'Being a nice teacher works. My pupils like me and I like them. All of them'

20th October 2017 at 14:57
This secondary teacher goes out of her way to be nice to all of her students – she even lets them off detentions – and, she insists, it reaps educational and behavioural benefits

“Miss I'm only doing this coz I like you,” droans a student, waving disdainfully at some utterly boring assignment.

I think my students like me. Honestly, I do. I go out of my way to be lovable. I try to be funny, silly, flexible, empathetic and stimulating, and I'm happy to admit my misdemeanours.

I’ll go further. It may be unfashionable, but I see myself as a "learning partner" with each and every child. Developing prose, outlining metaphor, explaining Gothic settings: these are only a tiny part of my remit. Sharing life together through the prism of English literature is my purpose. 

I'd go as far as saying that I have unconditional positive regard for all my pupils... OK, I'll admit it – I care. Deeply. Really. And I want my pupils to know that.

Do you demonstrate to your pupils that you care? This might be just a question, but in this age of persistent reminders of what it means to be "professional" and severe behaviour management policies, showing we really care about the pupils we teach can seem really rather last decade.

Many may argue that this is a peripheral issue. I insist it is the crux of getting good results.

There are many schools I've visited that take a "no excuses" bootcamp approach to discipline. Rigid rules, detentions handed out as if they’re 1p sweets, no second chances, no discussion, endless lining up, silence in corridors, lining up again, put up or shut up. 

Yes, there is a need for clear boundaries, particularly in schools where there are huge swathes of students with little self-control or no inkling of how to co-exist. Indeed, I accept that a healthy fear of authority is vital to every child making progress.

But the emphasis must be on "healthy" fear. Not needless, unrealistic rules mercilessly crushing the spirit of both student and teacher. I am convinced that barking orders and humiliation at non-conformists 25 hours per week is detrimental to everyone involved, including the teachers.

Authority and praise

So what about my take? This humane approach starts small. Unquantifiable stuff: the stuff spreadsheets can't count. I smile. I greet them. No matter how much they disrupt my lesson, I remind myself that it's not personal and keep on acknowledging them. I’m big on communicating, often non-verbally, that I'm rooting for them. 

To make this work, we do need authority. It is essential that the adult is ultimately in charge: ultimately it is us that sets the bar for the relationship. It's not up to the students to bring it down. We're in control and modelling what it means to be a good citizen.

But why do we demand automatic respect just because we're in charge? In the adult world, I will work harder for a manager who is kind and supportive. I believe this is true of adult-child relationships, too.

It is common sense. If we apply this kind of common sense to our dealings with children, we will drastically cut the amount of time we spend on punishing them and spend more time on learning.

I remember starting in a new school and being warned by colleagues about the worst boy in Year 9: he had anger-management issues – but mostly he simply refused to write pretty much anything down. We started with a creative writing assessment and, of course, he wrote a few lines, disengaged and spent the rest of the lesson doing his worst to take as many down with him.

This pupil had a massive fan base of "lost boys" desperately looking for the worst role model possible (to make themselves feel better about their utter apathy to learning).

First, I scattered these disciples to the four corners of the room and placed them next to hard-working girls. Passionate praise for the tiniest sign of a half-opened eye or a muttered answer (together, I’ll admit, with some firm instructions and a clear set of consequences for inadequate work), soon got the "lost boys" back on track.

I turned my attention to the ringleader, who I positioned underneath my nose. He was a little more complex than his comrades due to his sharp wit, huge distrust and freezing cold exterior. 

The first battle came as soon as the first assessment. He told me plainly that the whole caper was a waste of time (I couldn't disagree), and that I could not make him write any more. Deflated by hardened arrogance, I looked for a chance to praise him. It was not difficult to stumble across his sharp mind: I made him scribe on the whiteboard (alongside other students) and become my PA in lessons. 

Still he would not write, despite my pleas, threats and obvious frustration. Then one day he blurted out: "Leave me alone. Just stop going on at me and watching me."  I took the outburst as a "cheat": a channel into his inner self. Rather than me getting all huffy and punishing him for being rude, we made an agreement that I would stop breathing down his neck if he worked without prompting.

Next lesson, when everyone else was redrafting their original assessment, he finished his first attempt off. I can't explain what a breakthrough this was. I praised him quickly and publicly and we moved on from strength to strength.

'Mercy is the name of the game'

Listening to what a child tells us – no matter how rudely it's expressed – and taking it on board, can win over even the hardest to reach. It also saves on behaviour-policy paperwork and hideous extra meetings. I’ve lost count of the times I have threatened students with a detention in class, had a one-to-one chat at the end of lesson and let them off.  They skip off into the distance. 

Many would say I'm too much of a softie and the kids won't respect me because "I didn't follow through". This "walk the talk" approach is nonsense. I did not become a teacher to be some sort of robotic punisher.

Mercy is the name of my game. I definitely need it and so do my students. I remember the EAL kid who shouted out his opinion of a poem while I was addressing the class – it was a good point, so I congratulated him, rather than sanctioning him for interrupting me. 

Of course, there is the odd child or class that needs to know "I'm not messing" – detentions will be handed out when absolutely necessary, and sometimes they’ll work. But most children are predisposed to want to do the right thing. I believe the more I treat them with that in mind, the more they are likely to become that.

I’ll admit that “niceness” approach would totally fail if it weren’t for a specifically crafted dynamic, for pupils en masse.  

This is built on one word: SILENCE. It is truly golden, when all the students are on task. This is achieved by getting the seating right so that every child has the opportunity to focus. A seating plan comprises of many tweaks as I get to know their personalities.

I pace the room, as if looking for misdemeanours, but instead I’m looking for things that are being done really well. Celebrating individual progress as a learning family keeps everyone awake.

Where I can be very forgiving of behavioural misdemeanours, I absolutely make up for it by unforgiving demands on the standard of their work. I expect my students to take adequate notes, to read their book, to do their homework. I do make it clear – sometimes publicly – when I am disappointed in them.

Statements like "you need to apologise to the other learners here for wasting this precious learning time with your antics" or "you're being so selfish by stopping others from learning" shock them into silence.

The more I use the word "learning", the better. It puts learning right where it should be, at the top of everyone’s agenda. And so does being nice.

Hannah Sokoya is an English and drama teacher in north London 

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