He who must be obeyed?

The idea of having students automatically do everything you say is an appealing aim – but one that is ultimately misguided, says Mark Roberts

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There are occasions when all schools demand total obedience and come down hard on those who refuse: fire drills, exams, assemblies. My question is this: shouldn’t this approach be applied in all circumstances?

The idea of total obedience holds great appeal. Be quiet. Sit down. Walk, don’t run. Tuck your shirt in. Hand in your homework. Listen to my advice. Be kind to your peers. Eat your vegetables. Revise for that exam. All listened to without complaint or query.

How much easier would teaching be if pupils followed your instructions first time round? Just think of what you’d get done, not having to waste time and energy prompting, cajoling, threatening, punishing. Stress would reduce drastically. The environment would be pleasant and amicable. Lessons would be free of distractions and learning could be maximised.

And yet. Something niggles about the idea of total obedience. The attractive theory soon starts to become less appealing upon scrutiny. The philosophy of total compliance seems a straightforward approach to the age-old issue of how to deal with pupils who apparently don’t want to learn or accept authority, and ruin things for their peers and teachers. But, in my opinion, there are limits to obedience and circumstances in which this approach may well be unfeasible for certain pupils.

This is not to criticise individual schools that strive to maintain order and respect for teachers. As a classroom practitioner and presence in the corridors, I deal with behaviour firmly. Yet, as a general principle, I worry about the impact of zero tolerance systems on many students.

Setting an example

A few days ago, I asked my mum how my 12-year-old nephew was doing since moving up to secondary school. He loves it, she said, despite getting a 60-minute detention. His misdemeanour? Not taking his coat off quickly enough.

“Bit harsh,” I said. “Possibly,” she agreed, “but he won’t do it again.”

Mum was right. He’s incredibly respectful anyway, but it was a good reminder: he got a valuable lesson and his teacher set an example to his classmates – a win-win situation.

Now, let’s put a different pupil in his place: one with a chaotic home life. Neglect, domestic violence, addiction, ill health (physical or mental), lack of aspirations, lack of money, lack of food. Perhaps he has a special educational need that isn’t being met.

It’s not difficult to imagine. All teachers who work in challenging – or not so challenging – schools will have encountered pupils like this. In my decade or so of teaching, I’ve known a few hundred. This pupil might arrive at school, unfed and exhausted from a poor night’s sleep (perhaps mum and her boyfriend were arguing again), only to be hit with a sanction about a coat not coming off in time.

This is where the notion of obedience has more shades of grey than an erotic novel. You can’t accept poor behaviour just because a pupil has a crappy home life. But you know expectations of absolute obedience are setting some pupils up to fail badly. And when they continue to hit the same wall of no-excuses discipline, there is only one way for them to go: out of the door. Permanently.

Let’s be clear: for some pupils, punishments do not “deal” with poor behaviour. They make it clear that certain things won’t be tolerated; they send out messages to other pupils; they support teachers; they give everyone a break from difficult pupils. But they don’t actually solve problems – they postpone problems. Sometimes, they even exacerbate problems.

Indeed, there are other times when it might not be wise to have pupils follow the philosophy of complete obedience. Good teachers and leaders listen to their pupils. Not all the time. Not on certain topics. Often, it has to be my way or the highway. But giving pupils a voice is a key part of education. A voice to be used politely and judiciously. A voice that can challenge the bad decisions that schools occasionally make. A voice that can question unfair sanctions, such as a teacher punishing the whole class for the behaviour of a few.

Important decision

So how does a school manage this balance? Where should schools align themselves on the obedience spectrum? This is the most important decision that leaders make. The ethos will largely be driven by the sanctions imposed and, most crucially, how sensitively they are applied.

Let’s return to our malnourished, fatigued and (today) obnoxious pupil. If she doesn’t do what she’s told, she will, of course, have to do the detention. Yet before giving an automatic sanction, how about a quick word? “Is there anything you want to tell me? Can we do anything to help keep you out of trouble today?” These are the monochrome margins of pragmatic school discipline.

Instead of total obedience, why not optimal obedience? Maintain firm discipline and, wherever possible, keep complex pupils in school. We aren’t social workers, some will argue. It is our job to educate – they should just behave. I’m sympathetic to these feelings of frustration. Ultimately though, it’s the role of school leaders to find ways to run a tight, orderly ship while acknowledging that some pupils will need more work, care and sensitively-thought-through discipline. Tough love, yes; tough shit, no.


Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher at a secondary school in the South West of England

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