Feeling uneasy about “destroying a life”

There was something rather unusual about a piece I wrote in the Leicester Mercury last week and I had a nagging feeling we didn’t know the full story.

At its simplest, it was fairly straightforward. A teacher at a primary school had been referred to the professional body, the General Teaching Council, and found guilty of “serious professional incompetence”.

Those words were damning. The GTC’s judgement against Bernadette Gunn, of St John Fisher’s Catholic Primary School in Wigston, which it published in full on its website before it ever appeared in the Mercury, were stark. The hearing itself had been held behind closed doors so we had no way of hearing the evidence for and against.

In my first years as a journalist I was a general reporter and covered a lot of court cases. Many times, after reporting on people who had mown people down after getting in their cars high on drink or drugs or who had knifed their girlfriends or vandalised their old school, their friends or family would ring up: How could you write about my loved one in such awful terms, you don’t even know them, you’ve got no right.

The explanation that we did have a right, that all we were doing was reporting a court’s verdict and a fundamental of the British legal system is that justice has to be seen to be done, didn’t wash. I didn’t mind about that, their relatives were usually just as bad as they were.

The same sort of reaction came my way after we published last week’s story about the teacher. But there are clear differences and it only added to my feelings of discomfort.

Comments included:

“Many parents have expressed their sadness and anger at how she has been portrayed in the newspaper. This will have been devastating to a lady who has given so much to teaching for over 30 years… I feel this article was not balanced and was very damaging to Mrs Gunn’s reputation. The article was also very upsetting for many parents and children at the school.”

“The article was extremely hurtful”

“How very wonderful that your newspaper would choose to publicise the fact that Mrs Bernadette Gunn was ‘banned’ for being a ‘failing’ teacher”

“Did anybody working on the story for the newspaper take into account the circumstances surrounding the situation or indeed the feelings of Mrs. Gunn? The article was so sweeping and de-humanising.”

“Hopefully The Leicester Mercury confirmed the facts before leaping to destroy someone nearing the end of their career.”

The school, which I contacted for a comment before the original article was published, has also, I hear, written to parents criticising us for the report.

It would be entirely wrong to dismiss these comments. I think I would have similar opinions in their position.

But how many of these people complained to the General Teaching Council who made this ruling or the county council who brought the case against her?

There was clearly more to this judgement. On the one hand the GTC does not take such decisions lightly. In fact only four teachers were found guilty of professional incompetence in the whole of the past year. That impression has been backed up by facts about the issue I have found out since. Clearly because this decision was so unusual and made by a professional body meant that it was of public interest.

But having spoken to the parents who hold Mrs Gunn in such high regard, it is clear she was ill and her illness prevented her from carrying out some of her work. (And I hope the story in tomorrow’s paper, comprising their comments redresses the balance somewhat).

It can’t be nice having your life written about in such damning terms in the newspaper. On the other hand, I equally know that having been made aware of the judgement by the GTC, we couldn’t censor the information or pretend this wasn’t a decision deliberately made to be put in the public domain.

But on a personal level I feel extremely uneasy. I feel very sorry for the woman concerned. Particularly if it is true that an illness contributed to her so-called “incompetence”.

Is that really what disciplinary hearings were set up for?

While the vast majority of teachers I meet are committed and talented professionals, there are also a few – like in any industry – who are lazy and downright useless. I don’t know, because I haven’t seen the evidence, but I’m pretty sure Mrs Gunn wasn’t one of them.

I feel hurt by the accusations that I have helped destroy Mrs Gunn’s career and life. I feel uncomfortable that she should have been singled out in public when there were potentially other ways to remove her, if that’s what was needed. I feel sorry for her that after 30 years of obviously committed and successful teaching she finds herself all over the papers.

And if those feelings mean I’m not a good journalist then that’s something I’m guilty of.

About Ian

A journalist working in Brussels
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6 Responses to Feeling uneasy about “destroying a life”

  1. Statto says:

    My personal opinion:

    These things are always hard and it is natural to feel hurt because you are human. There is always more to these stories than you can ever hope to publish or even find out about. The teachers failures were very serious, especially for the class who had to suffer her. They have now lost a year of their schooling. You haven’t destroyed her life, she or her illness did that. She cannot expect to return to her old job anyway so her life has been forced to change. You reported fairly and accurately a GTC hearing which was in the public interest. Her family wanted to protect her naturally, and they would not have wanted an article in the paper on top of everything else they have gone through. However, if I was a parent of a child in her class I would feel it only fair and just that the findings of the hearing were made public, whatever the circumstances. It was an extreme case – as you know, one of four last year. You were right to report this case and did so carefully, it is a shame you feel hurt. I am twins free until 11am tomorrow as they remain in hospital, please call me if you want someone to talk to.


    • Tom S says:

      As a past pupil of Mrs Gunns I have to defend her and say you have no right to say the class suffered. I was in her class the year before and the year that she lost her job and she was one of the best teachers I ever had, and her teaching played a massive part of what I am today.

  2. Andrew says:

    I expect the county’s education system is run in much the same way as the city’s (with which I’m familiar). I think it’s likely that there was a lot of effort put into working with Mrs Gunn to try to improve her perfomance before reporting her to the GTC – especially if there was an illness involved, council HR departments tend to tiptoe around any case where there might be grounds for a claim to an industrial tribunal. Obviously you know more about the background than I do, but my best guess is that she was resistant to any suggestion that her work wasn’t up to scratch, and reporting her to the GTC was a decision taken as a last resort. The “sentence” doesn’t seem to me to be terribly harsh in the circumstances (she has to show she’s fit to return to work, and inform her next employer of the GTC’s decision). I think “banned from teaching with immediate effect” is over-egging the pudding – it isn’t a permanent ban by any means, as the rest of the story makes clear, it’s more like the procedure that anyone’s employer would put in place if they were unable to work to a satisfactory standard because of illness. I think you were right to report it, but the story could have been more sympathetic.

    • Andrew says:

      And on reflection having thought a little more about it today: I’ve sat on umpteen pupil disciplinary panels (including permanent exclusions), staff disciplinary panels (including a couple of sackings), grievance hearings, appeals. In all those cases someone suffered – quite often several people. In all those cases, the person who suffered had made an egregious mistake. We all make mistakes – I’m sure we all do sloppy work from time to time, are inconsiderate, don’t follow rules, etc – but in my experience when things get to the stage of a disciplinary panel or a similar hearing, people (sometimes on both sides) have either done something grossly wrong, or have had the chance to put a long-standing problem right and have refused to behave reasonably. If Mrs Gunn’s life has been destroyed (which I doubt), that process started long before you got to know her name.

  3. Sue says:

    I just feel sorry for all the children who attend schools where their needs are not met and are not central. To teach, you need to be 100% and unfortunately not everyone recognises when they are not able to do their best. Equally there are teachers who seem to be able to get away with it and it can be very difficult for parents and school systems to deal with.

  4. Tom S says:

    I know this was three years ago but I just want to get this out there.
    I was taught by Mrs. Gunn, at St John Fisher, for many years and I can hand on heart say she was one of the best teachers I have ever had. All the bad publicity she recieved a few years ago was completely unneccesary. Granted, she maybe didnt mark the work as she should’ve, but her teaching methods and intellect played a massive part in what I am today.

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