Your pupils' esteem depends on you, too

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
To get the best out of their charges, all teachers first need to get the best out of themselves, argues Alan McLean

TEACHER concern about children's behaviour, reflected most recently in the McCrone committee's recommendation for a discipline review, is cyclical in nature and has been found to be linked to teacher morale generally.

The two are intertwined. Among the many factors implicated in behaviour problems, teacher esteem may not be the first to come to mind. Rarely considered, it is crucial, and the Executive can make a huge impact.

Forty years of research have established that authoritative teaching is based on preventive skills, including setting a warm climate, high standards and expectations and consistency. It also requires assertive control that leads to compliance, albeit grudging, and positive strategies producing a more willing conformity. The least effective approach has been found to rely on ineffectual power assertion techniques.

There is a reciprocal relationship between teacher behaviour and pupil engagement, mediated by teacher perceptions of pupil motivation. Teachers naturally react to enthusiastic and responsive pupils with more involvement, autonomy and positive feedback - and to unmotivated pupils with coercion, neglect and negative feedback. The motivationally rich pupils get richer, while the motivationally poor get poorer.

Two contrasting sets of teacher attitudes appear to produce quite different responses from pupils. Teachers' attitudes will reflect and be shaped by their professional self-esteem. I suggest that the most effective teachers are those with positive self-belief, who are consequently motivated to seek co operation, share with pupils as much power as possible and communicate inclusive attitudes.

Those with low levels of esteem, however, seem to be driven by a fear of losing what little power they have, and so are more confrontational. We all have off-days, but as a large part of teacher esteem is achieved through pupil progress, the struggling teacher who lacks support may become trapped in a downward spiral.

Teachers with a low sense of self-efficacy lean towards a "command and control" management style and adopt a pessimistic view of pupil motivation. They emphasise control over the purpose of learning and resort to restrictive and punitive modes of discipline.

Such teachers may see indiscipline as threatening their esteem, and the public context makes such personal slights hard to ignore, and can create a desire for revenge. This is based on some form of equity - an eye for an eye - but retaliation can exceed the initial transgression. The goal of revenge can sometimes lead to highly personalised, blame-throwing punishments.

Central to such confrontational attitudes is the belief that pupils considered problematic don't want to work and will do anything to avoid it. These attitudes make it unlikely that the teacher will be able to defuse dfficult situations, and instead ultimata are issued.

These pupils may unknowingly be neglected in lessons and punished inconsistently, while those who conform are given preferential treatment. The group, predominantly boys, who are expected to behave badly will become entrapped by negative labels. They will be referred to a higher authority as soon as they refuse to comply. Informal contact will be avoided and any signs of improvement will not be accepted as genuine. Reactions to misconduct will be focused not on the behaviour, but on personal characteristics.

Some teachers with these attitudes can have high but inflated esteem based mainly on their hard-won reputation as strict disciplinarians. This may make them sensitive to threat, and lead them to respond with a hostility out of proportion to the challenge. Teachers' "bullying" of pupils is a way of preventing further threats to their bruised egos, and may be for some a form of self-affirmation. Such teachers may tend to think they are never in the wrong.

In stark contrast, inclusive attitudes are based on the philosophy that all pupils want to work and can be trusted. If not, the conditions need to be changed, and the teacher should change them.

These attitudes lead to quite different behaviours. For example, the teacher will be firm but fair with pupils, avoid favouritism and welcome informal contact outside the classroom. When punished, pupils will be allowed to "save face" without confrontation.

They will not be derogated in class or in the staffroom, where the teacher will often speak up for them. These teachers see behaviour problems as part of growing up and an assertion of independence.

The inclusive approach aims to correct behaviour, not pupils' personalities. Disruptive behaviour will be seen as out of character and any signs of improvement will be seen as expressing pupils' true identity and encouraged.

Linking misbehaviour with punishment without emphasising the pupil's poor personal qualities minimises the risk of resentment. It teaches the pupil to face up to the consequences but does not diminish him or her as a person. It is better to translate blame labels such as "pest" into demands that hold the pupil accountable rather than culpable.

Teachers are only human and the more dented their esteem the more likely are personalised attacks on pupils' worth. One way to prevent and reduce behaviour problems, therefore, will be to work to improve and nurture teacher morale rather than just trying to deal with the consequences and tinkering with the symptoms. To get the best out of pupils, all teachers need to give the best of themselves. It's in everybody's interests that they feel as good about themselves as possible.

Management at all levels needs to start treating teachers the same way they rightly expect teachers to treat their pupils.

Alan McLean is an educational psychologist with Glasgow City Council.

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