It goes without saying that teachers, like any decent human being, understand this need for the rules.
We care deeply about our students and could imagine nothing worse than the horrors inflicted on so many vulnerable, innocent children who were systematically abused at the hands of monsters in trusted positions like ours.
Above all else, we want our students to be safe and protected.
From the outside it must seem so black and white – have the rules in place, stick to them, and nobody gets hurt.
From the inside, we see the grey. We see the kids who come to school without food, without warm clothes, without hugs or encouragement, with explosive emotions and fragile innocence.
The kids who need more than to be kept at arms’ length, who need a calming hug, and to know and have trust in their teacher.
We see the families who are struggling, who are spread too thin just trying to make ends meet.
We see the grandparents battling to raise the children that their children left behind when they succumbed to the lure of drugs or alcoholism.
Different circumstances create different needs and in order for children to not only survive, but flourish, their needs must be recognised and met. For many teachers, it’s instinctive regardless of its necessity.
This is where it gets blurry and standard policy becomes harder to apply. With levels of fear and suspicion at an all time high, ‘by the book’ is deemed to be the safest way for all involved to coexist within a school space, but is it really in the best interest of the children?
It’s this constant dilemma that Suzanne Leal explores in her insightful new book, The Teacher’s Secret.
Brilliant in its detail, frustrating in its accuracy, teachers would be hard-pressed to find a more relatable read.
Set in the small seaside suburb of Brindle, The Teacher’s Secret follows the fascinating, intertwined stories of some of the colourful local residents, but most of the action takes place at the local primary school which is at the heart of the novel.
Its central character, Terry Pritchard, has been teaching at Brindle Public School for decades, knowing, as a matter of circumstance, some of the families intimately.
It’s this combination of familiarity and his refusal to fall in line that earns the disapproval of his new dogmatic principal Laurie.
“For me, Terry is old school,” Leal explains.
“He is an effective and committed teacher who is more interested in hands on teaching than in adhering to the policies and procedures laid down by head office.
"In writing about Terry, I wanted to explore how, by refusing to adhere to the relevant policies, teachers can leave themselves open to allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
"For me, Laurie is representative of an education system that has become more and more regulated. Whilst the regulation of the education system is important to ensure transparency and effective procedures to deal with issues of child protection, I wanted to explore whether there are any downsides to such a system. Is the autonomy of individual teachers compromised and, if so, how does that affect the education of children?”
It’s the issues of child protection in the system that Leal must rule on regularly as a tribunal member at the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
In her work she must determine whether applicants, including teachers, doctors, social workers and foster carers, should be granted a working with children check clearance.
An area that is, perhaps surprisingly to some, also not black and white.
There is myriad reasons that teachers may have their working with children checks revoked or denied, and while the general population are often quick to make snap judgments and start an online witch hunt, Leal is tasked with deciding if in fact, these revocations or denials are reasonable.
Although Leal says she has heard cases involving women, most applicants are men and the test is whether an applicant poses a risk to children.
“This involves considering any criminal convictions an applicant might have, any allegations that have been made against them and details of their general conduct,” she explains.
In a role with so much at stake, Leal understands the growing distrust of institutions such as schools that were supposed to have children’s best interests at heart and the increased vigilance this has led to.
“I think the community has been appalled to learn that the abuse of children in institutions has been so widespread,” she says. “It’s my impression that the community generally has become more cautious in relation to the care of our children.”
Despite this cautiousness, Leal says she hopes that it hasn’t become commonplace to suspect a man’s motives if he chooses a career in the classroom.
Having four children of her own – three boys from her first marriage, who are now 19, 16 and 12 years old and a 4-year-old daughter with her second husband, Leal spent some years when her three boys were little as a single mother.
“Although my boys saw their father every week, I was their primary carer,” she explains.
“During these years, I watched the boys gravitate to the men around them, particularly the male teachers at their school. These teachers were wonderful to them – fun, supportive but strict, as required – and my boys loved them.”
“At the same time, the Royal Commission was revealing the extent of the historical and continuing abuse of children by mostly male figures of authority, including teachers.
This juxtaposition – between the supportive, essential teachers my children had experienced and the abuse that other people’s children had endured – made me ask myself the question: when does the behaviour of a teacher become inappropriate?
When does behaviour, perhaps long accepted, become unacceptable?”