This, quite simply, is a blog all about the concerns with physical contact in primary schools. Although I am focusing fundamentally on UK schools, I still have a deep interest in the subject around the world.

I am a (male) trainee primary school teacher and have a particular interest in the restrictions and 'taboo' around the simple concept of the student teacher bond and the role of physical contact at school.

Ultimately, I hope to use the blog to provoke discussion and inform my self and anyone else interested, please don't hesitate to agree, disagree, argue, discuss or just have a read.


Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Why I was called to the Headmaster's office...

A couple of years ago I was working as a volunteer in a small primary school, out in the sticks near my home in Devon. The school only had around 100 students enrolled and was based in a small village where everyone seemed to know one another. I also worked at (and was once a pupil of) the pre-school which was linked to the school, out of which a large proportion of the children in the primary school had attended prior to going to 'big school'. This meant I knew many of the children in the school very well and had good relationships with them, which inevitably meant them and I were comfortable with physical contact.

Nothing wrong with that. Is there?

A few months into the new school year there was a fresh intake of pupils into the 'Reception' class. At the time I was mainly working with that group and was happy to do so due to my familiarity with most of the kids. The intake consisted mainly of children from the pre-school I worked at, including one particularly tough little chap who I will refer to as Bobby. I knew Bobby's parents and both of his brothers who also attended the school, so I felt relaxed and contented with our bond. However this little chap was to be the reason I have decided to undertake such a project, this little chap was to be the final straw in my unquestioning tolerance for the PC brigade in schools, this little chap ignited my interest in this subject and, most importantly, this little chap was why I was called to the Headmaster's office... 

About a week into Bobby's new start at 'big school' he was settling in fairly well, a little disruptive at times, but  myself and all of the other teachers knew that it just ran in the family (what with the brothers being at the school too). As I mentioned before, Bobby was a TOUGH little man, he played football with the year 6's, cricket with the year 5's and galloped around the playground. For the two and a bit years I'd known him, I had never seen him cry.

One day at lunch-time, Bobby was not his usual boisterous self and was sat alone at a picnic table whilst the other children played around him. I was the first to spot something different about the child and decided to approach him. I asked Bobby what was wrong and all I got in return was a grunt, a wimper and the back of his head (he had his face pressed against the table - charming way to greet a teaching assistant). Obviously this wasn't right and I was even more concerned by the fact that it was Bobby who was behaving like this. Bobby was crying! His brothers ran to the scene and explained that Bobby had an ear infection but "Mummy had given him medicine this morning". I asked Bobby if he was going to be OK to which his response was a very loud wail and "I want my Mum". It doesn't take a genius to realise that the lad was seriously distressed and in some pain, so I asked if he wanted to come up to his classroom while someone called his Mother to pick him up. Bobby straight up refused to move from the table, he said he can't and he won't because it "hurts too much". For me that was heart-breaking. It's not only my job to care for children, but it's my natural instinct. I asked Bobby if he wanted me to carry him upstairs to which he nodded, bearing in mind I had known and cared for him for two years, I knew his family, he had only just started this scary big school and he was crying. If this didn't call for a bit of love and care I don't know what does. At the back of my mind I knew this wasn't really 'allowed', but I didn't care. I picked him up, gave him a hug and told him he was going to be OK and his Mummy would be there soon.

After lunch, when Bobby had left, the teacher I was working closely with in the reception class asked to talk about the incident. I explained what had happened and he seemed pleased with how I dealt with it. However he did inform me that I would need to pay a visit to the Headmaster.

There's no other way to put this so here goes: I was sat down in front of the Headmaster, asked what happened at lunch with Bobby, and, basically, given a telling off for what I did. Told off for looking after a child.

It turns out one of the other teachers had put in some form of complaint about my conduct, stating it was unnecessary and inappropriate. I could not believe it. I had my CRB check, in fact I had about four separate ones! The family hadn't complained, the child had thanked me and all was well. But, for some reason I was still in the wrong!

Following the 'telling off' I was embarrassed, confused and actually quite angry. How could I be a good teacher, instilling good values and promoting a friendly atmosphere (amongst a thousand other things) when I wasn't even allowed to touch the children I teach? Touch is under-rated, it creates comfort, it consoles, it encourages and it is important.

Although I understand why what I did can be perceived as 'wrong', I still don't believe it is. I created this blog  because I want to see what everyone else thinks. I want to generate a picture of opinions and I want to cultivate discussion, debate and controversy. After all, this is a controversial topic.

