The 16-year-old lad in front of me was genuinely baffled.
“But,” he said, “I didn’t swear. In my house we always tell one another to piss off. My dad tells me to piss off, I tell my little sister to piss off, even my nan tells me to piss off. All I did was tell Mr Jones to piss off.”
It became very clear that there was absolutely no way I was going to convince this young man that telling someone to piss off was anything other than a term of endearment; although this was clearly not his sentiment towards Mr Jones.
I have had many conversations and situations like this over the years. It is pretty much a foregone conclusion that when children arrive in our schools, they have been patterned with attitudes and behaviours learned within their home. Any teacher will tell you that parents’ evenings rarely bring surprises.
Of course, not every child is a mirror of their parents but, at the very least, the vast majority arrive at school with preconceived attitudes towards learning. And sometimes, those attitudes can be detrimental to us helping a child be the best they can be.
Most parents, when they learn this is the case, make changes accordingly. But some don’t. And when that happens, things can get tricky.
Without parental support for a change in behaviour or support for good behaviour, changes or progress can be almost impossible. But there is a way through.
At its root, this is a problem of expectations. It doesn’t take much flicking through Facebook or the front pages of local newspapers to find evidence of parents clashing with schools over their differing expectations for children. Given that every disputed definition of sensible black school shoes or natural hair colour will not make the press, its terrifying to consider how many disagreements there are at each school.
For example, the parents of my 16-year-old boy and I had completely agreed on shoes, hairstyle, homework expectations, revision schedule and need to choose an ambitious post-16 destination. Clearly, we did not agree that telling a teacher to piss off was bad.
A school’s determination to reinforce high expectations of learning, behaviour or uniform should not be at odds with their need to work in partnership with parents – but clearly, sometimes it is.
I remember visiting the classroom of my Year 2 daughter one afternoon with other invited parents. It was their opportunity to show off their learning from the term and every child was beaming with pride as they talked through their pile of work. Some parents arrived late and each lone child’s face turned expectantly towards the door as it opened, followed by one child’s grin while the others were crestfallen.
The little boy whose work was next to my daughter’s was one of those expectant faces. When I had gone through her work, I asked him about his, and the only interruptions to his narrative were as he turned his face to the door each time. I asked whether he was expecting anyone, because some parents worked.
“No,” he said, “they just can’t be bothered to get off the couch.”
I watched his heart break and knew education had lost him – he would never again bother working hard and his parents would never make him or expect it.
At secondary, things can be worse. Children move from one main teacher in a small community to a much bigger environment, with many teachers who often have different expectations and thresholds, surrounded by hundreds of teenagers. There is a lot of room for problems.
It is easy to see, therefore, why rigid behaviour systems such as Ready to Learn are so popular. It purports to be an absolute mechanism for guaranteeing consistent expectations of behaviour across an entire school. I’ve seen it work very well in some settings. Those children that were already compliant continue to be so. Those that have parents supportive of the school’s aims will settle into it quickly, with the odd bump.
But for those where parents find they cannot support it, how can it be resolved? Usually with the child moving school – and that hardly helps anyone. That’s not to say I am claiming getting parental buy-in is easy when it looks about as likely as a Brexit deal that leaves all interested parties with a smile on their face.
But it is worth the effort: every phonecall, every email and every meeting is an investment in the relationship between home and school. Every time that a teacher and a parent says exactly the same thing to a child, it becomes less confusing for that child. If the child knows that completing homework, bringing a book to school, not shouting out in class and definitely not telling your science teacher to piss off is good – according to both school and home – then that child is likely to take that message to heart.
Work at it again and again and again until you can see signs of change.
However, if things have broken down – say, for example, mum is also now telling you to piss off – you may have to admit that you might not be the best person for the job. Finding the right person in school to be the mediator is essential – even if its not their job.
If it takes a whole village to raise a child, it can take a whole school to liaise with a family. A different, non-partisan face can work wonders. I’ve seen PAs, exam invigilators, HR managers and caretakers work wonders where others have failed.
I’ve seen patience, high expectations, strong boundaries and consistency work wonders – not only with the children but also with the parents, too.
We can’t give up on parents, like we can’t give up on students. It can feel like you are worlds apart and you might be tempted to throw in the towel, forget the parents and focus only on the child. But that will never be as effective. We need to keep trying.
Oh, that 16-year old-lad? The following morning, we held a restorative justice conversation between him and Mr Jones. In a classic own goal, the boy said: “I’m sorry I told you to piss off Mr Jones, but you were being a prick. I mean, I know I was being a prick, too, but I shouldn’t have told you to piss off.”
After that, he spent most nights after school in Mr Jones’ room, catching up.
And now, a few years later, he still pops in when he needs a chat. He probably still doesn’t think that telling someone to piss off is swearing, but I don’t think that’s the point any more.