“Can you tell us why we have to hand in our phones to Reception every morning, sir?”
This was the opening question of a discussion with a group of Year 10s about mobile phones that lasted an entire lunchtime, but I was delighted to spend the time with them explaining why that rule existed in our school.
“Don’t you trust us to do the right thing?” came next, after I explained our initial reasons. (The rule had existed since before I arrived, but it was one I wholeheartedly agreed with and maintained).
“Of course we trust you, but we also understand the temptations of these things and of the bother you can get into with them,” I explained, and went on to remind one of the group how her mum had informed us that she had recently been posting pictures on to social media of her and her friends from the girls' changing rooms in her school uniform during the school day.
“Oh, yeah…” Leah mumbled.
It was an enjoyable discussion. I may not have won them over 100 per cent to our way of thinking – such is the magnetism of the smartphone – but they were able to accept and understand the rationale behind such a rule.
I like the fact that children can feel confident enough to have that discussion with a headteacher. In fact, I’ll go further: I think it is vital that children feel confident enough to ask challenging questions of adults in positions of power over them.
Clearly, they need to be respectful and courteous when doing so, but we shouldn’t expect to simply demand unquestioning obedience and compliance.
Providing the reasoning for school rules
Explaining to children why we set things up the way we do is not a sign of weakness. If we can’t explain to children the need for the presence of our rules, then there may be questions to answer about why we need them in the first place.
I’ve always been prepared to explain to children why something has to be the way it is – why the field is out of bounds today or why there is a one-way system in operation, for example.
We should be comfortable and open to respectful challenge and welcome it as a sign that our students are developing their confidence. They aren’t conducting an intelligence-gathering exercise that marks the planning stage of an insurrection.
Communicating with children in this way can help us to avoid going down the seemingly one-way street of ever-tightening rules, where we end up with rules such as my personal favourite seen recently: students can choose to wear long-sleeved or short-sleeved shirts, but if they roll up long sleeves they are sanctioned for a uniform violation.
I couldn’t do a good job convincing any adult or child why they were in trouble for rolling their sleeves up.
We go out of our way (or I hope we do) to explain to our colleagues when we make changes that affect them, and they are well-trained, highly intelligent, fully developed adults, so we should make at least the same effort with the still-developing children with whom we work.
Jarlath O'Brien works in special education in London. His latest book, Better Behaviour – a guide for teachers, is published by SAGE