“I am human and I need to be loved…” The Smiths

I did a Twitter poll last week which asked how many teachers/ leaders had suffered personal attacks on their decisions, character or ability via Facebook. I got 52 replies of which 48% said they had. The most recent government statistics for teachers in state funded education is 438,000 (2011 and publish in 2013). I am sure that the above stat would drop significantly but I am interested in just how many have faced personal attacks (10% would still be a significant amount of stress and upset caused). I keep thinking to myself how can these social media attacks on teachers and schools be allowed? How can anyone justify a media trail minus any evidence and often fuelled by vitriol? At least if you were being covered by the local paper you would have your side viewed as well. I am interested because it has happened to me and many colleagues… In fact it seems to be a regular topic of conversation amongst head teachers.

As a parent I once engaged in a Facebook attack on my children’s school. I wish I hadn’t but I knew the head well and I knew how much they cared about getting teaching and learning right. So when an explosion blew up over school uniform I waded in thinking I’d bring perspective and reason to the debate. How very wrong I was. The nature of the personal attacks were shocking with words like ‘fascist’, ‘nazi’ and ‘dictator’ used over the course of the ‘debate’. It was clear that the decision and way it had been taken meant that hatred of the head was acceptable. There was at times a bullying element, a pack mentality that was truly upsetting. There was a strong sense of moral outrage and if the head could have been publicly flogged I think one or two would have built the Whipping Post. Another element was that some people clearly enjoyed it? People use ‘free speech’, ‘public money’ and ‘parental rights’ to justify all sorts of behaviour. I thought I had the moral high ground but in fact, I was no better than any one else. I thought I was helping, in fact I made it worse. I did get a hug from a teacher though.

The problem with us human beings is when insulted (or seemingly insulted) we feel the need to respond, to have our say and allow ‘justice’ to be done. I have learnt to think VERY carefully before ANY response. When blind (ignorant of the facts), unfounded attacks are made and they put forward utterly untrue statements as though they are hard evidence it is very hard to sit back and say nothing, though this may be the best course of action. The great thing about Facebook (Etc) is people think they are being clever or funny and what they write is THERE for all to see (it may have been pretty funny after 3 glasses of wine on a Friday night devoid of decent TV). Usually the worst posts are written anonymously but no one is that invisible. It’s usually not that hard to work it out (Or 90% of the time some one knows and will tell you). Unlike abusive phone calls Facebook attacks are for all to see and this can help you more than you think. The support I received this week after some unfounded posts that seemed to want to unsettle the school community had the absolute opposite outcome. Parents who were on the fence about me offered smiles and support and other parents were even more friendly and supportive. No one came to me to fuel the original post. Look at your whole school parent survey when a Facebook attack comes in – remember the bigger picture.

I think the hardest thing to deal with when you read horrible things about yourself or your school is how much it upsets you (even when you laugh it off). You are left thinking, why would someone want to do this? What are their motives? What are they getting from this? That is a deeper philosophical question, the feeling of being valued is  a vital part of mental wellbeing. Being criticised for one of the thousands of things you have to do can consume you and cloud out all the other things you do, important things like ensure a great education.

So here are a few Rules I have developed when dealing with Social Media attacks.

Rule Number 1 when responding to Social Media attacks: Never, NEVER EVER, never ever ever ever respond on that medium and ensure that no one connected to you does it either. Firstly it gives that platform validation. It says, it’s ok to communicate your dissatisfactions via Facebook (Etc) because you’ll get a response. There is a complaints procedure for good reason. Always come back to that.

Rule Number 2 when responding to Social Media attacks: Do you need to respond? Really? If a handful of people are throwing statements around ANONYMOUSLY writing a whole school Newsletter response becuase of some people who, no matter what you do, dislike you and pretty much everything you stand for a platform for their views. A newsletter is not going to change that.

Rule Number 3 when responding to Social Media attacks: If it is bad enough to warrant a response brief staff and governors (always keep your chair briefed). Check that it has not spread to other social media. I once saw some very ‘Ripe’ graffiti about a head on Instagram. Prepare a letter home to parents and always think ‘Press Statement’. You want to have that before the local paper calls you.

Rule Number 4 when responding to Social Media attacks: Seek legal advice (Especially if people are named). You will be surprised just how much you can do. A legal letter that outlines what is seen as an unfounded personal attack gives you some level of assurance.

Rule Number 5 when responding to Social Media attacks: Think BIG picture. Remember the facts about what you do in your school. Do not lose sight because someone has said something that if they could see it rationally (or it was said against them in the context of their job) would shame them. I do think we have to have better protection. School leadership puts individuals into far too many opportunities to be attacked but it is, sadly, now a fact of school leadership and being a teacher…