Is there a more truculent, pious, virtue-signalling phrase in education than “Well, they behave for me”? In a profession where competence is more valued the more effortless it appears, and where inspirational aphorisms pass as CPD, it’s a high bar to beat, but over it skips. Teachers, on the whole, are benevolent souls; we weren’t drawn to a life of inky hands and admin because of the glamour and the prosecco. Most of us lean towards altruism; most of us would rather see staff and students prosper than take a pratfall. Which is why the ubiquity of this phrase is initially hard to understand.
Picture this: you’re in the staff room (remember them? The Ancients used to have a communal waterhole filled with dirty mugs and unmarked books dissolving into compost). You’ve Fosbury flopped on to the chaise longue after a biweekly hazing from 9F. At this point you are leaking rather than venting emotions. Your language may, or may not, be salty. Names are mentioned and mums may be blamed. Your woes are recounted in technicolour, in UPPER CASE, and you are the blameless victim of circumstance and juvenile gods. You are the hero of your own self-penned melodrama.
“Well, they behave for me,” says a helpful peer. At first, it appears that they’re innocently adding context to your story, innocently. In fact they’re trolling you. What are they really saying?
1. They behave for me.
2. They don’t behave for you.
3. The reason they behave for me is because I am a good teacher.
4. And you are not.
5. More tea?
If the people saying this inane tummy-rubbing looked beyond their navels, they’d realise that it only compounds the sense of hopelessness for the aggrieved teacher, it reinforces their sense of inferiority, and it calcifies their position on the professional hierarchy. “Me Tarzan,” it says. “You tiny monkey.”
It sounds like sympathy, but it lands like a toe punt in the saddle. What possible use could it be to a harassed teacher to hear that you enjoy an idyll of Socratic dialogue with the class who have just blasted them with buckshot? Why not go the whole hog and stand outside a casualty ward telling people how awesome you feel?
In fairness, they probably had it said to them, in the infancy of their careers, by equally careless confederates, who handed on their misery, deepening like a coastal shelf. The act of saying it could be seen as a kind of exorcism: see where I am now; see how far I have come.
But there’s no need. Quite the converse, there’s a need not to. When colleagues are under siege; when they’re in a well so deep they can’t even see where they fell in; when they’re deafened by workload and classroom cannons, there is really only one thing they want to hear apart from sympathy, and it’s terribly simple.
“How can I help?”
And if they ask you, then you can suggest what they might do. Because after all, they behave for you.
Tom Bennett is a teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71