The Boom of the Unknown Teacher

12/05/2016 12:00


At the end of last Monday night's defeat of Spurs, the Chelsea fans celebrated like they never had before. Friends who had been at the game told me that they'd never known an atmosphere like it, including the numerous nights of title-winning glory they'd experienced since their billionaire Russian owner took over. However, they hadn't won the title. They hadn't even won the match. All they had done was stop Spurs winning the league. What a sad indictment on those people, I thought, that they take such great pleasure in the fact that, despite not achieving anything themselves, they had prevented Spurs from achieving greatness.

This got me thinking about something that had irked me for quite some time: that there are teachers who behave in exactly the same way on social media. They seem to get their kicks from sitting behind their keyboards, making scathing comments about the work of fellow professionals who are actually trying to make a positive difference to the lives of the young people we serve. The one thing these people seem to have in common is that they hide behind cloaks of anonymity. Bizarrely, many seem to disguise themselves as pictures of cartoon characters. One of them offered an explanation during an online conversation that "teachers are advised to do so for safeguarding reasons". Now, I've been to quite a few safeguarding sessions and I am yet to be advised that disguising myself online as a caricature aimed at children is a wise move. Interestingly, many of them clearly have egos which will not fully allow an anonymous character to take credit for their ramblings, as many choose pseudonyms featuring their genuine first names. One such case even had a tweet pinned to his account, a sponsorship request, posting his full name for all to see. Even the cast of Scooby-Do might turn down the unmasking of that particular mystery-mastermind on the grounds of lack of challenge.

I can't help but suspect that the reason for anonymity is slightly more sinister. Using a persona is a way of allowing yourself to talk to people without inhibitions, which is dangerous for those who have an axe to grind. And from the selection I studied, most of them do. The vast majority seem to have been poorly treated (in their opinion) by leaders at various schools. Possibly part of the reason I immediately seemed to get up the noses of the clandestine cartoon crew is that my profile mentions that I work as a deputy head and I take the unusual step of using a picture of my real face and name. This actually led to one of them furiously demanding to know what I was trying to portray through my photo. "Just a picture of my actual face," I replied, without any reason to lie.

Creating personas is nothing new. Creations such as Ali G, Dennis Pennis, Keith Lemon and Dapper Laughs all have two things in common: firstly, they do not exist. They are invented characters who are played by actors with varying levels of talent. Secondly, they work as mouthpieces for real people to say or do things which their morals/beliefs would never allow them to do without this mask of relative anonymity. Daniel O'Reilly actually killed off his character, Dapper Laughs, after a seemingly justified campaign against his choice of rape as a material for comedy, the victim of which was an unsuspecting member of the public. This was an example of someone believing he was unaccountable for the actions of his alter ego and feeling untouchable when in character.

But we could see Dapper Laughs' face; it belonged to his creator. He wasn't completely anonymous and the thought of what he may have allowed himself to get away with, without the fear of reprisals, is frightening. The concept of the loss of individual identity, particularly in a group situation, is known as deindividuation. I led an assembly on this topic last year, using Derren Brown's "The Gameshow" as a resource, in a bid to allow students to reflect on how their behaviour changes when part of a group. Brown had given masks to members of the audience and invited them make decisions which would control the life of an unsuspecting member of the public on hidden camera. As the show progressed, the audience became more and more aggressive, until eventually, their choices led to the man being hit by a car. Obviously, the footage was staged, but there was a clear moment of realisation from the audience that their anonymity had led them to behave appallingly.

In the last 50 years, many research projects have been carried out to assess the impact of deindividuation on people's behaviour. In 1981, Malmuth and Check found, alarmingly, that nearly a third of male university students in the US would rape if there was no chance of them getting caught. In 1976, Diener et al conducted a study which revealed that anonymous 'trick-or-treating' children in the USA took more money or sweets than non-anonymous children, and in 1973, Watson conducted a cross-cultural study and found that warriors who disguised their appearance - such as through the use of face paint - tended to be more aggressive, showing that deindividuation effects are ubiquitous.

