Last week, the Professional Association of Teachers called for websites such as YouTube to be banned, to prevent bullying of children and teachers. Kirsti Paterson proposed the motion, saying that one teacher had been the subject of a death threat – a pupil had posted a doctored picture online, removing the teacher’s head and adding the caption ‘You are dead.’ I think bullying is in the eye of the perceiver – if that had been a picture of me, when I was teaching, done by one of my quondam pupils, I think I would have been likely to mark it and send it back (the tense, and possibly the mood of that verb being clearly incorrect). I might even have used a red pen. I probably wouldn’t have construed it as a serious death threat, unless I’d been teaching a scion of the mafia (and even then I might have allowed space for another interpretation).
Their issues with YouTube seem to stem from a grubby trend for kids to post video footage of teachers being harassed in their classrooms. As is so often the way with censorship arguments, the gut reaction has been to demand the closure of the site where the pictures are being shown. In fact, the problem surely is that children shouldn’t have video cameras in the classroom to begin with. Headteachers could reduce this kind of bullying, of children and teachers alike, by explaining to parents and children that phones, mp3 players and other electronica aren’t allowed in school. If they insist on bringing them for that elusive emergency, they can check them into lockers before they go into class, and pick them up at the end of the day. This works perfectly well with rabid journalists at film-screenings, it would work perfectly well with fourteen year olds. No-one has the right to be perpetually contactable.
I think it’s safe to assume that most people don’t support the idea of closing down websites they don’t like – the magnificent Emma-Jane Cross, chief executive of the charity BeatBullying, responded to this week’s suggestion, saying, ‘Calls for social networking sites like YouTube to be closed because of cyberbullying are as intelligent as calls for schools to be closed because of bullying.’ I think I may have a crush on her – I bet no-one bullied her at school.
Teachers do seem to have a tough time in the techno-world – earlier this year, Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, claimed to have evidence of more than 100 teachers being bullied by email, text message and online. She expressed particular concern about websites such as Ratemyteacher.com, where children can, well, you’ve probably worked it out for yourselves. Certainly it’s easy to imagine how a child with a grudge, of whom there are plenty in an average school, could use a public forum to air their grievances about a particular teacher. But if you actually go to Ratemyteacher and look around (for research purposes, not in a Chris Langham way), the ratings are mostly pretty good – at the schools I looked at, roughly one in ten teachers had a grumpy face icon next to their names, implying that they were unclear, unhelpful or uninteresting, and roughly one in two teachers had smiley face icons, implying that they were generally loved by all. One bad teacher for every five good ones suggests to me that, contrary to teachers’ fears, their students think they’re a pretty good bunch.
I think the problem with online ratings, comments and views is generational – older people (by which I mean anyone who grew up without the Internet, not people wearing slippers as an outdoor shoe) often have trouble understanding why kids seem so happy to live their whole lives in public – uploading pictures of themselves and their friends, listing their interests and hobbies, their likes and dislikes online, for public consumption. Children, in turn, assume that everyone lives this way – who wouldn’t want to be rated online? They don’t seem able to imagine that some teachers would find it intrusive and demeaning to be rated in a public forum, like beauty queens, but without the sash. Even teachers who are popular might well prefer that popularity to be limited to the real world, and not splashed all over the virtual one. Sadly for teachers with a fondness for privacy, YouTube, Facebook, Ratemyteacher and other sites are here to stay. Like eavesdroppers who never hear anything good about themselves, their best bet is probably to ignore it and refuse to acknowledge either that it exists or that it hurts. I’ve been doing that with reviews for years.
Natalie Haynes is a regular panellist on Newsnight Review and writes for the Times