Behaviour - Don't let the renegades run you off the road

Maverick teachers can damage the whole school - but there are ways to put the brakes on

The first people to break the school rules are not the students. Invariably, it's the teachers. Or rather, a particular type of teacher: the maverick. Left unchecked, these characters will corrode behaviour management.

There are different types of maverick. You may even be one yourself and not know it. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Cuddly mavericks: these teachers will go the extra mile for everyone but contravene every rule in the book to do so.
  • Nasty mavericks: these bullies do not comply with school policy in order to inflict pain and humiliation on others.
  • Inspirational mavericks: these are people you would follow into battle at the first call, such is their dedication and skill - and if they fail to do as the higher-ups want now and again, that makes them all the more inspiring.
  • Misguided mavericks: given the opportunity, they would lead you straight to the principal's office for a severe dressing-down. They think they're playing by their own rules for the sake of the students, but in reality no one benefits.
  • Classic mavericks: inspirational, dedicated and relentless, these excellent teachers have the best defence for their behaviour as they often have the best results in the school. It follows, in their logic, that they must be doing it right. Their positive effect on students' learning is rarely in question. But their negative effect on other staff is a hefty counterbalance.
    • Counting the cost

      Whatever type of maverick a colleague might be, these teachers live and die by their open subversion of school policy. It is interwoven into their teaching, from the casual but constant "oversights" of mobile phones in lessons and the bending of rules to help someone in need, to the open revolt of statements such as, "I don't care what the policy says, you are spending the rest of your natural life in my detention!"

      You may think that this doesn't really affect how you operate in your own classroom - if another teacher wants to break the rules, good luck to them, right? But you would do well to pay closer attention. The maverick buys status on the cheap and everyone else pays the price.

      This is because great schools rely on consistency in the behaviour of adults. A unified message means an unbreakable wall with no escape hatches or openings for students to creep through. A maverick puts a crack in that wall and bad behaviour soon floods in.

      You will see the impact first on new staff. Newly qualified teachers buy into consistency in policy and practice immediately. They cling to a behaviour policy like a life raft. In the eye of the storm of the first term, it is their only chance of survival. For a while, they believe that everyone is applying the agreed rules consistently and so follow them to the letter. Gradually, they realise that some teachers are sabotaging them.

      The mavericks' disregard for policy sends ripples of doubt through new teachers, cover supervisors and anyone else who relies on the adults standing together. And then, slowly but surely, the impact spreads to the rest of the teaching staff.

      Mixed messages

      You see, children know how to use a maverick to gain advantage. A defence of "But Miss lets us do it in her lessons!" works better than it ought to in a school. The instinct of the child who wants to disrupt is to divide and rule. Many have developed real expertise in these tactics at home and bring the same skills to school. They latch on to the inconsistencies in their teachers and exploit them ruthlessly - at times, it seems, just for their own entertainment.

      I have often had students bang to rights only to hear: "But he gave all seven of us toilet passes at the same time. He always does", or the "No, you don't get it, Sir. She doesn't use the same rules as everyone else" riposte. You feel powerless.

      So what can you do? You have to work on the maverick. To do that, you have to understand them.

      The maverick is driven by a strong core purpose and a considered philosophy. Like the most intelligent children, they are difficult to manage: at times quietly subversive and often confident enough to question decisions head-on. At the heart of the maverick lie an ego, an arrogance and a selfishness that, paradoxically, can be utterly compelling and utterly destructive.

      Your first realisation from this should be that confrontation is not going to work - they will meet it not with fear or understanding but with an attack of their own. Going through the motions of the school systems won't work either - mavericks delight in subverting those systems.

      What is needed is more subtle and personalised management: an approach that blends emotional connection and solid, principled argument. Don't micromanage your maverick's flair but make them aware of the genuine responsibility they have for how children act in other people's classrooms: give their innovative streak some structure. Your maverick needs some tough love to ensure that they remain committed to consistency, but they also need the autonomy that makes them brilliant with the children.

      Paul Dix, a former teacher, is an education consultant at Pivotal Education

      What else?

      Balancing act: how staff input can be vital for a coherent behaviour strategy.

      Help is at hand: making the most of your teaching assistant.

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