Too Much Heaven: can you be too kind when managing behaviour?

Some will say that love is all you need. The older I get, the more I believe in a very simple maxim: that love is the most important guiding force in the human universe. I cannot intellectualise or reason this with any more provenance than that. I certainly cannot offer you a demonstration, mathematical, logical or empirical. I simply believe it. I freely admit the failings of this as an argument, because it isn’t one.

But there are also dangers in compassion, particularly when it supervenes over other virtues, or when we fail to recognise that compassionate acts which take no account of other elements of human existence can fail to satisfy the aim of compassion. In other words, compassion is not our only compass. There are other Pole Stars.

The true purpose of classroom management

Learning can be enormous fun; it can also be enormously dry. There it is, and that’s an end to it. Those who say that all learning and all lessons must engage or entertain are, to be honest, a bit simple. I regard them as well-meaning but essentially quite stupid. The job of the teacher is to direct the children through education, to teach them the best that we have learned so far, to enable them to exceed us, to exceed even themselves. But what it isn’t always is enjoyable. And it is perfectly normal (in fact I would be worried if it wasn’t) for a child to, at times, resist the delights of the classroom. In other words, some children won’t enjoy doing as they’re told. I do hope this isn’t a shock.

But as teachers, our duty is to do exactly this: to consider the long term interests of the child even if they themselves do not perceive the benefit. I know that if I have some tight, fair rules in my classroom, then we can all cooperate, with me as an authoritative centre. We can get on with learning, with a minimum of fuss and shouting, detentions and sanctions. Many children do not realize this, or choose not to, or reckon that they’re the most important things in the room. They are perfectly welcome to have these illusions. Education isn’t optional. The curriculum isn’t open for debate. These are not things for students or parents to decide. A lot of it is out of our hands, and in the hands of ministers and the Demos.

Managing behaviour with tough love

The compassionate response to this situation is to teach what we know as well as we can, using the best rules we can. It means enforcing boundaries and patrolling those boundaries frequently. It means punitive, distributive and retributive justice. It means doing all these things even if the students whine and wheeze and hiss and howl. It is the administration of what is often called tough love. A surgeon doesn’t flinch when he cuts into a patient because he knows that the cut is a precursor to the cure.

Compassion and behaviour boundaries in the classroom

There is no contradiction between compassion and boundaries. Rather, they are necessary principles of each other. Compassion without restriction can lead to disastrous permissiveness. The desire to seek someone’s good, if not tempered by reference to other, equally important principles such as long term well-being and safety can result in indulged, spoiled children. Self-restraint is a necessary component of any scheme that relies on short, mid, and long term goals. Few things worthwhile will spring successfully into life ex nihilo, unless you’re a patron of national lotteries or magic lamps.

Boundaries are necessary for compassion, and compassion is essential in deciding boundaries. They act as scaffolding to help children climb higher than they ever dared to dream. Absolute licentiousness isn’t associated with freedom, but with tyranny. It is only by suffering the chafe of restriction that we can taste sweet freedom. All things are discerned by their opposites. Light is only understood when darkness is possible, and only a hungry man truly understands appetite. I realize that this is beginning to sound a bit ‘freedom through slavery’, but I don’t follow this maxim to that unnecessary conclusion. The opposites aren’t identical, but they are related.

In the classroom you should apply restraint carefully and considerately. And, above all, always be guided by the principle of real love.

This is an extract from Tom’s new book Teacher, out now, published by Continuum/ Bloomsbury. Read more from Tom here on his blog, or follow him.


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Tom Bennett - Behaviour adviser