It must pay to keep us happy

17th March 2006 at 00:00
There was an unsettling moment on the BBC Radio 4 Learning Curve the other week, causing a squeak of surprise from the presenter (me) and an echoing squeak from the wider world.

We were discussing the Well-being programmes devised by the Teacher Support Network, in which staff are systematically asked what would make them happier in their work. Answers vary from "better communication" or more coat-hooks, to a service whereby they can get their cars washed during school hours instead of wasting Saturday mornings.

The squeaks of surprise were not caused by the car-wash idea (which mainly produced snorts from those of us crusties who hadn't realised that cars were washable). It was a far more serious bombshell that was lobbed: the casually dropped information that in several schools which had taken on the project, pupil behaviour improved.

Read that again: that particular improvement was not in staff turnover, or stress absenteeism, or even teaching standards and Ofsted's. I am sure those perked up too, but what we were told was that by paying deliberate attention to the happiness of the teachers, schools got the pupils behaving better. As one emailer to the programme said "This could be the most important interview ever broadcast on the BBC, don't let it just float by."

I see his point. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The general assumption is that it is the yahoo behaviour of semi-feral children which makes teachers miserable in the first place. But if making teachers happier in their work has the effect of making pupils more tractable, it follows that one quite large reason for juvenile misbehaviour is that their teachers were unhappy and felt hard done by. Obviously the ensuing misbehaviour will then make them even more unhappy, because nobody can be cheerful while in charge of a contemptuous Year 10 who keep setting off the fire extinguishers and writing rude suggestions on the whiteboard.

After all, this principle works in families - a depressed mother or father is often found in charge of a lairy, angry child who in turn depresses them further. It is the perfect vicious circle. And probably it should have been obvious to us all for years. Most children, after all, are neither angels nor disturbed vandals: they're somewhere in the middle. They merely wait for an imprint of adult behaviour to copy. Certainly, come to think of it, I always felt half-consciously reassured when there were gales of laughter to be heard from the staffroom at my children's various schools, joshing among the dinner-ladies, a head bouncing around like Tigger and a couple of relaxed-looking teachers having a giggle in the school secretary's office.

If a school is full of people who look as stressed as Jo the Nutter in the new series of The Apprentice, forever on the verge of tears or stuttering control-freak rage, you feel uneasy. Children, who are made almost entirely of emotional litmus-paper, feel it even more.

What follows? Sure, heads should manage their schools nicely and ask the poor bloody infantry what they want. But it goes further: for as long as I have been a parent it has been regular government policy to insult and belittle teachers. It reached its apogee under the Conservatives with ranting against "trendy teachers" whose fault everything was. I remember as a parent-helper in the mid-1980s being amazed at coffee-time by the snowstorm of mad directives which silted up the staffroom table so you couldn't put your mug down: all of them full of insultingly obvious instructions telling our seasoned, kindly teachers how to do the job they had been doing with great success for all their adult lives.

I remember how they constructed and enforced the first seven-year-old Sats with byzantine complexity, ruining a whole spring for primary teachers who struggled through holiday and termtime to work out how to apply them without upsetting the children. I remember how government then announced the Sats were all wrong and would change, but never apologised to the professionals they had messed up. I remember losing all respect for John Major when he courted cheap applause by braying at party conference "The trendy teachers have had their say - and had their day!" I can hear again the hectoring tone of successive education ministers - apart from Estelle Morris - and see the slumped shoulders of teachers receiving yet another central directive on precisely how many minutes to spend on each kilo of the literacy-hour suitcase. I can see again the acres of hostile media coverage, with middle-aged journalists delighting in getting cheap revenge on the profession which put them into detention in 1968.

I am not saying it is only government pestering and media knocking which makes teachers unhappy. Nor that it is only unhappy teachers who cause children to kick off. But there's a line there, isn't there? Fascinating.

Greece, (2.90; Italy (3.10. Rest of the World pound;180.

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