Shifting the blame

Disruptive teachers are the biggest open secret in education, but it is time to confront the issues, says Alan McLean

A headteacher recently shared with me one of his biggest headaches. The caricature described was familiar - "only happy when he gets his own way, flies off the handle at the least provocation, refuses to accept his behaviour creates a problem, it's always someone else to blame".

The fact that he was describing one of his teachers came as little surprise. I've often thought the profiles of troublesome pupils and teachers are strikingly similar - for example, both strongly resist any attacks on their autonomy.

Disruption has always been assumed to be the "fault" of pupils, requiring some kind of change on their part. Pupils are sent to anger management sessions, stress clinics, social skills groups, etc. An increasing army of mental health specialists is employed to "treat" pupils who are given an ever-expanding set of pseudo medical labels to explain their problems.

Meanwhile, disruptive teaching remains one of the biggest open secrets in education. Yet, just as bullies set the tone in the playground, the self-protective cynicism of such teachers is a corrosive agent festering away in many staff rooms.

The vast majority of teachers aspire to do the right thing. Some teachers, however, find it hard to reflect dispassionately on disruption, ground down by the demands of school life. It is a particularly emotive issue because it threatens core aspects of teacher self-worth. Unlike most other jobs, teaching is linked with temperament and personality, most clearly evident, for example, in conveying authority or establishing classroom climate.

Consequently, teachers struggling to control a difficult class can feel demoralised. This can lead to seeing disruption as an attack on them. The public context makes such challenges hard to ignore and can create a desire to get even. The more insecure or inexperienced the teacher, the more personally they take the challenge and the more personalised their reaction.

Such personal attacks are just what disruptive pupils don't need. The more challenging the pupils, the more disempowered teachers may feel and the more insensitive they will be to the impact of "throw-away" personal remarks. Pupils accept descriptions of their behaviour but find comments about their personal qualities - such as "you're a selfish so 'n' so" - threatening and fuel the "I'm being picked on" gripe.

The disruptive teachers are often the ones looking for quick solutions but claim they never learn anything from training. In learning situations, they often behave like the pupils they complain about but don't see the connection between learning and behaviour. They tend to have little time for guidance, learning or behaviour support. If they ever ask for advice they are likely to object to the suggested strategies. Giving rewards, for example, grates because they think pupils shouldn't get a reward for behaving well.

Although rarely talked about formally, we know a lot about the mindsets that lead to disruptive teaching. Many teachers manage to transform difficult pupils' attitudes, while others amplify their problems. Teachers are "programmed", like all of us, to be on the look out for problems.

Some teachers try to establish their authority through excessive or ineffectual power that sets them up to be challenged. Others hold limiting beliefs about their abilities to "handle" difficult groups and are driven by a fear of losing what little power they have. They may also hold pessimistic views of pupils and so prefer a command and conquer approach.

Consequently, they stress control via strict negative rules and adopt a punitive style that emphasises discipline over learning. Their manner may signal that they take themselves too seriously and convey a sense of pomposity. Similarly, teachers with little sense of humour are more likely to have their authority challenged.

Some teachers have a malleable idea of personality and believe behaviour is learned and can change. Others assume a pupil's personality is unchangeable and think behaviour is predetermined. Such teachers have a need for definite answers, based on their preference for certainty over ambiguity; they can leap to conclusions on little evidence and then show a reluctance to entertain views different from their own. They seem to "seize on and then freeze on" their judgements.

The disruptive mindset is more likely to form confrontational attitudes that pupils considered problematic are not to be trusted, don't want to work and will do anything to avoid it.

ONTACT with these pupils is seen as a battle that must be won at all costs. They will be referred to a higher authority as soon as they refuse to comply, a practice encouraged by some referral structures. While some teachers think of themselves and pupils in the same terms and are interested in what pupils think about teaching and learning, other teachers see pupils as different from themselves - like lion trainers see lions.

The solution is far from simple but schools need to find the time to reflect on how the school influences teachers' behaviour and give honest feedback to teachers displaying some of these features. The trick is to do so in an objective and non-personalised form.

We need to confront this issue without stigmatising teachers in the way we do with pupils, thus making it even harder to engage them. We need to develop conceptual structures to get beyond the caricatures painted here and help teachers consider within a competence-based rather than blame culture how their own behaviour contributes to any disruptive context.

Do we have the maturity to challenge such sacred cows and Bite the Bullet for Better Learning?

Alan McLean is an educational psychologist with Glasgow City Council.

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