A few years ago, a disquieting report on children’s immune systems featured in the news. According to studies carried out in the US, toddlers brought up in excessively sterilised homes ran the risk of failing to build up a tolerance against common bacteria and gardenvariety illnesses (bit.ly/ImmuneClean).
More recently, similar concerns have been raised regarding the mental health of university students (bit.ly/StudentResilience). Peter Gray, a professor at Boston College, writes of young people “increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life”, ranging from receiving C and B grades to seeing a mouse. (Two students faced with the latter dilemma dialled 911 – the cops were kind enough to pop over and set up a mousetrap for them.)
Daft though these instances seem, the underlying issue is a grave one, with cases of students experiencing emotional problems rapidly increasing and faculties struggling to tackle the epidemic. Gray quotes the head of counselling at a major American university, whose verdict is stark: “The lack of resilience is interfering with the academic mission of the university and is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.”
Back on this side of the pond, “resilience”, “grit” and “character” have become buzzwords in recent months, with a resurgence of interest in schools instilling these qualities. The Department for Education even launched an award earlier this year for institutions providing “character education”. But are our efforts to promote a sense of determination in children anything more than skin-deep?
From a teacher’s perspective, the way our society handles children with kid gloves can be all too clear. Schools, paralysed by a fear of negatively affecting the emotional wellbeing of their students, shy away from honest criticism and firm discipline, allowing low-level disruption and more serious forms of poor behaviour to flourish. Meanwhile parents, unwilling to tackle their progeny’s comportment at home, either shift their responsibilities on to schools or make excuses.
These actions may be well intentioned, but their consequences are devastating. If young people do not learn to take everyday knocks in their stride – be they candid appraisals of work or stern instructions – they emerge from school ill-equipped to cope with setbacks. Crushing realisations become inevitable. One has only to watch The X Factor and witness the humiliation of people tricked into believing they possess musical abilities to understand how damning it can be to receive criticism that is long overdue. Encouragement and support of young people is to be commended; cruel and outright deception is not.
It is our fear of wounding children’s feelings that runs the real danger of causing psychological harm in the long term, preventing them from acquiring the very resilience that has rightly been recognised as crucial to their development. The analogy with toddlers’ natural resistance to common illnesses therefore seems accurate. Any good parent wants to provide a clean, hygienic and safe environment for their offspring. Take that to neurotic extremes, however, and despite the best of intentions children can be put at grave risk.
Part of the problem for teachers expressing such a complaint is the misperception and wild exaggeration of traditionalist views – an issue across many areas of debate in education. Suggest that a firm hand is needed and before you can say “50 lines” you are traduced as a Dickensian monster, denying gruel to starving orphans; or a sadist in the mould of the 1950s schoolmaster from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, sneering at the lyrics to Money and screaming “You! Yes you behind the bike shed – stand still, laddie!” in a broad Scottish accent.
These are fundamental misrepresentations. No teacher advocates strong discipline because they hate children or teaching – nor would anybody suggest a return to corporal punishment or cruelty towards children. Supporters of good classroom control genuinely (and correctly) believe that it enhances the learning and mental health of their pupils.
Yet most teachers today will tell you that if they punish a child, at the back of their minds is a fear of being hauled up in front of the senior leadership team because Mrs X has complained about darling little Pneumonia being kept back at break time. “Johnny is very upset – he doesn’t like being told off!” as one parent once told an astonished colleague of mine. The pendulum is perhaps beginning to swing back. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw argued last year that headteachers were too accepting of low-level disruption. The government’s new behaviour expert Tom Bennett (see column, right) recently called for a welcome return to detentions. Still, while the toxic mix of parents taking their children’s complaints at face value and senior leaders failing to back their staff remains undiminished, it is difficult to see how true progress can be made.
The irony is that the benefits of firm discipline are so very manifest. Put simply, children learn more. A 2014 Ofsted report found that up to an hour’s teaching could be lost a day through poor behaviour (bit.ly/Ofsted Disruption). Ensuring that classes are silent, where appropriate, and that students are organised and engaged provides a huge advantage. It can also help the large number of children who feel lost without clear boundaries. One of the most interesting statistics in the report was that while only 7 per cent of heads considered poor behaviour a hindrance, among students more than double that proportion (15 per cent) said learning in maths was hindered by disruption.
Some of the most complimentary remarks I have received from parents have been along the lines that their children thought me strict – even scary – but appreciated how much they were learning, greatly wanted to succeed in my subject and enjoyed having a constructive setting in which to work.
Beyond the practical need for a calm and focused learning environment, we have a moral imperative, too. Schools are increasingly expected to perform tasks once strictly within the purview of parents – from discussing social issues to sex education. We can’t exclude behaviour from that remit. It is our solemn duty to impart good manners to pupils, and an awareness of how they should conduct themselves and adapt to their surroundings. It is as inappropriate to start talking in a lesson as it would be to strike up a conversation in Lord Sugar’s boardroom. Is it a coincidence that, for so many people, the teachers most vividly and fondly remembered are those who were a force to be reckoned with.
If a new generation of young people are to cope with the hurdles that life inevitably throws in their path, “resilience” has to be more than meaningless management-speak. The championing of effective, well-disciplined teaching would go a long way towards helping to cure what has become one of the most fundamental issues of our times. As teachers we must be willing to stand our ground and uphold the highest expectations in the classroom – only in that way can we do justice to our students’ true potential. It is equally beholden upon parents and senior leaders to have our backs in that most noble of endeavours.
Tom Russell is a pseudonym. He is a teacher in the South East of England