationships are a two-way street. If we start making out that relationships are the key to behaving appropriately then we are handing ultimate power over to the pupils, as they are always free to withhold a good relationship with a member of staff.

    Students need to know that swearing at adults is unacceptable, regardless of how they feel about that adult. I am more and more inclined towards the “always exclude” camp. The only exception should be if there are overwhelming exceptional circumstances and the member of staff involved agrees.

  20. I’m here because my 16 year old son swore at his teacher on Friday and has been suspended from school for one day, today. I admit to swearing occasionally — quite non-graphically “oh, shit”. My son used much more graphic unacceptable language. He said it in front of other students. Yes, he deserves to be punished. You can call it exclusion — he calls it a “day off”! I don’t see this as a solution at all. I am looking for a way to “reach him” and teach him that this is hurting himself as a person. He’s been to counseling, takes Prozac for depression and is failing all his classes. A day off is not going to matter to him, but at least it shows other students who may still care, that there is a consequence to pay for such verbal abuse to a teacher. I would really like to see him write a sincere letter of apology to the teacher and read it aloud in front of the students who witnessed the verbal abuse. That’s like asking for a miracle! He can’t stand the teacher which is what caused the outbreak in the first place. He claims that the teacher refused to help him with a math problem claiming in front of the class, that he should have paid attention to begin with. Although I agree that he should have been paying attention, I’m sure that was not a response that helped matters. Thus, the swearing. If anyone can offer advice on how to get him to do the right thing even though she did not, (especially considering she is an adult educator and he is not fully in control of himself yet), I would be grateful. Thanks. Joan

  21. i recently been excluded for swearing directly at a teacher, but when teachers provoke one such as myself they abuse their position as i did a presentation and the teacher refused to see it and she wanted to tell the head of 6th form so i swore

  22. Hi, I have a 10 yr old boy who has been suspended for the 1st time for swearing in front of the class in anger towards public humiliation from his teacher. He admits that “he lost his temper” as he was hurt by what the teacher did and said. My son struggles with his temper when he feels bullied by child or adult and has some typical playground incidents in the past but i feel that his sensitivity is getting worse as he gets older and the “System” is not catering for this and is contributing to built up frustration hence his “temper” and poor decisions. I am not feeling very positive about his future as it seems to be a slow down hill spiral and he hasn’t even hit his teens yet. I am his mother and i am the only person that is caring for his emotional needs trying to keep him positive. If you ask me the temper of the teacher should be looked at too!!

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