This is the position that many of our anonymous tweeting teachers find themselves in; they forget who they are and how they should behave, particularly when they are acting as part of a group. Ross McGill, aka Teacher Toolkit, the most followed teacher on Twitter, has found himself consistently on the wrong end of abuse from anonymous teachers. He appreciates that some teachers have genuine cause for anonymity, such as "exposing shameful practice in schools", but not to hide behind a fake profile in order to "direct abuse at an individual". Ross is too polite to say it, but there is no doubt in my mind that this abuse stems from jealousy. Many of these people would love to have the popularity he rightly enjoys, but are unable to get their feelings across without sending verbal volleys across social media.

Some of teachers using pseudonyms like to claim that they are no different to famous writers of the past. However, Samuel Clemens who used one of the most famous pseudonyms of all time (Mark Twain), freely admits that he did so originally to write "rude and crude satire" aimed at a revered steamboat pilot. Clemens continues, in his autobiography, to regretfully admit that "he (steamboat pilot, Captain Isiah Sellers) never got over the hurt which I had wantonly and stupidly inflicted upon his dignity. I was proud of my performance for a while, and considered it quite wonderful, but I have changed my opinion of it long ago." I wonder how many of our pen-name using teacher colleagues will feel the same in the future, once they have had a chance to reflect on the damage caused by their online behaviour.

I questioned one anonymous blogger about his forthright views on mental health and wellbeing in schools, causing him to immediately suggest that my views were absurd and that we as teachers could do nothing to prevent mental illness. I tried a sensible reply about the concept we are building at our school, but he clearly wanted an argument. Now, arguing in a public domain with an anonymous person is a rather frustrating situation to be in; it isn't a level playing field. They have absolutely nothing to lose. They certainly can't lose face; they don't possess faces. I told him very politely that if I was interested in educating a fictional character, I'd go to Disneyland and explain the merits of trousers, or at least underwear, to Donald Duck.

This created some confusion, so I decided to generate some further controversy by questioning his existence. I tried to explain that I realised that there was a human being behind the scenes, operating the account, but the person I was being taunted into an argument by was, in fact, a fictional character. I was flabbergasted by the fact that he actually created a poll to ask his followers, for my explicit benefit, to vote to prove that he exists. Sadly for him, it backfired, with 55% of his followers confirming that he actually does not exist. He is best known for his negativity towards anyone he deems "progressive" and many people I asked about him feel that he is a bully. Yet here he was, in such a panic about his own existence that, incredibly, he re-ran the poll, this time separating out the "No" answers so that followers could stipulate whether or not they were joking. One hour before the end of the poll, "No - and I'm serious" had 53% of the vote and only a last minute plea from him ensured that it dropped down below the majority threshold, but still the most popular response on 48%. I can't imagine the fear that was running through him; there were elements of the story of Pinocchio, so desperate was he to prove he was real, combined with the turmoil of Marty McFly, desperately studying photographs of himself from which he was slowly disappearing.

Throughout the 48 hours and two entertaining polls, I was contacted by all sorts of teachers, disguised mainly as cartoon characters. I had one of Snoopy's friends suggesting I believed I was the Messiah, Homer Simpson nibbling at my fingers every time I typed a word and then a man using a profile picture of Peter Pan suggested, with no obvious sense of irony, that I was "making myself look silly". I did see one real face - a maths teacher from Australia - who described me as a "not-so-bright DH". I thanked him for his observation and noted that he seemed quite angry. All he could pick me up on was that when I mentioned his unusually worded job profile, I used quotation marks incorrectly and that, having used them, he snarled "You failed to attribute your quote". Obviously, I'm keen not to upset him again, but at the same time, I don't want to name and shame him, although happy to add in his full name if he'd like to get in touch. Interestingly, his previous tweet before contacting me, simply asked "What is pornography?" Now there is someone who probably needs to learn where and when to stay anonymous.

I will admit that I was fascinated by my interaction with the cartoon world of secret tweeting teachers. Having said that, it is a worrying trend and I fear it is one which may damage the good name of our profession. I ran a poll myself, which asked whether fellow teachers believed that their anonymous colleagues behaved more courteously, exactly the same or less courteously than others whilst online. The results showed that only 2% believed they were more courteous and 55% said they were less courteous. I can't help but wonder if these anonymous accounts are the scourge of other domains such as medicine or the police force, or if it is just us who have to deal with trolls within our own ranks. Something tells me I haven't heard the end of them and I may be teased into interaction with a few minions once this blog has been published, but, until then, I'll end in a way I'm sure they'll understand:
That's all folks.....