In the end, all I can say is I care for children, and the way it seems to me, every single other person in the room when I told this story for the first time felt the same. Yes, of course there were a few who seemed to hold the same issues with the situation regarding professional judgement and litigation perhaps, but it surely cannot be denied that a teacher is not only an educator, but a carer.

How can you care for someone without physical contact? I sure as hell don't know.


  1. A great start to your blogging project Joel. This post raises a lot of very important questions teachers and parents need to consider. I hope others come in and comment on your very challenging and thoughtful blog post. Keep on blogging!

  2. Interesting post, Joel and I'd like to venture that what you did was a critical part of his education - your role as an educator is to help develop the whole person; their emotional intelligence and compassion, not just batch-process them through to exams.

  3. I think this is a sociocultural set of invisible norms pertaining to the West.
    I hug my students all the time, tickle, play, dance - and this issue has never been raised.
    I am in no way criticizing the Western approach - I merely entertain the thought of these differences. Therefore, if you ask me, people here would have EXPECTED you to do what you did.
    Cristina Milos

  4. Difficult subject matter and a really good representation of your feelings about the 'incident.' Being a male trainee teacher I find it is something that is always in the back of my mind and feel that I have to be more careful and thoughtful about what I do or don't do.

    It is a shame, but it doesn't take much to ruin a career (especially once the media have plastered your innocent name and face all over their publications) and I don't want to lose a job I haven't got yet by being 'unprofessional.'

    I'd be interested to see the different gender perspectives on this argument.

    Really great blog - Cheers.

  5. Thanks for the responses, I really appreciate it. What do you think I should have done? Would the issue have been raised if it was a female caring for the child?

    On my next post I'd like to discuss the policies and laws surrounding the subject. Any thoughts or experiences?

  6. I think this is a really interesting piece Joel, i have two different heads really. From a personal perspective I 100% back your point of view regardless of whther the teacher/trainee is male or female they are carers as well as ecducators and PARTICULARLY when working with young children i believe there are occasions when a hug and a bit of comfort are essential. And as a mother of a young "Tough" boy similar to the one you describe in your story i would be devastated to think he has been upset at nursery and his carers hadn't given him a cuddle to comfort him... However from a professional point of view especially as a trainee and "unfortunately" (which is probably not a fair term as i believe we should have more positive male role models working with young kids!) in your case a Male also there is much stigma around physical contact. I believe professionals uphold this "no contact" rule mainly to protect themselves and the school from any nasty "rumours" rather than it being a real issue for safeguarding.

  7. Isnt it ironic that as a carer we are allowed to hug and give comfort to a child whilst in our care yet a teacher cant?! What really is the difference apart from our job title. Teachers have CRB the same as carer. I have been in a school setting where it would be totally inappropriate for me to hug that child, but whilst he was in respite in the evening it was totally acceptable to hug the child to give him some comfort! This still puzzles me to this day..

  8. I am appalled at the position the Headteacher put you in and unfortunately I have a feeling that if you were a female trainee noone would make such a fuss. I am a female student teacher and volunteer at school, I also feel I need to mention that I'm a mature person and that might be a factor too. I hug children all the time when they need comfort because they see me often as the mother figure and I feel that many of those reception class, four and five year old children really do miss their mums and need the gentle touch that their mum would offer them when they are distressed. So far noone ever mentioned to me that this inappropriate and in fact when I started volunteering I did ask the teacher what is her view and she said exactly what I would expect: that these are very young, often scared of this new challenge little people and if they need some comforting then we are here to help them.
    Here I would like to say that I believe that men should be welcomed and should not be discriminated against in early years settings. You have done a great piece of work there caring for this boy and you should be praised and not told off. Hopefully common sense and actually care for children will prevail and allow us to really care for the kids without being afraid that our instinctively natural actions are scrutinised by some suspicious people.

  9. I am really interested in this discussion. It really does get you thinking and actually questioning what an environment that should install care, nurture and understanding is really coming too. I absolutely agree that in that situation, especially knowing the individual child as well as you did that you should have comforted and supported him in the way you did. Surely by not doing so you would have denied him of a basic need, that of feeling safe and secure. I do however understand that from a professional view point, perhaps being alone whilst waiting for parents was not an ideal situation in relation to safeguarding and protection of yourself. It worries me to consider that in a school environment where we expect children to thrive and develop that we are unable to provide them with the nurture and support that they need to do so. How also can we expect our children to become caring, empathetic and responsive when we cant demonstrate those qualities ourselves?!