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Students in Public – Teacher Hat On or Off?

by Neil Finney

Warning: What you are about to read is real and happens all the time – bad behavior in public.

 Biting your tongue and resisting the urge to correct behavior in public is not an easy task. As teachers, we spend our entire day making sure that students refrain from certain things and act in an appropriate way – but outside the walls of the school – anything, it seems, can go.

Making matters worse is the fact that you are witnessing it, AND it is a student of yours at the heart of the problem. Picture it. Sitting at a table in a restaurant, eyes fixed on the menu as you consider the stir fry or the fish, and it happens. The sound emanates from the booth on the other side of the half-wall. The piercing squeal of a child, unhappy, in the first throws of what can only be described as a fit monstrosity.

You glance across – paying particular attention to get a look at the child, while avoiding contact with the parents. You summon your best teacher gaze. You know – the icy cold stare of death and you glaze over your prey and survey the situation to assess your approach. But wait, you’re not at school, and this isn’t your battle. Save your strategy for the classroom, you think. You’re supposed to be enjoying your time off and having a nice meal in a restaurant, right?

But wait, you know that kid. They’re in your class. Oh, it figures. Now you have a choice to make. Do you put on the teacher hat and walk over to the table to intervene – simply by saying hello? Or do you hang you head, ignore the noise and push on with your dinner? Only you can decide.

When I taught in London, England, I had to ride the overland train and city bus to my school – with students for my school. The problem started for me when they chose to swear or acting inappropriately, while I was in full view of what was going on. In this situation, I felt powerless caught between wanting to correct them, and yet, I had no power on the bus with this lot.

Choose your battles carefully. For me, eventually I found a quiet seat on the upper level to avoid the problem. But if I had known the students or felt like I carried weight with my words as a teacher – I would have found my teacher hat. Our brain is always in the role and “teacher mode” is, sometimes, not so easy to shut down.


Have you ever corrected another person’s child in public? If not, how did you choose to handle the situation?


During Neilʼs 9 years of teaching experience, he has taught in London, England; Ontario; public and private schools; elementary and secondary; junior; intermediate; core french; developmental skills; and now junior gifted (grades 4,5,6). He is a Reading Specialist that has been incorporating technology in his practice consistently throughout his career. Neil has recently published his first book entitled “Ignite. Incite. Inspire.” – Examining 21st Century Issues in Education, which is a collection of teaching articles and posts written from January to December 2011.

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  • http://adunsiger.com Aviva Dunsiger (@avivaloca)

    Neil, this is a really hard one for me. I can’t seem to take off my “teacher hat,” but I know that when the student is not at school, it’s not really my place to intervene. I usually sit back and bite my tongue. I might go and move to a new location, where I can’t hear and see the problem. It’s the out of sight, out of mind mentality, and it seems to work.

    One night at my aunt’s house though, when my cousins were a few years younger than they are now, one of them chose to make some really rude comments over dinner. Then he started talking back to my grandparents. I couldn’t help myself: in my nice way, I reminded my cousin about his word choice, and I asked him what he should do. He said he should apologize, and he did. After that though, my grandmother and aunt started to talk about how tired he was that day, and that he probably didn’t mean what he said. I don’t think that my comment was appreciated, so I learned my lesson to at least try and remain quiet.


  • http://www.learningwithdonna.com Donna

    I agree with the other commentators–in the situations you described, I would not intervene. However, I listened to some parents whose children often have meltdowns in public places, and they felt that many times the stares they received were ones of judgement, and censure. So, I wouldn’t want to think that I was giving the same message by a look or a glance, especially if I knew the family.

    One family mentioned having changed churches, or going to the community center because their child often had meltdowns, and they felt that eventually they were not welcomed. In places where families need to be, and should feel accepted, I do think that it would be important to offer our help. Perhaps not at the crisis moment, but perhaps, a conversation at another time where you could say, “I notice you needed to take __ out. Would it help if I sat with your other children at times like that, so you could deal with your child?” or “Are there fidget toys we could keep, or things that we could have on hand to help when your child is getting anxious?”

    By having a conversation to help with the situation, without making the parent feel that they shouldn’t be there, we are creating a space where we show empathy in a positive way, and look for a solution that includes the family. And just because we are teachers, doesn’t mean we have the answers–especially when the situation is not the classroom!

  • http://bigideasineducation.wordpress.com Deborah McCallum

    Hi Neil,
    You bring up a very real and relevant question here! Where should we draw the line between the ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ as we encounter new situations in our regular everyday lives. Inevitably, I think that this will be informed by our personal and professional opinions about a situation as well, and how savvy we are at negotiating the other variables at play around us. I personally prefer to take the ‘hat off’, but sometimes that can be challenging! Great food for thought!

    • Janet Lee

      If I was faced with this situation, I would keep the teacher hat off in most cases. There might be an opportunity to have a conversation with the student in the future, but in the moment it is best to stay out of it. You’re right, Deborah! Taking off the teacher hat can be challenging!

    • http://neilfinney.blogspot.com Neil Finney

      Hi Deborah,

      Absolutely. There are so many other factors to take into account. Things become even more interesting if the parent or child notices you. Everything is about balance in this profession and this is one of those situations where you indeed need to be cognisant of the setting and your place in it. Thanks for your insights!