S tephen remembers very clearly the first time he got a text message from a pupil. I had no idea who it was, and I didn't reply. Then three nights later there was another one: By the end, they were quite abusive. I kept thinking, if I don't respond, they'll stop, and in the end they did.
But yes, it was unpleasant. I lost sleep over it. So did my wife. Maggie, an English teacher at a private girls's school in the east Midlands, found her initiation on a popular teens' social networking site. Then they put it online and basically had a guess-the-bum competition. All quite innocent, you know, but very, very personal.
The girls were all wildly apologetic afterwards, but I'm not at all sure they thought they'd really done anything wrong.
It was a lesson to me, though. I'm very, very careful what I say and do now. For Ben, the realisation came after he replied to a pupil's email late one evening. In the event, nothing was ever said, but it made me think. We're in a different situation these days. Occupying a prominent place in this week's news was Helen Goddard, a year-old public school music teacher sentenced to 15 months in prison following an affair with a year-old student that included a weekend in Paris.
Unbelievable can a teacher have a relationship with a parent naked gallery
Last week, it was the turn of Christopher Reen, a classroom supervisor who became the fifth member of staff in three years at his school to face criminal charges over a sexual relationship with a pupil.
In both cases, mobile phone text messages — allegedly, in the case of Reen and a year-old pupil at Headlands school in Bridlington, Yorkshire, more than of them — were submitted in court as evidence of the offence.
But behind these headline-grabbing scandals lies a more mundane reality for teachers today, which, while it cannot excuse such incidents, may perhaps go part of the way to explaining them: Once upon a time, teachers simply did not exist outside school. There was a fixed distance; a clear definition of roles; lines that should not and, more often than not, could not be crossed.
Now, contact outside the classroom is not only easier but, in many schools, actively encouraged — school web portals on which teachers and students can upload and download assignments, email each other questions and answers, post announcements and sometimes even chat in real time, are increasingly becoming the norm.
That fixed distance is shortening; those old boundaries — between professional and private, home and school, formal and informal — are blurring.
It has been illegal in Britain since for a teacher to engage in sexual activity with any pupil at their school under the age of But despite a recent YouGov survey of 2, adults claiming that one in six people know someone who had an "intimate relationship" with a teacher while at school, teachers stress that the number of cases that ever go as far as court is tiny, and the number that end up in a conviction tinier still.
The NASUWT says it deals with about allegations of misconduct against its members each year, but only five or six involving inappropriate sexual contact most concern alleged physical abuse.
As obviously inexcusable as they are, however, some teachers feel the intense media and public focus on a small number of high-profile cases such as those of Goddard and Reen — or, to take two more, Jenine Saville-King, a Watford teaching assistant cleared two years ago of sexual activity after exchanging pages of MSN messages in three months and text messages in four days with a year-old pupil, and Madeleine Martin, a religious education teacher from Manchester, who this month admitted an eight-day affair with a year-old boy from her school whom she first arranged to meet on Facebook — may be missing a much broader point.
That's always happened, and I imagine it always will. Electronic media certainly gives greater access. But while it may also give the illusion of creating a private space, it's also written evidence.
There is definitely an issue here, though. Electronic communication is different. And while schools are creating web portals and actively encouraging online contact between staff and pupils, there are all sorts of guidelines warning us never ever to use Facebook with students, or to give out our personal mobile phone numbers or email addresses.
The trouble is, it's very easy for the lines to Can a teacher have a relationship with a parent blurred. Public and private space get muddied. Mike, who teaches in London but — like the others interviewed for this piece — prefers not to be identified, cites the example of a teacher accompanying a school trip.
So what do you do? You don't want to risk losing the kids, so you give them your own mobile number. And once that's happened, once a number is out there. And emails, too; I've sent personal emails to sixth-formers wishing them luck with their exam the next day. You can't be a jobsworth these days.
Alastair is responsible for his school's applications to Oxford and Cambridge. An email or text is very much a one-to-one thing; a pupil might feel specially valued.
Even on the school site, I could be marking online, live, maybe quite late in the evening. I could have had a glass of wine. I could start discussing work with a student who's also online. It's Facebook by another name, really. You could easily make comments you'd regret. It's not just teachers, though, who risk breaking the new rules. Digital communication is a two-way street. Phil Ryan, a now-retired science teacher from Liverpool, briefly became an unlikely — and, as far as he was concerned, unwished-for — internet sensation last year when mobile phone footage of him doing the funky chicken for a sixth-form class on the last day of term was posted on YouTube and attracted more than 5, viewings and plenty of adverse comments within days.
Earlier this year, more than 30 pupils were suspended from Grey Coat Hospital School, a Church of England secondary in London, after dozens of girls joined a Facebook group called The Hate Society and posted hundreds of "deeply insulting comments" about one of their teachers.
According to a survey this spring for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Teachers Support Network, as many as one in 10 teachers have experienced some form of cyberbullying. The consequences can be serious for teachers, many of whom are less technologically sophisticated than their students: That can be incredibly distressing. And they can do worse; there was a case in one school where pupils took a photo of a teacher's face, edited it onto a really gross, pornographic image of another woman's body, and stuck it online.
It has called for any school policy that requests or requires teachers to disclose their mobile numbers or email addresses to pupils to be banned; wants new legislation to outlaw teachers being named on websites; would like strategies to prevent all use of mobile phones when school is in session; and has even demanded that pupils' phones be classed as potentially dangerous weapons.