Respect them and they'll respect you
Last week, as I watched the excellent Christopher Ecclestone's student teacher, Drew, face up to the rigours of inner-city schooling, I tried to work out exactly why so many teachers felt moved to criticise this particular drama. It seems a fairly accurate mix of the idealist, the cynical and the uncontrollable, always allowing for the demands of prime time drama. By the end of the first episode, Drew is forced to admit "I can't afford principles", and has had to stand by, shattered, while a more experienced colleague regains control over a rioting drama class; there are no Mr Chips fantasies to contend with, and, though some of the events may be over-dramatic, they are recognisable as being bedded in reality.
A combination of hearts and minds is, for some in our schools, a signpost to dangerous territory. The one major element in all research about "good teaching" is that pupils want teachers who are clear about their expectations and create a classroom atmosphere that enables learning to take place. Personal experience in guidance stretching back to the seventies tells me that this is not just the case with the "middle-class, motivated" pupils, itself a dangerously inaccurate stereotype, but across the range of pupils.
If we don't believe that all mainstream pupils are capable of some kind of successful learning, then not only is our choice of career a bit suspect, but we are liable to get the hard time our low expectations deserve. Like dogs that can sense fear in a postie, pupils detect disdain at a hundred paces.
Caring for our pupils requires strength of purpose and a hard edge. It is certainly not the path for the faint hearted, and there is a world of difference between positive discipline and attempted bribery. A recent remark from the newly appointed headteacher of the Ridings School in Calderdale exemplifies the reality. She pointed out that along with the interim appointments made "to turn the school around", the school was also carpeted. The basic concern of the pupils was not only would she be leaving soon but if she went would the carpets go?
Children learn best when the resources and environment provided for them indicate they are respected for their potential and when a consistent approach from staff gives them a clear idea of what is expected. A probationer colleague said to me having received both barrels of cynical buckshot from a "hardened professional": "Is it not OK to like the kids?" I hoped he was joking but I worried that he was serious.
Mind you, the God of education works in mysterious ways and it doesn't do to become too po-faced about all this. The most difficult girls in my second year were controlled successfully by a circle time session this year, but it wasn't because I was preaching loving awareness or yogic flying. The magic started to work when they found out I was related to Geordie heartthrob Ant of Ant and Dec teenybop fame. As Aretha Franklin sang in my own pop history, it gained me "A little respect".
Wait till I tell them about being at university with Eric Sykes's babysitter.