This Halloween, Spare A Thought For Teachers Who Are Often The Target Of Intimidation

As the son of teachers, I grew up in an environment where the annual October festivities didn't just represent harmless fun, says writer Harry Harris.
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Halloween is as Autumnal as falling leaves, cable-knit jumpers and seasonal lattes. Maybe more than any other festival, it has been shorn from its original roots - a festival for ushering in the darker months and marking harvest time, with added stories of the gap between the physical world and the spirit world being thinner - and is now more of an all-round jolly. Pumpkin carving, trick-or-treating, apple-bobbing, fancy-dress costumes and scary stories.

On the flipside, there are also the more negative Halloween signifiers that can be perpetuated by culture. Houses being egged, toilet paper being thrown. Vandalism on Halloween is almost as old as the festival itself in fact, The New York Times reporting on a gang of flour-wielding kids as far back as 1894, saying “the pedestrian who reached home with his garments uninjured considered himself fortunate.” Par for the course, perhaps, but it’s worth thinking about who the targets of these incidents are, and often it’s teachers.

“Kids made maps of teachers’ houses to target. Multiple houses – including ours – were egged or worse, and very little support was offered from the local police. Our advice was, genuinely, to install CCTV.”

I grew up in a small community, the son of two secondary school teachers who worked in the two most prominent local high schools. One of the disadvantages of small town life is that, by and large, everyone knows where everyone lives, which means teachers become fairly accessible outside of school hours. Kids made maps of teachers’ houses at school to target that evening. Multiple houses – including ours – were egged or worse, and very little support was offered from the local police. Our advice was, genuinely, to install CCTV.

Helen*, a teacher I spoke to from South Wales, told me the situation remains a negative one: “It always has been, it always tends to be very stressful. On a personal level, because I live in the community, I think it’s the time when anybody who’s got a grievance against me in school, and they’re usually year 11 boys, will clearly have a go, because I’m a target. I live locally.”

It’s not just Secondary school teachers who bear the brunt of the stress. Hannah*, a primary school teacher from Derbyshire, told me the holiday can make the classroom a more difficult environment than it normally would be and that issues outside of school could be exacerbated. “Trick or treat [can be] used as an excuse to vandalise and be a bother. The excitement of any holiday can cause disruption but the scary aspect of Halloween does tend to mean more negative connotations.”

Unfortunately, these types of incident are in keeping with wider trends of intimidation and threats felt by education professionals from students. In April of this year, a survey conducted by the NASUWT teaching union claimed that as many as one in four teachers are physically attacked by students at least once a week. Similarly, in 2018, a survey conducted by the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association said that teachers were becoming increasingly vulnerable to both verbal and physical abuse, with only a third of respondents claiming they received adequate support and feedback after reporting issues. According to General Secretary of the SSTA, Seamus Searson, said the drive to reduce school exclusions is “putting tremendous pressures on teachers” and “disillusioned” can become frustrated and “hit back”.

Having grown up in an environment that makes Halloween less than fun, it’s hard to really get excited about it as an adult. But writing this now, I still wonder how many will take seriously the intimidation teachers are often subjected to, such is the cultural weight of the holiday and the feeling that teacher-student relationships is naturally often a combative one. And like, I get that. I get that school can be a difficult place for some young people, and I get that there may be more going on in the background, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse for a dangerous working environment. It’s clear there should be more support from senior staff, and maybe more understanding from the wider public.

Names have been changed at interviewee’s request.

Harry Harris is a writer.