These are tough times for teachers. It doesn't matter whether you teach in a public or private school setting. You expose yourself to legal risks every single day on the job. Your chances of getting sued are probably on a par with having an accident while driving. When you drive carefully, observe the rules of the road, stay alert and drive defensively, most of the time you will be OK. But, things happen for which you are not to blame. Like the time I came down one morning to get into my car to drive to work. Somebody had backed into the front end of my vehicle. Thank goodness I had insurance. Double thanks that the person who backed into my car left a note with her contact info and an apology together with a statement that her father would pay for the repairs.
So, let's look at liability from our point of view as teachers. (I am not an attorney, so read my general layperson's comments and observations then run questions by and seek advice from your attorney.) This mnemonic DIRE lays out some of the issues we need to watch for. Protecting yourself is so important. Nobody else will look out for your interests as well as you will.
In the old days most of us professionals would keep a day book. You kept track of your appointments and schedule in it. But also used it to document what was said at interviews and meetings. Our recollection of events diminishes rapidly within days of a meeting. The hours and what was said all run together after a while. That's why it is so important to have a record of the events which have occurred and what was discussed.
Fast forward to 2013. Google and other free, widely available email providers allow all us to keep track of everything electronically. So convenient and available anywhere any time via handhelds. The only caveat I have here is that you need to make certain that you keep records and notes in your personal email, not the school's. You control your personal email, calendars, documents, etc. You do NOT control the school's email. Period.
What should you document? Meetings with students, incidents which occur both in and out of the classroom and staff lounge, conversations with parents, meetings with parents, meetings with administrators. When somebody decides to sue you or you find yourself being asked to testify about some incident, your careful electronic notes will add to your credibility.
You need liability insurance. Yes, I know that the school provides insurance for you. But until you have your attorney read all the fine print and reassure you that the school's insurance is all you need, I would opt for purchasing my own liability insurance. Besides, the school buys insurance to protect itself first and foremost. As with any insurance, buy it and have coverage BEFORE you need it. Remember that you could have to defend yourself against all sorts of accusations. For example, what if you give a student a failing grade and they decide to sue? Or a child is injured during a group activity which you were supervising? The lists of 'what ifs' is endless. Buy liability insurance. At least $2 million worth.
Research is my cautious way of warning you to research everything and anything which comes your way. Know what you are getting into before you get into it. I mention this simply because we teachers tend to be a trusting lot. The words of one of our Presidents always come to mind when I discuss this topic: "Trust, but verify."
Let me give you an example of what I mean. You have been asked to help with one of the sports teams. While that may be spelled out as one of your duties, confirm the details with a superior and make sure that they approve what you have been asked to do. This is so important for any new member of staff. Be eager and willing to help in any way you can. But be street smart and savvy at the same time. You just never know when you are being set up for a fall by somebody who has taken a dislike to you.
You remember what ASSUME spells. Never assume that others understand what you are saying or your intentions. At least in the way you intended. Always restate what you have just said explaining everything carefully. Now, we teachers intrinsically think we are pretty good at knowing when our students have grasped a point. Most of the times we are right. But the one time when your audience does NOT understand what you told them to do is the time which will get you in trouble. So explain. Write those explanations out. Put them online. Blog about them. Do whatever it takes to provide clear consistent explanations.
Avoiding law suits is not something any of us want or need to think about all the time. Exercising common sense and sound professional practices will prevent 99% of those nasty legal situations. Your insurance and documentation will provide you much peace of mind if and when you hit rough weather. Good luck!