“I’ve had threats of rape. I’ve had someone say: ‘I’m going to seek out your daughter and rape her.’ You’re called a slag and a slut. Sometimes it’s banter and they all think it’s funny. Sometimes it’s anger directed at you.”
Anne, who doesn’t want to give her real name, worked in a pupil referral unit with excluded pupils in south-west England until she quit her job because of post-traumatic stress disorder, and is one of many teachers to bear witness to the toxic culture of sexual harassment and abuse within schools.
The issue of sexual misconduct in schools has hit the headlines in recent weeks because of the testimonies submitted by pupils to the Everyone’s Invited website. Over the weekend however, the NASUWT union has highlighted that teachers face similar problems.
Anne has already submitted her testimony to Everyone’s Invited. Her experiences with some of the most challenging pupils in the school system in England may be more extreme than others, but she has worked in mainstream schools, too, and she says it is also a problem there – and one that’s getting worse.
“I’ve had students who have been in relationships where they’re touching each other inappropriately in lessons, so I’ve sent them to sit separately and the boy has said back: ‘I haven’t got her flung over the desk and shagging her, have I?’
“It can happen in classrooms and corridors, at break times and lunchtimes. People think: ‘Oh it’s just a bit of banter, it’s just a comment – ignore it.’ But when it’s day after day, it really begins to affect you.”
Younger women in particular were targeted, especially if they wore skirts. “Hardly anyone wore a skirt to work,” said Anne. If they leaned over a desk, a pupil would be behind them making sexual innuendos and gestures. After that they wore trousers.
Since Covid and lockdown, Anne says behaviour has deteriorated because pupils have lacked boundaries and have had access to even more online pornography than usual, sitting at home in front of a screen. “There’s an issue with the very sexualised and aggressive way they are treating staff,” she said.
Vicky works in a large secondary school in the north of England and says boys will openly watch pornography on their phones at lunchtime, in the food hall, inside and out. “There’s been times where boys have wolf-whistled at me when I’ve been walking down the corridor or on lunch or break duty.
“There was one time where a quite challenging pupil who often used to truant walked past our classroom and made a sexual gesture at me while I was teaching my class, and they all saw it. That was the worst.
“There was another time when I was queueing for lunch. Someone shouted: ‘Slap her arse.’ Another boy said: ‘You can’t say that about a teacher.’ I looked back and I was the only female teacher there.
“It makes me feel sad. It makes me feel angry. I went to speak to the head and I said: ‘If someone said that to me on a night out, I wouldn’t stand for it. But because I’m in this setting, being the adult in the room, and in an educational setting, I felt I had to take it.”
It’s not just pupils that are the problem. “One of my colleagues had a time when she walked into a classroom, a boy wolf-whistled at her, and a male teacher in the class laughed.”
Vicky has also felt intimidated. “Perhaps they don’t mean to do it. I’m only 5ft 1in. When boys get to a certain age, they’re growing and they’re really tall. They’re at that age when they’re starting to talk about sex more. It can be very, very intimidating.”
Asked whether she felt safe in the corridors of her school, she said: “There’s been times when I have not. That was a time when I was not enjoying going to work. I felt: I’m going somewhere where I’m being disrespected because I’m a woman.”
Incidents of this kind can have a dramatic effect on teachers. One senior leader who counselled a colleague said: “She is a quite a bold individual, but she was completely floored by what she had experienced.
“She was shaking. She felt suddenly vulnerable. She was shocked, and that turned to anger. She was not used to feeling like that in a professional workplace.”