Taking the man out of behaviour management

Schools’ dangerous tendency to perceive ‘male’ approaches to behaviour as being more effective is limiting women’s career paths and damaging both students and teachers, argues Ruth Golding

Ruth Golding

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I was at an interview for a headship interview and it didn’t take me long to see that improving behaviour was a key priority for the school.

Year 11 students were wandering the corridors, fooling around and playfighting when they should have been in lessons. They were not responding to direction.

At breaktime, this poor behaviour was taken to a whole new level. One of the other candidates described the playground as a “bear pit”, with fighting, screaming and shouting all present, along with lots of tension and aggression in the air.

It did not put me off. I have a long track record of leading on challenging behaviour.

Before becoming a teacher, I worked in social care dealing with men for whom angry and aggressive outbursts were the norm. You learn very quickly that diffusion and diversion are the most successful tactics to keep yourself and the service user safe.

When I became a teacher, behaviour management quickly became my focus. Leading on behaviour in city secondary schools for many years has given me a certain level of expertise.

Apparently, all of this counted for nothing at the interview. I didn’t get the job. The feedback? “We didn’t think you could manage the behaviour here...”

“You seem too nice,” they offered, as if that was some sort of explanation.

What they actually meant was: you’re a woman, you can’t do challenging behaviour.

Let me stress that this school is one of many to hold such a view – my experience leading behaviour in schools as a woman is rare. In fact, education is overwhelmed by a traditional, patriarchal idea of behaviour management: if you want the kids to behave, you need strong discipline in the form of hard sanctions, zero tolerance, the use of shouting, verbal threats and very physical body language.

It’s a man’s job, right?

In one school I worked in, every time something ‘kicked off’, the same three people were always called to take control. All three were men, all very alpha male’. They prowled the corridors, ‘dealing’ with behaviour. It was all very aggressive.

There are fantastic schools where this does not happen but go into many schools and you will find the same situation. What this instils in staff, students and parents is a concept of behaviour management in which male attributes are valued and female ones are not.

Does it work? Of course not. A few big men patrolling the corridors has little long-term impact on behaviour, but the issue is that any good behaviour becomes automatically attributable to that public, “male” face of control.

Perceived ineffectiveness

The knock-on effect is that when people do not mirror these attributes they are seen as less capable or strong. In the most extreme cases, they can be excluded from behaviour roles within a school. The wider implication of gendering of behaviour management is the perceived ineffectiveness of female teachers to manage behaviour in their own classrooms and beyond. That damages the confidence of female teachers and can ultimately, in some cases, lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For example, a colleague of mine, who is an excellent classroom practitioner, talks of the time she felt the need to ask male teachers to help her with some older male students, because the male teacher was the same height as the students and she was small.

Although the students often responded to those with a strong physical presence, she knew it didn’t lead to respect from the student and she felt that there was a much longer game to play built on relationships founded in mutual respect, clear boundaries and structure. She deferred to the male teachers because that was largely what was expected. She knew better, but didn’t act on it.

Which takes us back to that headship interview. So endemic is the gendering of behaviour that a woman with less physical presence than the male candidates, a woman who is quietly spoken, can be thought of as “too nice”, “a pushover” or “soft” in relation to behaviour management.

From there, they make further assumptions: less authoritative, lacking gravitas.

Cordelia Fine raises some interesting points about these differences in the workplace in her book, Delusions of Gender. She wrote about the experiences of female to male transsexuals working before and after their transition. All of those interviewed said that they received more recognition and respect and were seen as far more effective in their roles post-transition. Interactions with clients and colleagues were much more successful as a male than they were as a female.

Fine goes on to add that gender stereotypes like these disadvantage women more where the job calls for stereotypical male qualities such as authority and discipline.

It is not only women that can be disadvantaged. Men who adopt what may be seen as a more feminine approach – such as being calm and gentle – can also be perceived as lacking authority.

So how can we begin to force a change?

Read your behaviour strategy, assess how it is carried out, analyse the language and the actions of those leading it.

Then force a debate. Holding limiting gender stereotypes about what does or doesn’t work when it comes to behaviour stunts creativity around how we teach our young people how to behave and live in a community.

What would a behaviour policy look like if it was less disciplinarian and authoritarian? How can we use the skills and attributes of feminine teachers to improve behaviour? Can a school’s system be effective and not rely on these characteristics? What skills and qualities do we want our students to develop?

These are some of the questions that schools should think about when they review their practice around behaviour.

Then look at training. Colleagues can be trained in skills that go beyond gender. When reviewing your policy, use all parts of the staff body to identify what skills and attributes are required to be most effective.

At Tor Bridge High, where I am head of one of the schools within the school, this was about assertiveness, consistency, diffusion, and redirection. These attributes are non-gendered and when they underpin your policy they are skills that everyone can be taught. These now form part of the strategic plan for continuing professional learning around behaviour and they underpin our expectations for staff in the school.

Here, behaviour is not about your gender, it is about your skill set. And it works.

Ruth Golding is a head of school at Tor Bridge High, Plymouth. She tweets @LearnerLedLdr

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