I wrote last week about a syndrome that isn’t uncommon enough: the egoistic parent who believes their child shouldn’t be subject to school behaviour rules. It got an overwhelmingly positive response, but many pointed out another problem in education that is actually far more damaging, distressing: when people who work in schools also seem to believe that good behaviour is in some way undesirable.
It might seem like what Kant would call a ‘contradiction of the will’ for someone working in a school to ally themselves to such poverty of duty; surely it is impossible for someone to desire the best, safest, most fertile working environment for children and staff while simultaneously promoting poor behaviour? But it’s a weed that grows, like any weed, through the most adamantine of structures, and finds root in the meanest of niches. Ignorance is another weed that flourishes in darkness, and I worry at times that as a profession we recoil too readily from self-examination. If we are to have any credibility to other agencies, and any integrity when we look at our reflections, it’s important to see where we, too, work in ways that nourish rather than starve misbehaviour.
Two important points:
1. Misbehaviour is the responsibility of the student, except in exceptional circumstances, which are defined by their rarity. Teachers and staff do not ‘cause’ misbehaviour unless they are confrontational and uncivil. To say that we can be at fault is to say that we can, inadvertently, provide compost in which it prospers. We can permit it, and by permitting it, cultivate it.
2.To examine oneself, and one’s profession, is not ‘teacher bashing’. It’s what we’re always told is an essential aspect of being a reflective practitioner. Well, I have reflected. I have made, I assure you, far more mistakes in every chamber of my unworthy life, than most. At times I have looked in the mirror and seen Mr Hyde. Frankly, even to have to justify a critical examination of one’s own vocation is depressing, but I know that to suggest we can be anything less than martyrs upsets some people. I will assume everyone still reading is an adult, and a gentleperson of some quality who has no fear of having their pulse taken. We all have portraits in the attic. No doubt yours is fragrant and Arcadian. Mine looks like Bruce Dickinson on smack.
How we learned to love the bomb
Teachers. There are several things we can do that encourage poor behaviour. The first, most damning thing, is to do nothing. If we don't follow up with misbehaviour in the classroom, chldren learn that their behaviour is permitted, and no obstacle deters its repetition. Once established, this leads to further forays, testing the boundaries lesson by lesson. If no barbed wire is ever met, some children will continually move the front line forward, until the only acts forbidden are those that exceed their imagination or effort.
Of course, there are many reasons why we sometimes do nothing: workload is the main one; unhelpful line management; the scale of the problem. I don't judge for this. But the fact remains: if nothing is done, then nothing will come of nothing. Think again.
School Management. Every time anyone shakes a leaf against senior staff in social media, a great wet membrane recoils and inflames, and #SLTchat pops a nut. I think this is part of our defensiveness. The only reason, perhaps, that some (my emphasis) leadership face criticism is because their actions or inactions have far more significance to far more people. With great power comes great responsibility. Teachers, being human, can stuff things up too -- but when they do, the blast radius is finite. When leadership drop their plates, the earth trembles. I’ve sat in Big Chairs before. I know what it feels like to have the family cow riding on results. It is what it is. If we didn't want responsibility, we wouldn't have sought office.
There are some staff in some schools who believe that behaviour is mostly the responsibility of teaching staff. This is partially true, and is therefore false: behaviour is the responsibility of everyone. Teachers sometimes make this mistake too, believing that SLT are some form of Special Branch, fixing every problem for them. The truth engulfs both of these mistakes: teachers need to deal with misbehaviour as much as they are able, as often as they can, within the locus of their responsibility -- not just the fixed point of the classroom but roaming with them throughout the school as they move. And senior staff need to deal with their responsibilities: when behaviour is beyond the capacity of ground troops. A soldier has only one finger on one trigger; a general makes sure everyone has guns, and radios for back-up.
Part of the problem is that everyone is so damned busy. Senior staff frequently have just as much lead in their in-tray as a chalkface irregular but, because their time is usually more fluid, it appears they lead lives of tea and biscuits. I pity the poor middle leader, reprimanded for being unavailable for a call-out simply because they were elsewhere trying to do four things at once. But sympathy is not the same as apathy. If people are too busy to deal with poor behaviour -- one of the main causes of underachievement in schools -- then everyone needs to get together in a sweat lodge, beat each other with branches and work out some new priorities pretty bloody fast.
Zealots. There are also a good number of well-meaning people in education -- including teaching staff, who should know better -- who believe that children will moderate their own behaviour if only treated civilly enough. If you want to hear opinions like this, go below the line of the Guardian article I blogged about last week, to hear people who seem to believe that children are essentially angelic, and need only a bit of group work in break-out areas with bean bags to get busy learnin’. That’s harmless enough in armchair pundits, but when they work in schools, it’s a landmine under the education of vulnerable children. I’ve seen inspectors who found teachers tyrannical because children were removed, but who would have blackballed the lesson with glee if a kid had told them to stick their clipboard up their ass. I’ve heard teachers say they never give sanctions because they believe punishing children is really, really heavy. I’ve met leaders and LEA gonks who rewarded incredibly rude children with KitKats and trips to the zoo in the hope that they’ll break out into a tap dance of love. Dream on.
But not with someone else's kids. Good behaviour is axiomatic to good learning. Behaviour is priority number one.
My third blog in this series will be about what schools and teachers should be doing in order to minimise misbehaviour, encourage civility, self-restraint and maturity of action.