Sometimes I like to think of my students as dogs. Why?

No, she's not barking mad – imagining her students as dogs has often helped Sarah Simons to manage behaviour in her classroom

Sarah Simons

Adult education: Why I picture my students as dogs

I love my dogs. I love all dogs, actually. I’m often distracted by some daft mutt plodding down the pavement with his owner, both of them unaware of my love-struck gaze from the car window. In-person, it’s worse. On more than one occasion I’ve manufactured awkwardness by cooing "Hello gorgeous" to a passing dog, totally ignoring the confused human on the other end of the lead. 

This week, there has been canine disharmony at The House of Simons. During a run around at the fenced field we sometimes rent at the dog rescue, our two were galloping about. The big one, Walter, was acting the giddy kipper. We think he’s part-greyhound, part-Great Dane – he’s definitely a massive, muscular, powerful bloke who’s either out-of-his-tree rowdy or in a cuddly slumber.

He leapt around, roughly, relentlessly pestering his little sister Betty the whippet, wanting to play. Betty is half his size and though they sometimes snuggle up together at home, she’s understandably wary of the big clumsy oaf. Walter, who isn’t one for "reading the room", continued bounding around her with all the self-control of a pissed washing machine. She replied with a little snappy growl. Ignoring her warning, he kept on barging her about and she snarled again. Still, he didn’t take the hint.

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Sick to the back teeth, Betty took the law into her own paws and nipped him. However, he was still bounding when her fangs pierced his skin, causing his tight thin lurchery pelt to rip in a 3-inch long gash. He yelped then he stood completely still. We clocked the wound, then shouted for help from people working at the rescue centre. Following a visit to the emergency vet, the result was eight stitches, buckets of drugs and no walks for 10 days. Of course, it happened on a Sunday when out-of-hours vets charge about the same as Celine Dion does to sing at your birthday party.

An insight into human behaviour

Similar to lots of members of the animal kingdom, observing how dogs interact offers an insight into human behaviour. When I first started working with young people in FE this idea was not only blatantly obvious to me, but with almost no behaviour management training during my initial teacher education, it was the only relevant tool I had.

Back then I was teaching key skills English to big groups of young men on construction courses. The campus I taught at was notoriously dodgy, with similar behavioural standards to The Purge, except in the film, criminal activity was overlooked for only the one day a year…

All sorts went on there, with fights that required hospital treatment just about every week. The campus boss was so desperate to hide the dangerous shitshow he presided over that few of the horrific events passed beyond the confines of the campus, not to the police and certainly not to other areas of senior management until much later. I wish I knew then what I know now – my whistleblowing would have popped your eardrums.

Anyway, knowing there was little support from on high or from college policy, I had to quickly learn how to wrangle groups of volatile youngsters in an even more volatile environment if I was to survive. My first plan was to imagine my groups as a pack of German shepherd pups. With the right training, these dogs had the potential to be an impressive addition to society, working hard to serve the community, offering love and safety to their families. Left to their own devices or without the right support, dangerous urges could take precedence. 

That’s often what it felt like working with those groups, rounded together from all across the city’s postcodes – and back then, identity based on postcodes and related gang membership was a significant issue here in Nottingham.

To keep the peace, I used all sorts of behaviour de-escalation techniques I’d seen in my dogs. When I sensed tension in the air, breath shorten, and young male ribcages expand (as I learned were physical warning signals that something was about to kick off – similar to a dog’s hackles rising), I would talk quietly but firmly to students, actively showing them the palms of my hands as I spoke – similar to a dog submitting by rolling on his back.

If a student had untrusting or erratic behaviour around me, I would bob down below the height of the student if he was seated, so that our eye line was level or I was below his. Though both of these were moves that demonstrated a physical retreat from dominance, the submission didn’t mean students were in charge. I was the alpha, but in a gentle, respectful, non-confrontational way. And it worked, most of the time.

There’s a lot to learn from dogs. I want to be angry with little Betty, and I don’t want to victim-blame, but she was protecting herself rather than instigating bother, plus she had warned Big Walter at least twice. By the time we got home from the vet, my husband, who may have missed his calling as a defence lawyer, framed the incident as "Walter running into Betty’s teeth".

As a teacher who now has donkey's years of experience with managing behaviour that challenges, I might have to consider what I’d do with my furry charges if they were a couple of disruptive students.

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Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat

Find me on Twitter @MrsSarahSimons

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