This article first appeared on the Desperately Seeking Sir teacher blog
I have taught two children who were killed by other children. One was stabbed and one was shot. I have taught children who have killed other children. I have taught a number of children who have been stabbed. I have taught a number of children who have stabbed other children. I have taught one child who said he "couldn't remember" how many people he'd stabbed. I have taught children who have been convicted of rape. I have taught children who have been abused.
I have taught a number of children who have battled suicidal thoughts. I have taught one child who attempted suicide but did not quite succeed. I have taught children who have had to be educated in high security units. I have taught children who have had to be forcibly committed to mental health institutions. I have taught a child who believed a small person lived inside their head and gave them instructions.
In my lunch break, I have pulled pupils out of a gang fight involving metal chains and shovels on a nearby building site and walked straight back into a classroom of kids, still shaking. I have taught children who have pushed me and sworn at me. I have, by necessity, wiped the arse of a child with severe special needs when taking him on a day trip to a theme park as he had made a bit of a mess of it. I have waited at an airport for four hours with an autistic child because he refused to leave the model plane shop.
I have been elbowed in the face by a pupil and carried on teaching. I have taught children who hear voices that tell them to "do bad things". I have taught children who have been arrested for so many different things that I can't remember them all. I have taught children who have held guns to other children's heads and then, the next day, broken down in tears and told me all about it. I have taught children who have spat on other teachers. I have talked a child down from a window ledge.
I have taught children who wear bulletproof vests after school. I have taught children whose parents have stabbed each other. I have taught children whose mothers are prostitutes. I have taught children whose family members are in jail for serious crimes. I have taught children who have suffered enuresis in class on account of early childhood trauma. I have taught children who have hidden under and thrown desks.
I have had a gang member run into my school and threaten to "shank" me. I have taught children whose parents have died of Aids and cancer. I have taught children whose parents care so little for their education that the students turn up to parents' evenings on their own. I have taught children whose parents have had to be restrained by the police. I have taught children whose siblings have been killed. I have taught a child who was arrested for possession of an automatic weapon. I have taught children who are pregnant and a whole class of teenage mums (with their babies). I have taught children who arrive at school most days stinking of weed.
I have endured the biting, scratching and kicking of a child for weeks on end until we got his therapy programme right. I have taught children who looked at female members of staff and said, "she needs a good raping". I have taught children who have groped female members of staff. I have taught children whose parents tell them that they are possessed by evil spirits. I have taught children whose parents are known drug dealers. It stands to reason that I have taught children who have been carrying knives in my classroom.
I have taught children who live in two-bedroom flats with their seven siblings. I have taught children who have threatened to "bitch slap" me. I have taught children who "knock people out for fun". I have taught children who whisper to me after class that they won't be in on Tuesday because they have "another court date". I have taught children who suddenly disappear from school and then appear on the news some time later.
I have taught children with autism, Asperger's syndrome, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, emotional and behavioural difficulties, oppositional defiance disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, schizophrenia, developmental delay, global delay, moderate learning difficulties, severe learning difficulties, stutters, stammers and all manner of speech and language difficulties, dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. I have taught children with all kinds of physical disabilities.
I've lost count of the number of after-school classes I've taught. I've lost count of the number of "holiday" classes I've taught. I've lost count of the number of Saturday classes I've taught and the Sundays are totting up.
I have been leaped on by a group of ex-students at a bus stop and bundled to the ground. My fellow passengers thought I was being mugged. When I stood up the kids mock-worshipped me for getting them all to Cs and Bs in their GCSEs. When I started teaching them at the beginning of Year 11 they were all on E grades. Not one of them had completed any coursework. In our first class, one of them said: "There's no point, Sir, we're all going to fail…" He was living in care and going through a spate of arrests. He got a B in English language and a C in English literature.
