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Fatal mistake to neglect children's bad behaviour

I have never featured in the My Best Teacher column in the TES Magazine. I don't take it personally: few primary teachers have. The athletes were all inspired by a secondary PE teacher, the famous actors by a secondary drama teacher and the politicians by a dodgy maths master with a sideline in bent accountancy and double-entry bookkeeping.

It is a sad but true fact that the rich and famous quickly forget the poor sod who taught them to read, write and tie their shoelaces. But I didn't become a teacher to bask in the glow of someone else's achievement. Or rather, I did, but not that kind of achievement. If I had, I wouldn't have chosen to work in some of the most deprived areas of Sheffield.

The other reason I have never featured in My Best Teacher is that I never taught anyone famous. Until now ...

The instant the radio newsreader said his name, I knew it couldn't be anyone else. It is gouged into my memory like an offensive comment on a lavatory door. Angry car horns reminded me it was the evening rush hour and the lights had turned green. By the time I was no longer a traffic hazard, the newsreader had moved on. The only detail I could recall was that My Worst Pupil had been found guilty of murder and sentenced to 21 years in prison.

That's tough on crime, but is it tough on the causes of crime? You see, My Worst Pupil was himself a victim: he was a victim of neglect. I neglected him, his other teachers neglected him, his mum neglected him, and his dad - whoever he was - neglected him. We all neglected to make him do the right thing and we all neglected to stop him doing the wrong thing. By the time he left primary school, the pattern was set.

It is at least 12 years since I taught My Worst Pupil, yet that same philosophy of neglect persists: the belief that physically intervening to stop a child doing what is wrong is a greater wrong; that we should ignore bad behaviour and reward good; that adults should use argument, persuasion, even bribery, but never force to make a naughty child do what is right.

I was in the changing room of my local leisure centre recently - you have to keep fit to teach small children - watching a harassed father trying to persuade his four-year-old to put his coat on.

"Come on, Georgie, let's get your little coaty on," sang Daddy.

"No!" yelled Georgie.

"But you've got to have your coaty on - it's pouring with rain outside."

"No!" yelled Georgie at the top of his voice.

"Come on, Georgie, be a good boy," sighed Daddy, his voice becoming a little less sing-songy.

"I. Don't. Want. To," said Georgie, stamping his little footy and folding his little armies in defiance.

"Now let's not be a silly boy, Georgie. Mummy's going to wonder where we are soon."

"I. Don't. Care," cried Georgie, and to emphasise the fact, he kicked Daddy on the shin.

There followed a protracted negotiation during which Daddy patiently explained all the good reasons Georgie should put his coaty on, and Georgie kicked, punched and screamed to the effect that he wasn't going to.

After five minutes of this I couldn't help thinking, "Who is the adult here? Why the hell don't you take charge? Stick his armies into his bloody sleevies, zip him up and carry him out over your shoulder if necessary?"

... And you know how sometimes you accidentally say your thoughts out loud?

Anyway, my point is this: you can't negotiate with a four-year-old who is just being a four-year-old. It's not child abuse to stop a four-year-old from kicking you. It's not an abuse of physical power to make a four-year-old do as he's told. The only crime taking place here is one of ignoring bad behaviour, and that kind of neglect can have serious long-term consequences.

My Worst Pupil, aided by his mum, social worker and a behaviour policy at the time that was all stickers and no stick, behaved more outrageously as time went by. Then one day, during his last year of primary school, he violently abused a member of staff for challenging his naughtiness. The teacher reported the incident and filled in the appropriate forms, but that was as far as it went. It was too near the end of his time with us to create waves. The teacher was not amused. "Well, that's it!" she snapped, limping battered and bruised into the staffroom. "He can get away with bloody murder now!" By the time we found out he couldn't, it was too late.

See Mike Kent, page 48

Steve Eddison, Key stage 2 teacher, Sheffield.

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