The Enemy Within: How to make sure children don't behave well

29th September 2013 at 18:00


As the host of the TES behaviour forum, I encounter many similar scenarios and problems, many times. I've been doing it for over 5 years now. Five years. That's a lot of hard luck stories and cries for help. Sometimes, teachers just want reassurance, and some times they need a hard word, but in the end if I've learned anything from teaching it's that if we work collaboratively, we are undefeatable. So our first duty is to each other so that we can be of greater use to the interests of children.


I received a personal email this week that exemplifies one of the most common complaints: poor support from senior management. It's in my mailbag top five, and if you're reading this and you're involved in any form of line management in schools, from head of department to Olympian senior leader, then take that away with you and put it in your pencil case.


What happened? It's as anodyne and commonplace as a sneeze. A new teacher asked a student to sit down in his allocated seat. He refused rudely, several times. The teacher kept her cool, repeated it several times as the rest of the class began to titter at the spectacle of it all. She was sent outside to have a think, and a few minutes later, asked to come in and take her seat. No dice. There was only one way this Tango was ending; the Princess wouldn't sit on the pea. Senior staff were summoned, but no one was available; presumably the kettle hadn't boiled yet. Further corridor time was chalked up. Eventually, one was obtained, but instead of taking the pupil away....she insisted that the pupil be allowed to continue the lesson. She had listened to the boy's complaint and decided against the teacher.


The new teacher couldn't believe what she was hearing. The class certainly couldn't; they hooted and honked with pleasure at the fine sport on offer. So the boy returned, and sat in exactly the seat he wanted in the first place. The lesson went ok after that, but the NQT spent the next half an hour feeling so embarrassed she could cry. The kids knew it too. A the end of the lesson, some of the class- including our hero- had to stay to finish off the last question. Except our hero, who packed up his knapsack and left with a '***, I'm fabulous' expression as he ignored requests to stay. Why should he? The teacher had no authority anymore. It had been juiced nicely in the corridor.


How long do you have to be in a management position before you forget how hard it is to take over a new class? How ignorant of the sensitive, fragile skeleton of the emergent relationship do you have to be before you would consider this an appropriate way to help a colleague? How utterly devoid of vertebrae and simple teaching nous do you have to be to ignore the obvious outcome of such an intervention?


Even if the new teacher had been entirely at fault, the appropriate and professional way to deal with this would have been to take the pupil away for half an hour, and then discuss and moderate the decision afterwards in an adult conversation about school rules and expectations. But option c) of 'completely humiliate the teacher' would never have crossed my mind. Our default needs to be one of support. In front of the children, our front must be airtight and united. Later, in private we can dispute each other's conduct.


I suspect that in many cases such as this, the senior member of staff has simply lost sight of what kids need in order to behave properly in a school: knowledge of boundaries, knowledge of consequences, and experience of those boundaries being enacted when necessary. If kids see they can get away with, eg, selecting their seats, and if they simply say 'no' long enough then nothing will happen and they'll get their own way, then we might as well shut the school gates and just admit defeat.


I often write about their being 'two schools' in every school. The civil, agreeable school that senior (in status or length of service) staff experience, with light timetables, nice classes and lots of time to follow up, and the school inhabited by new staff, supply staff, support staff, staff with full timetables, tough classes, no where to hide and no time to regenerate. For a school to run to the benefit of all, both worlds need to be simultaneous. There shouldn't be an apartheid of classrooms and roles. We really are in it together.


As usual, I advised the new teacher that not everyone, every school was like this. That some people and places offered more support than this anti-support, this disintegration of their authority. But in my heart, I wonder how often this happens. We're all human. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone makes bad calls at times. But every member of staff- myself included- with any level of seniority needs to ask themselves this question every day: do I help my staff, or do I just make things easy for myself? Running a school, a classroom is a constant hosepipe of tough calls and lose/ nearly-lose outcomes. It isn't always pretty, or fun, or comfortable.


But that's the job.