One of my 17-year old functional skills students hurled some abuse at me one day. He did so in front of his class of 16 students, because I had insisted he put his phone away. I was shocked, as I thought we had been getting on well in a teacher-student relationship. His vitriol left me wondering as to what I had done to warrant such angst.
Essentially, I felt I had done nothing to justify such a reaction. Indirectly, however, by my mere being a functional skills teacher, I had done enough to summon his indignation. His resentment was not directed at me per se but at what I represented. To him, I was an unreasonable, unsympathetic figure of authority.
Although I'm not condoning the student’s behaviour, such outbursts aren't untypical amongst some functional skills students. In fact, to the student concerned, the semantics was actually inoffensive – it’s the language he uses with his family and friends. Only after some time did he concede that he was in the wrong.
Anger and refusal on the part of the students to listen to reason are, actually, quite understandable. Education can be infuriating because, it seems, schools give too much credence to qualifications. They give a sense that the only measure of success is academia.
Confronting your failings
So even when students aren’t academic or have barriers to learning, for over a decade they’re forced to confront their inadequacies and failings. As a result, it’s natural that sooner or later, they will vent their anger on someone or something.
Firstly, one of the teacher's jobs is to manage such exasperation. Behavioural management requires you to detach yourself from the immediacy and to look at your role as a teacher with a wider angle. It’s part of the philosophy of education. Who are you, and what is your role in your class, in the school and in the wider world? How do you see yourself? How does the world see you?
Such an enquiry isn't as nebulous or superfluous as it might seem. In fact, it is apt and valid in the context of modern education and schooling, where perimeters and boundaries have been redefined in the past couple of decades. So, gaining a deeper understanding of the changing role of the classroom teacher is not irrelevant but useful. You have to develop a sense of who you are and what you stand for.
Secondly, there's the importance of emotional intelligence. As a functional skills teacher, you have got to recognise that your students have failed all their GCSEs. After 11 years of formal schooling in which, almost week after week, they have been subjected to tests, assessments and exams, they have now ended up as what the schooling system brands “low achievers”.
'Demoralising and dispiriting'
Put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel in that situation where you are, albeit implicitly, told you're not as good as you should be? Or, closer to home, how would you feel if, year after year, you're failing to make Ofsted's mark as a “good” teacher and are regularly told to do better? Would it not be demoralising and dispiriting? Imagine you have to endure it because legally you are not entitled to opt out.
That’s the reality for functional skills students. Your subject – whether English or maths – is a reminder of their inability to digest the skills and information required. They know they have failed. Coupled with the fact that you – as a teacher – are a symbol not only of their “failure” but frustration. As a teacher, you are a custodian of standards, excellence and progression. At school, your subject was almost impossible for them to grasp, and so self-incriminations and self-loathing can manifest themselves in disaffection at post-16 education and training.
Thirdly, you are a reminder to your students of their dislike of the elite, educated class telling them how to speak, how to behave. If the students are from a low socioeconomic class, this resentment is going to be fuelled even further. Depending on whether they come from a certain background, you're the kind of people for whom they have a disdain and suspicion. Your middle-class voice, accent and mannerisms might be perceived as snobbery and your own sense of class superiority.
It might translate into you looking down at them or their cultural background. In essence, you correcting your students’ use of English or their application of numbers in maths is not completely value-free.
Building a bond
Without putting a too fine a point on it, you have taken on a censorial role. Your presence in “your” classroom is deeply political (is it not their classroom as well?). As a functional skills teacher, you are the Mary Whitehouse of education, ensuring the upkeep of etiquette, good communication and behaviour. You take it upon yourself that without you, civilisation will collapse. So correction becomes an integral part of your role in the classroom. But have you ever thought how you are carrying out this role?
How often have you told students off for using inappropriate language as if – let's be honest – you are the judge of what form of speech will be validated. Have you not taken it on yourself to be the purveyor of good taste and standards?
In maths, have you not asked students to show their working out – even when they’ve got the right answer? Have you not occasionally made a seemingly innocuous remark that might have inadvertently undermined their ability? Have you not said something about the standard of education in your day – implying how standards have dropped since that golden age? Just how would that make the students feel?
Of course, students need to be corrected: but it’s how we correct them that makes all the difference. It requires you building a bond, a relationship with the students so that they can trust you, feel you are not going to look down on them or patronise them.
Your presence in the classroom is political and thus you need to be equipped with an understanding of why you are there and why your students have come to be where they are. After over a decade of formal schooling, have our resit students been failed by the education system or has the system of education failed for them?
Dr Roshan Doug is a visiting professor, strategist and educational consultant at the University of Birmingham