Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting bad behaviour

Using only sanctions to discipline students who step out of line is an easy option, says Mark Oldman. But learning to show students why they are in the wrong, and then pardoning them, can help them and you alike to move on and to grow

Tes Editorial

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When a pupil threatened to kill my newborn child, in a short instance I hated him, genuinely. And I would have, at that moment, thrown the full weight of the school behaviour policy at him.

But I didn’t, because I had come to understand how important forgiveness is when it comes to managing behaviour.

It should be an easy thing to forgive. But it does not come naturally to most people. It is easier – and more satisfying, initially – to rage and blame.

But therein lies the path to future problems: forgiveness is key in moving on and pushing the learning agenda forward. The ability to forgive is key in establishing meaningful relationships that act as the driver for successful learning environments and personal and academic progress.

Move forward

On a basic level, as teachers and adults in schools we have to be in a position where the power for change is ours. It is our ability to move forward with meaning that ensures we maintain the power in our schools and provide the moral lessons that feed into the growth of our pupils during their time with us and beyond.

Children need chances and adults have to be able to show them ways out in their formative years that can inform the type of adults that we want them to be.

But it is hard. It can seem impossibly hard.

After that student threatened my unborn child, I gave myself the evening to feel angry at them, then I started to try and map out the context.

I knew their story, the social trajectory and educational history. I also had enough knowledge of them as a person to see a gem of a student who had become so entrenched in patterned behaviour that they were willing to go to the depths of negativity to get the outcome they desired. They had also shown, in that insult, a level of intellect and manipulation that would indicate an ability to grow and achieve: it represented a challenge.

Once I had given myself the breathing space to move forward, I had to establish a mechanism that was going to allow the child to see the positives in themselves, but also to understand how hurtful they could be.

The strategy was as follows: they were educated offsite for a week and were asked to complete an evaluation each day of what they had learned and achieved. This suddenly gave them an appreciation of the school environment they had shunned.

They were required to attend Saturday school, which was a community-focused activity for three hours. There, they were required to complete a series of random acts of kindness that would help someone in their local community and hopefully help them recognise some self-worth.

Scaffolding the discussion

They had a newborn nephew. I contacted their sister and arranged for her to bring the child in on the student’s return to school meeting, I asked the student to repeat what they had said in front of their sister and her newborn son.

And then we put in place scaffolds for discussions where we worked out what caused their behaviour and how we could stop it happening again.

The time to forgive is dictated by the behaviour. There will always be incidents in schools that are treated as if they are unforgiveable, but they have to be forgiven, otherwise pupils can’t move on and social boundaries cannot be established or reinforced. This may not be when the incident occurs, because it’s too soon, too fresh and sometimes too disruptive to those around them.

But it has to happen. Forgiveness works. When the pupil in question was in Year 11 they had met and spent time with my son and proven themselves to be a kind-hearted, hard-working and confident young person. They are at college doing well and regularly visit the school for pleasure and reassurance. They always ask after my family.

Forgiveness can bring healthier relationships, greater wellbeing and lower levels of stress, anxiety and hostility. Why not set yourself the challenge of forgiving one pupil, one colleague or one person. If you do, I truly believe you will see the benefits.

Mark Oldman is director of schools for Millgate and Keyham Lodge schools in Leicester

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