We must link arms across the behaviour divide

22nd April 2016 at 00:00

I’ve worked with teachers, departments, schools and policymakers on behaviour management for a while, and what strikes me about the conversations I’ve had over the past 10 years is how often the same questions occur time after desperate time. For teachers, the most common plea is: “I have one child who just won’t follow any instructions and it’s ruining the whole class dynamic. What should I do?” This is closely followed in popularity by: “I’m trying to run my classes but every time I seek help from line management, their intervention – or lack of it – makes it worse. How do I manage this situation?”

Both questions defy simple explanation. The first: one child’s behaviour is, like any headache, a symptom with a thousand possible causes, and a thousand possible remedies or balms. It usually flags up that something unique is happening to that child that isn’t experienced by the rest. Some motivational lever is present or absent in their lives that needs to be oiled or designed, and finding it will require understanding the context of the child, the class and the teacher. Piece of cake, right?

The second is a Herculean task for a junior teacher, or anyone who expects that the system into which they have been inserted will run smoothly. It involves cojones of steel, nerves like copper cables and the front of John Knox. It also requires a tightrope act over a pool of metaphorical crocodiles, in this case representing unemployment.

Unsurprisingly, school leaders of all flavours usually ask more Napoleonic questions. How can I get staff behind my shiny new behaviour policy? Which administrative platform best supports behaviour data mapping? Which is the best month to invade Russia? It’s not surprising that staff in different roles have such divergent priorities given the differences of role and scale. But every time I visit a school, I’m struck by how much either side could learn from the other (I’m simplifying for brevity: many school staff straddle leadership and classroom duties). For example, in some schools, staff members are looking for practical guidance about strategies in the classroom – “What do I do next” scenarios, and so on. These are the kinds of questions you see most often on the TES behaviour forum, which is a good canary in a coalmine for what troubles classroom staff most. But their leaders are talking to me about policies and systems. Clearly, training opportunities exist in every school, and I’d invite any manager to investigate these kinds of needs simultaneously with any structural reform. In other words, we should never assume that staff possess the competencies they need to do their jobs – or, even more to the point, we need to establish if they do.

On the other side of the blackboard, there are staff who have a heart-warming belief that school systems will infallibly snap into place when storms trouble their classroom, and hit rocks when they realise that even senior leaders aren’t omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent.

This frequently results in shattered fantasies and cynicism: they don’t care/they are rubbish. Here’s a suggestion for any school that wants to create a civil society, and a culture that aims for dignity, creative order and ambition: survey the school staff anonymously. Ask them what they think of behaviour in the school. Ask them if they feel adequately trained. Ask them if they feel supported. Ask them what could help.

And then share the results with the whole school. Then do the same a year later. We shouldn’t have to wait for Ofsted to self-inspect. And, when it comes to something so important, we don’t have a minute to lose.

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

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