I've been telephoned by students on results day who harassed the school secretary into phoning me so they could all shout their grades down the phone at me, thank me through the medium of song and tell me they'd got their college places. I have been hugged in the street by students whom I no longer even recognise. I have had students I don't even know tell me that they hear I'm a "sick teacher" and that I "go deep with the learning". I've had students hold photocopied pictures of my face up on their pens in assembly when I was leaving a school. I've got Set 3 better results than Set 2.
I've had a seriously troubled student come back to school aged 20 to see me and say: "I just wanted you to know that I'm not a dickhead any more, Sir."
I've had parents send me cards that say, "thank you for believing in my son". I've had a child give me a card that read: "I love you, Sir (not homo, tho)." I've had kids who've come out and been beaten up by their own families say: "Thanks for your support, Sir." I've had kids say, "thanks, Sir". A lot.
I have been stalked by students in corridors and playgrounds begging me to teach them. I have received cards that incredibly challenging students have been secretly working on in the art department in their lunch breaks "for weeks". I have received cards that say: "You've influenced me more than you think, Sir." I've watched parents well up with pride when I tell them how well their child is doing. I've had students from the most challenging of backgrounds tell me "you're not funny, Sir!" while failing to suppress an enormous grin.
I bumped into a hardened gang member whose attendance was so poor that I used to send his work home and harass his mum to make him do it and bring it into school. I used to address the envelopes "Snugglepops" just to wind him up. He said to me: "One word, Sir: uni!" and pointed at his chest.
I've had kids say: "I have to behave for you, Sir, because if I don't you'll kill me. And your eyebrows will do that weird thing..." I've had kids draw me cards with my eyebrows doing that weird thing. I've had kids forget themselves in a lesson, notice me looking their way and put their hands in the air in surrender because they know what's coming. I've had kids say "why are you so on my case, man?" and a thousands variations thereof more times than I can remember and every single one of them has wanted me to teach them.
I've watched a kid who I battled and battled and battled to get to behave hold his results papers, look at me in bewilderment at his achievement and say: "I'm not going to lie, Sir, we would've been screwed without you…" It was the same kid who told me there was no point.
If Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (below) has taught me anything, it's that he can be proven wrong.
The idea that insisting on the highest possible standards of behaviour and refusing to accept excuses for classroom idiocy engenders (or is predicated upon) some kind of dispassionate robo-teaching or a callous, humourless, unfeeling school environment is the falsest (and most damaging) of false-causalities. The hardships of children's lives are not excuses to indulge them in failure: they are the motivation to force them to succeed. Insisting on discipline and punishing pupils when they do not meet your standards does not show a lack of empathy – empathy is the very thing that drives that insistence in the first place.
The standard response that there is a difference between "reasons" for poor behaviour and "excuses" is moot on the whole. Everyone is well aware that there are reasons, some more reasonable than others. Either way, the learning culture of the classroom must remain sacrosanct if education is to yield the socially transformative potential that it so uniquely possesses. Even if this sanctity is not born of empathy but of a simple determination to just teach and hang the rest of it (a pretence that I often use), the outcomes are similar in the hands of good practitioners: kids feel secure and they learn. Which, for some, is a pretty significant transformative step in its own right.
Ironically, and albeit only within the micro-community of the school, it is actually rigid behavioural boundaries that help provide the very foundation of Maslow's hierarchy: once sustenance and shelter are taken care of, the second block of his famous pyramid is marked "safety", without which love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation are all compromised.
Of course, bad behaviour will sometimes have mitigating circumstances but, barring the most extreme, the "no excuses" approach holds firm under scrutiny. The minute that you use "reasons" to justify limiting or reducing sanctions, then you are such a short step away from an excuse culture that it becomes inexorable, especially where large proportions of the student body have lives filled with reasons for their disengagement, aggression or violent conduct.
But the very best teaching of the most challenging pupils is not really about "empathy" anyway. It is, I suspect, about love. And love isn't always about understanding; it's about doing what's right. My classroom is the most benevolent of dictatorships but it is, and shall remain, a dictatorship nonetheless.