Some primary school teachers are having to wear shinguards and hats to protect themselves from physical assaults in the classroom, writes Joyce Fegan.
The attacks, often the result of challenging behaviour, have been reported in both mainstream and specialised classrooms.
Incidents include biting, hair pulling, kicking, pushing and throwing items of furniture.
Details were made public at the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) annual congress to highlight the need for mandatory and standardised safety training for school staff in order to deal with challenging behaviour.
Angela Leonard, a school principal who spoke at the congress in Belfast, described how her teachers dress in protective gear to safeguard themselves while at work.
“We protect ourselves as best we can,” she said.
“I have one particular class at the moment. The staff come in early in the morning, they wear shields from here to here [showing the length of an arm], they wear a bolero that covers their shoulders, their backs, down to here [points to wrist].
“They wear shinguards on top of that, they wear a hat to protect them from being hair-pulled and then they wear a fleece over that.”
She pointed out that other civil servants who work in challenging environments with people who have complex needs, receive supports.
“Yes, we’ve had various types of training — none of them included standardised guidelines for us. It was all ad hoc,” she said.
“We tried to upskill all the time. We learned to read, to observe our pupils, to know whether they were sleep deprived, sugar deprived, whether it was the colour of my shirt and whether it was the smell of perfume. We learned to work with the pupils.
“Nothing has changed for a long time around challenging behaviour, only an increase in it. We need to protect ourselves. Guards, nurses, doctors, prison officers have access to various things be it medication, be it restraint. Teachers do not.”
Jane Bastable described how she has had to visit the doctor as a result of incidents.
“My priority as the class teacher is the safety of my pupils and classroom. During this prioritisation I often receive kicks, hits, with open and closed hands, physical pushes, furniture items thrown at me. Bruises and cuts, et cetera. I have visited doctors. My job is physically and mentally draining on days such as stated above.”
Ms Bastable called for mandatory safety training as soon as possible for teachers to prevent injuries and the erosion of children’s dignity.
Bríd Stack formally proposed the motion calling for standardised safety training for teachers.
“This motion is essentially about protecting both the children that we work with and the staff in all schools. Aggressive behaviour is an ongoing issue in all schools, not just special schools or special classes within mainstream schools,” Ms Stack said.
She added that teaching colleges do not offer training in how to deal with this issue.
Ms Stack also said that some schools have had to resort to sending their staff on private training courses in order to deal with challenging behaviours in the classroom.
This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner.