Are you a plasterer?

12th February 2013 at 16:36

Tom Bennett

Every week Tom Bennett will be shouting at the laptop about some damn fool idea in education, or else he'll be writing about classrooms, students, or why teaching is the most important job in the world. This week it's time to ask yourself whether you fix things, or do you just smooth things over?

I was training some very groovy teachers at TES Towers this weekend, and it reminded me of something that happened to me in one of my first schools. I had asked some pupils to take their coats off and sit in the seats I'd assigned. When one of them complained that their Geneva-guaranteed human rights were being trampled on, I repeated the instruction.

`Go fuck yourself' was the charming and nuanced reply from the student. I called for their removal. Briskly enough, a senior member of staff appeared, hands in pockets. `Oh dear, what appears to be the problem here?' they asked, rolling their eyes. And off they both went. Cut to a God's-eye view: they go to the Head's office, where a member of the SLT makes the cheeky chappy a cup of char and gives them the run of the executive biscuit tin (ie ones with wrappers). They then have a lovely chat about, among other things, how the student `doesn't like the subject,' and is `a bit tired because they were up late watching a film.'

Five minutes later, they both appeared at my door. I'm amazed, of course. Maybe he hadn't just told me to fuck off?

`Billy's ready to come back into the lesson now, Mr Bennett,' says Coco the Friendly Teacher, which is remarkable, because I wasn't ready for Billy. Billy sits back at the seat he chose (not me) and smiles at me, covered in biscuit crumbs. And the class looks at me like I'm something the cat coughed up.

`Let me know if you need any more assistance,' says Coco, nodding seriously, and I'm thinking, Christ, if I were covered in petrol you'd probably bring matches.

Smoothing over the cracks

This is a common strategy among some members of senior staff who are more concerned with smoothing things over than actually dealing with problems. I call them plasterers, because they make the cracks disappear as quickly as possible. They are more concerned that people should just get along with each other than with facing up to the responsibility of the messy business of making sure that justice is served.

You see, I'm not angry with that pupil; I've been teaching too long to get annoyed by aggression. But the pupil does need some kind of retribution directed his way, not for simple revenge, but to deter in future. That child has just learned that you can tell a member of staff to F off and not only will nothing bad happen, but you'll get a Kit Kat and a cuddle.

It's a strategy designed to encourage the behaviour it's meant to address. Paradoxically, if a staff member confronts problems rather than scurries to the Hobnob jar, the problems start to subside. The more children know that poor behaviour won't be tolerated, won't be appeased, won't be explained away, then the less they will be tempted to behave badly. And they'll learn self-restraint; a vital ingredient in any kind of success.

People with power should always remember the Marvel Comics aphorism that with great power comes great responsibility. While it's tempting to hide from problems, doing so only feeds them. Issues are best tackled as soon as they arise otherwise, like dirty dishes, the grime dries in.

So, back to my original point: do you know any plasterers?

Are you one?

Read Tom's previous blogs;


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