Only empathy can heal the great behaviour divide

4th March 2016 at 00:00

One of the most common complaints I get on the TES Community behaviour forums is that senior staff don’t support classroom teachers when it comes to behaviour. And it’s fair to say that some of the stories make my already curly hair curl further. And yet when I speak to senior staff in various schools, I tend to hear a very different complaint: about teachers who are barely in charge of themselves, let alone their classes, and relying on senior staff as a kind of remote enforcement squad. Why has this dislocation come about?

There are often two schools within every school. In one are senior or experienced staff: long-termers and full-timers who know the kids, the systems and have spent years building up relationships. They might have lighter timetables, status and time to follow up on behaviour incidents. In the other – separated by only half a degree of reality – are new teachers, supply teachers and trainee teachers. They usually enjoy the fullest timetables, don’t know the kids so well and have a procession of names and faces to deal with. Until both parties realise this, the two schools will never understand one another.

There are some teachers who fail to contribute to the greater health of the school. They might, for instance, set detentions but fail to attend them. Or fail to follow up if the pupils don’t attend. Or make threats and never carry them out. Some do very little by way of genuine classroom discipline, and call for back-up for the most ridiculous of reasons. These teachers make it harder for everyone else because they wear a system down by adding workload to it that should be theirs. They don’t have to be new teachers – in fact often, they’re not.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are senior staff who refuse to acknowledge that bad behaviour exists or believe that, if it does, it is somehow the fault of the teacher. They scold teachers for call-outs, and encourage them to reduce the numbers of requests for assistance without offering any remedy. Which makes as much sense as attempting to reduce crime by telling police officers to stop arresting people. This group is a more serious problem, because it has more impact on the whole school.

For schools to make behaviour systems work, both extremes need to be resolved. I always invite school leaders to cast their minds back to when they were new teachers, and to consider that very different perspective. Empathy is a valuable commodity, never more so than in a leader. Anyone in a leadership position needs to be comfortable answering the question: “Could I handle that class?” If the answer is genuinely yes, then you are capable of advising the teacher. If it’s no, then you must be honest with yourself and refer such behaviour issues to those colleagues who really could.

And if any teacher is failing to take on their fair share of the behaviour workload, they need to be confronted, supported and guided into better working habits. It’s no good emailing them in an anonymous, faceless exchange: that’s a guarantee of inertia. When I speak to teachers who decide to have a good dig about senior leadership, I always try to challenge them a little to make sure that they’re doing what they should and aren’t looking for someone to blame.

Great behaviour happens when schools operate consistent policies that are clear, universal and applied rigorously; when all teachers and all students know what to expect; when sanctions are so certain and infallible that they almost extinguish themselves because no one incurs them. This is possible in every school if the will, leadership and heart are there.

That means all staff. And, of course, that kind of heart is led by the head.

Tom Bennett is a teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71

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