How do you solve a problem like Meryl? Tough Young Teachers midweek special

28th January 2014 at 10:31



One of the issues that stood out from this week's episode of Tough Young Teachers was English teacher Meryl's turbulent tribulations as she tried to keep a lid on her boiling pot of naughty kids – only instead of a lid, she had a sieve and instead of boiling water, she had a geyser of cats. But her problems didn't end at the classroom door, as her mentors and line management were piling on the pressure to improve. By the end of episode two, it even looked like she might be binned.


Context: given that this was an edited event, trimmed and dressed for TV, I have no idea what really happened. No one does, apart from the protagonists. The following commentary only applies to the fictional narrative portrayed, and not to the men and women behind the veil of perception.


What happened to Meryl seemed to me to be something that happens to many new teachers who are struggling: instead of being helped, they get hammered by a system anxious to avoid failure but unable to see how success might be created. Instead of giving them strength, ammo and wings, we put iron bars in their pockets and ask them to swim, and then **** them when they can't.


I see this a lot in the TES Connect behaviour forums: new teacher gets hauled over the coals by men and women who have forgotten how hard it is to be new. Here's the all too familiar scenario:


  1. New Teacher arrives, brimming with light, life and ambition
  2. Tough class looks at New Teacher like something weird in a nature program. For a few lessons, they're wary in case the new teacher turns out to be a real teacher.
  3. New Teacher thinks she's nailed it. She tells her friends at home that this teaching lark doesn't seem to be as bad as she thought
  4. Tough class draw lots on Facebook to see who goes first. They draw their plans against her
  5. First skirmish. Tough class test the boundaries that the New Teacher has sketched.
  6. New Teacher tries to get them back by being nice. She might even appeal to their better natures ("Come on, you were great last week"), then positive self-interest ("If we all listen, we can have a better lesson"), and finally naked self interest ("I don't want to have to start giving out detentions")
  7. Classroom regroup and re-engage. She's a *****. She said detentions. We weren't even doing anything. Their scouts are replaced with units, battalions.
  8. New Teacher starts to panic when she realises that words are not enough. Class taste the blood in the water, smell the panic.
  9. Blitzkrieg: several, perhaps dozens of misbehaviours occur simultaneously. New Teacher starts to crumble, fire fight. Total war.


At this point, things are beyond her control to amend. Going by the manual, she does the right thing and calls for back up: removals, detentions, advice. As long as she keeps the sanctions to herself, often the school won't notice. But when the children inevitably test her further by not turning up to detentions, and she asks for support, that's when the school starts to notice. And that's when you see what the school actually means by support.


The Good School understands that support means "to help keep something up". They give targeted meaningful advice that describes in steps what she needs to do. In addition to that, they remove pupils when asked to and arrange appropriate sanctions and strategies to remind the student of their duties towards their peers and staff members. Parents may be involved. Repeated misbehaviours are logged and escalated through the school behaviour process. Most importantly, the new teacher isn't blamed for the poor behaviour of the students. Why should they? It's not them chucking chairs, spinning on the teacher chair or flipping the bird to any reasonable instruction given.


The Bad School assumes that children only behave badly for bad teachers. They forget that new teachers are always harrowed by classes: doubly so if the class is full of tough students, sometimes (but not always) low-ability students with low expectations, triply so if the students see that the school lacks backbone and won't support the teacher. They blame the new teacher. They resent being asked to support because they have important meetings with each other to attend. They may even be a little scared of walking into tough lessons because they don't want to be reminded of how powerless they are or how little authority they have. Usually such people enjoy status, seniority and easy timetables: few lessons, nice classes and plenty of follow up and preparation time should they need to deal with any behaviour issues. They imagine that if they can do it, anyone can and should – and if they can't, then there must be something wrong with them. Which is like playing Call of Duty and wondering why people ***** about war.


So what often – depressingly – happens is that the teacher is supported with a kick in the nuts: observations, not to assess what needs to happen, but to gather evidence in case they need to be dismissed. The teacher starts freaking out because they know they're on show all the time, the kids realise that the teacher is under some kid of scrutiny and – amazingly – if they misbehave, no one will do anything, even with a senior teacher observing. Bonus. The new teacher goes home with a leaden heart and the stakes get higher and higher. They get meaningless advice like "you need to engage them", which is as useful as a chilli enema.


What they need is for the school to stand shoulder to shoulder with them, and step up to the kids who are treating the lesson like a video game. What they get is scrutiny and blame. It's an ugly scenario; one I see repeated every week in the agony pages of the behaviour forum. I wish every unsupportive school in the UK had one face so I could slap it repeatedly like Groucho. Then I'd send the crows back into tough lessons with tough classes who didn't know them and I'd sit and watch as their lessons dissolved in the universal solvents of tears and indifference.


It amazes me how little some people in education know about children: even the nice ones can see new teachers as sport and think nothing of joining in the game.


New teachers in a classroom run a horrible gauntlet, as kids do what kids do and pretend to be a combine harvester, while the teacher gamely stands in front of it and pretends to be a scarecrow, with equally predictable results, often. But when support staff don't support, then the rookie runs two gauntlets, not one. It's tough when you put your hand out to lean on something and it turns out to be a blender. Meryl looks to me like she'll be an astonishingly good teacher once her skin thickens and she gets her classes into routines where sanctions electrify the fences of good conduct until they are no longer required. Shouldn't we be looking after new teachers, not damning them if they fail to turn base metal to gold in their first month? Answers on a detention slip please.


How do you solve a problem like Meryl? By realising that she isn't the problem.