NB: Although this blog refers to named individuals in the program Tough Young Teachers, I need to make a very broad qualification: I have no idea what these people are like in real life outside of the Narnia of TV. I can only comment on the fractions and fragments that the artificial narrative of documentary allows. To the best of my knowledge, both individuals are beyond reproach and probably can do without any hassle from strangers on the internet. So when I say "Caleb’"or "Charles" I mean the fairy tale versions on screen only. May God have mercy on my soul.
Panic on the streets of Twitter this week, as reaction came in to episode two of Tough Young Teachers, BBC3’s rare diversion from smile-withering uncomedy and documentaries about people having their stomachs pumped. Attention was focused on Caleb, an angry young man and also nemesis to Mr Wallendahl’s aim to bring RE to the yoot.
To my Treebeard eye, the situation was plain enough: new teacher gets hard time from student who doesn’t really dig school that much. It’s a narrative that predates the Flood (and possibly provoked it if God was a teacher of any repute). Mr W’s lesson didn’t touch Caleb’s warrior-poet soul, so he bit his thumb at it. He was rude; Mr Wallendahl wouldn’t have it; things escalated and tempers frayed. So far, so commonplace. Every year sees this Jungian archetype played out in a thousand schools with a million Calebs and Mr Wallendahls.
But there was an odd seam of reaction that was brought to my attention: those who sympathised with Caleb more than Mr Wallendahl. Those who somehow believed that Mr W was both responsible for the bad behaviour or even an actual impediment to the young man’s development. Frankly, I was rubbing my eyes and playing Edith Piaf to make sure I wasn't in a dream sequence.
Such a reaction mistakes sympathy for the young man and his crumbling, desperate, dwindling hopes of education – which is a tragedy in slow motion waiting to happen – and sympathy for his actions and behaviour. To describe his rudeness as understandable, or his name-calling, or teacher-teasing as a somehow inevitable reaction to Charles’ teaching style, is wrong for several reasons:
1. We either treat young people with dignity, or we don’t. I believe in free will, that we have the ability to make our own destinies, despite often crushing impediments. If we believe that humans are no more than the sum of their precedents, then we have arrived at determinism, with all that implies. Then we can say that children are helpless; that nothing they say or do is to be sanctioned, or praised, because there is no "I" to which the actions correspond. There is no identity, no ethical dimension to human interactions, just a causal chain that reaches back to the Big Bang. It’s because I treat my pupils with respect and dignity that I hold them responsible for their actions. For Caleb to claim "What does he expect, I’m just a kid" is understandable from a child, with a child’s emergent perspective. To hear adults repeat this concerns me. If young adults really don’t have any control over their actions, then any act of tyranny over them "for their own good" becomes permissable. I won't accept that kind of dehumanisation. I humanise my children by making their behaviour their business.
Caleb is as human as any of us: I saw a young man facing an uncertain future with defiance, obstinacy, and a stubborn belief that all would be well no matter what. In that respect he simply expresses the assumed immortality of youth and the childish desire to have his wishes met to the exclusion of others. That doesn't make him a criminal. It makes him a child in need of adult guidance.
2. Some have criticised the teaching style, claiming that it led to the poor behaviour. Well, given that we saw about three seconds of edited footage of the lesson, that's a hard call to make and about as valid an estimation as any armchair analysis of the real Mr Wallendahl or Caleb, who are unavailable to us behind the Veil of Ignorance represented by the TV screen. But so what if the lesson was a bit dull, or pitched, momentarily a little high for one or two students? For a start, aren't we meant to challenge them, to set high bars? Aren't we meant to expose them to unusual and alien forms of thinking? Besides, part of any teaching is going to be dry: anything worth doing takes a little hard work.
3. The teacher and the class didn't deserve that behaviour. Any focus on Caleb and his rights will intrinsically pit the needs of one against the needs of many. That might be noble when the right involved is inviolable, or important. But the right of Caleb to be entertained? His right to be centre of attention? His right to say what he wants, when he wants to, however grim? Who of any sanity could defend that?
4. "He’s clearly very intelligent, and just needs inspiring." This is similar to the argument: "He’s got lots of potential". Yes, and so does everyone else. Everyone has galaxies of potential within them, by virtue of being human. With enough effort, I could master every instrument in the orchestra. The point is, our desires don’t take priority over others just because they are possessed.
There are a dozen other arguments to be made here: a teacher in a challenging class doesn't have time or capacity to provide boutique educational experiences for each student. (It’s probably relevant that most of the members of TeamCaleb I saw were people who either had little experience of tough secondary classes, where six-foot people tell you to "f*** off" before going back on their phones, or they were so new to the profession that their altruism can at least be excused by naiveté. Worryingly, I heard that there was some support for the student’s behaviour from trainee teachers. But this is common. When I started, I too believed that children like Caleb could be reached by a pure heart and humour, that they would see how much I "got" them, and they would fall into step with me and my maverick, golden-hearted vision. That just isn’t true. The children who will challenge you the most are the ones who usually give the least of a damn about school, authority figures or anyone else’s kindly ambitions for them. Someone said, "I went into teaching for kids like Caleb". Me too, which is why I won't let Calebs stew in the concrete of their poor social skills. Letting them do so condemns them to social immobility for another generation.
The thing that angers me about this debate is that this form of misplaced sympathy has led to a disintegration of good behaviour in many schools. Teachers are expected to inspire and enthuse pupils constantly or it’s their fault when children misbehave, as opposed to expecting children to learn good manners and the social norms of the community. And who loses most from this? Poor kids. Working class kids. Kids for whom education is the best and last hope for their social mobility. If they are allowed to pursue egoism, then their education melts like fog and their destinies proceed exactly as their demographics imply. Not just theirs, but everyone else’s around them. And teachers like Charles wither before the open furnace of the classroom, and are then blamed for it. I would weep if I had any tears left for this.
So in brief: children, emergent adults or whatever you want to label them as, need boundaries, designed with love and patrolled with determination. Gradually, as they learn maturity and self-restraint, we slowly let go of the handlebars and watch them wobble away, then race, with pride. But we don’t let them do what the hell they want, when they want to. That would just be crazy.