Without a doubt, feeling safe at work and free from the threat of physical (and emotional) harm has to be an essential part of being able to do the job of teaching to the best of our capabilities. It seems perfectly logical that if we feel under threat our work may suffer.
Yet teachers are at risk. While it is impossible to get up to date statistics on the numbers suffering abuse or violence at school, there is certainly anecdotal evidence that the threat can come from some parents and pupils alike.
It’s important to keep things in perspective. For most, working in the teaching profession is safe. And, indeed, as a teacher, you are entitled to a safe place to work. That means never experiencing or being threatened with abuse or violence of any kind (physical or verbal). Teacher unions have always pressed for protection for teachers from violence and threatening behaviour.
Suffice to say, all violence against teachers and other school staff is unacceptable. As Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, explains: “Schools, as employers, have a duty of care to ensure teachers and support staff work in a safe and secure environment. We expect schools to carry out risk assessments on the vulnerability of their staff as and where necessary.”
The teacher unions have long offered advice and guidance on workplace violence so that we might minimise incidence and effect. Mary suggests that: “If a teacher, or any other member of staff, experiences violence at work they should report it to the member of staff responsible for staff welfare. In the immediate aftermath of an incident, we would expect a member of school staff to administer first aid or medical treatment, as necessary, offer further support such as counselling, and ensure the incident is logged (even if it is not seen as serious). More serious incidents may need to be reported to the Health and Safety Executive. We would expect the school’s managers to take action once a report is made, to investigate the incident, report it to the police if necessary, make workplace adjustments and review the risk assessment to ensure similar incidents do not reoccur. Staff can also report violence directly to the police.”
It would be most helpful if schools offered extensive training to all staff members on how best to de-escalate potentially violent situations, how to defend oneself safely, and how to move forwards with confidence in the event of being a victim of violence at work. This kind of training is essential and must be kept up to date. We can also help to stay safe by:
1. Make sure you know your school’s policies that relate to behaviour of all, and discipline.
2. Knowing the warning signs that a situation may be escalating towards violence, for example: increased agitation, tense withdrawal, restlessness, being provocative, being under the influence (drugs, alcohol etc), an atmosphere of rising agitation in the school generally.
3. When warning signs are evident, request help. Make a judgement over who would be best to provide it – a colleague or the police?
4. Be firm and consistent in how you speak to the person while you wait for help to arrive.
5. Be mindful of your personal safety at all times. If necessary, leave the room or put a physical barrier between you and the other person.
6. Do not engage in debate or argument, but listen calmly.
7. Know the forms of physical intervention that you may need to employ. Your union can offer guidance on this.
Coping when violence occurs:
There are several steps to follow if you are the victim of violence in the workplace from a pupil, parent or colleague:
1. Talk to your union as soon as possible after the event. You may be advised to inform the police.
2. Take photographs of any injuries as soon as possible after the event and as they develop.
3. Go home if you would rather leave the premises.
4. Write your version of events as soon as you are able to.
5. Tell your GP what has happened.
6. Seek counselling if you are having any emotional difficulties following the violent incident.
7. Take time off work if necessary, and especially if no action has been taken to improve staff safety.
If you do experience violence at work, don’t struggle alone. There should be systems in place in your school to deal with such scenarios but in any case, your union can help too. As Dr Mary Bousted explains, “In our role as their union, we would find out how they are, collect details of the incident and advise them about their options to get the school to take action. If the teacher has been injured we would represent them at the school, ensure a risk assessment is carried out, a full investigation is done and, if necessary, help negotiate a phased and/or supported return to school.
“Members of staff who suffer an injury at work can make a claim through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme provided the incident has been reported to the police. School and college groups are also encouraged to take collective action where it is felt the employer is seriously failing in its obligation to provide staff and pupils with a safe environment in which to work and learn.”
Violence in the workplace can destroy confidence and end careers. It’s time for a full stop.
Find out more…
Guidance on coping with violence at work from the National Education Union predates the amalgamation of the NUT and ATL in September 2017. Relevant documents can be found here:
ATL advice book on dealing with violence, threatening behaviour and abuse in an education setting here.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for eTeach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.