“Earn the right”
Picture the scene: you’re at a party, chatting to someone you’ve never met until tonight. They seem quite nice, and you’ve been exchanging some witty repartee about who knows what and all is going well, but then there’s a momentary lull in the conversation.
“So, what do you do?”
“I’m a teacher.”
They raise their eyebrows (subtext: you’re much too interesting and attractive to be a teacher.)
There are a few scenarios which follow.
“Oh my God, really?”
Your smile freezes on your face… They continue…
“That must be AWFUL! God, I was such a troublemaker when I was at school. I wound up my teachers so much. There was this one time when…”
“Wow – that must be really hard work. Kids are such bastards, aren’t they? I remember when I was at school most of the kids in my class…”
“I bet the kids love you. I remember when I was at school I had a French teacher who I absolutely adored. Totally in love, I was!…”
Whatever the response, it will be predicated on a simple truth: everybody thinks that they are an expert on education because at some point in their life they spent the best part of at least 11 years in a classroom. It’s an easy trap to fall into – we can all think of education secretaries who have plummeted into it.
What they fail to recognise, however, is that they went to limited number of schools, most probably two. They were taught by a limited number of teachers in a specific socio-economic environment, with a limited range of peers. They are also largely unaware that any of the really serious things rumbling away in the lives of those peers was probably unknown to them, and so they looked at their peers and their teachers through the prism of their own experience, and made all sorts of assumptions which remained, rightly, unquestioned.
In other words, they have b***** all experience of education, and should have the decency to recognise it.
We as professionals can feel this way. In all probability we’ll just smile and nod at that party and pretend to take further part in the conversation before murmuring something about needing to go to the loo or getting another drink, and melting away. But we recognise that those non-teachers have extremely limited experience of schools.
But the trap of extending the particular experience of an individual in the context of schools to a generality has a twin of which we teachers need to be aware, and that is that as adults we know how to form appropriate relationships with the young people in our care.
As adults, we all have experience of a childhood. This is rooted in the fact that we were all children once. We grew up in the same way as we watch our charges grow up. If we are parents we have a second experience of parenting a child and watching them develop.
But again, we see the experience of childhood each through our own prism. Some of us will have had happy, carefree childhoods with parents dedicated to our welfare and responsive to our needs, providing all that we needed materially and emotionally. For others among us, our childhoods will have been affected by all sorts of negative factors: bereavement, parental strife, separation or divorce, illness, financial problems, housing problems, legal problems, imprisonment, neglect… Whatever our experience, that will be the basic model of a childhood against which we measure all other models. If we are parents, we will presumably believe that the method of parenting which we have chosen is the correct one. Otherwise we would not have chosen it, after all. Parents are notoriously judgmental of parenting choices which differ from their own, as witness the robust debates which take place every time anyone publishes a new book proposing an alternative parenting methodology. Being a parent is a very visceral thing – if someone chooses to do things differently to you, it can feel as though you are being challenged or told you are a bad parent. Opponents of a particular theory will bandy about words like ‘abuse’ and ‘damage’.
So how is this relevant to our professional practice as teachers? Well, most of us will have developed ways of managing student behaviour based on our own understanding and experience of being a child and being a parent. If we can be utterly confident that the children we teach have experienced the same childhood or parenting model as ours this may be useful, but in reality this can never be the case. When we meet a class of thirty children, we can only have limited knowledge of their background and the challenges which they face. In many cases all of that emotional, physical and educational hinterland will be reduced down to number and letters, statistics, without any explanation. It would therefore be irresponsible of us not to recognise and seek to avoid the trap of seeing their behaviour through the lens of our own experience.
Instead, to be a Strictly Positive teacher, it is essential that we develop an understanding of the reasons why young people behave in the way in which they do, to develop a positive attitude to students and effective strategies for managing their behaviours. This is a core requirement of the job of teaching, and it requires a commitment to continued learning on the part of the teacher. As has been noted many times elsewhere, “behaviour is communication”. We encourage students to keep trying in order to perfect their performance. The same applies to us.
As I write, I’m being drawn away frequently by the 2016 Olympics from Rio. Watching the gymnastics you cannot help but reflect on the hours and hours of training and practice, of getting things wrong and striving to eliminate errors to the point where even the most critical judge cannot detect flaws.
Of course such work is not done by the gymnasts in isolation. They have their retinue of support and assistance; they need coaches, trainers, physios, dieticians, the support of their peers. In the same way the challenge of finding strategies to assist students in modifying their behaviour should not be done by every teacher in isolation. They should be able to call upon Heads of department, pastoral leaders, SENCo, teaching and learning and senior leaders. There should be extensive collaboration, and a commitment to positive behaviour management. CPD should be designed to ensure that teachers are aware of a range of strategies to assist students with a range of specific emotional and behavioural challenges.
There are many broad starting points for building positive classroom relationships between teachers and students based on trust and encouragement.
Never pretend to be perfect. Don’t pretend to know everything, or to get everything right. Apologise for mistakes. Cultivate an atmosphere where it is not shameful to make mistakes. In fact, I would go further. Congratulate kids when they notice that you have made a mistake. Praise them. Likewise, congratulate kids when they ask you a question to which you don’t know the answer. Encourage them to research the answer and come back to you so that they can recognise they are teaching you something. They will respect you for it.
Always follow through with a promise. If you have promised a reward, ensure that it is applied. If you say you’re going to put on a credit/merit/house point, do so without fail; if you said you’d call home to notify a parent of something great a student has done, ensure that you make that call. Likewise, if you have been driven to the point where a sanction is unavoidable, do not be talked out of it. You have a clear strategy – do not be deflected from it.
Tell the truth. This may seem simple, but it isn’t. False praise doesn’t work, and nor do false threats. Kids aren’t stupid. You can praise very small things, but they must be real. Positive behaviour management doesn’t mean that everyone has to be praised all the time. “Well done – you’re working hard!” when the student has only just put pen to paper makes you look like a mug. So does saying you’re going to send the student to the Head if they don’t modify their behaviour, and then finding an excuse to back down at the end of the lesson.
Look for the good in students. The more widespread their poor behaviour, the more negative their associations with their name will be. We have all observed lessons where we have learned the name of the miscreant within seconds and then heard it repeated over and over again. Associate names with good behaviour by employing the basics of Positive Behaviour Management – effusive public praise and silent sanctions. If they don’t normally take their books out without being asked, notice if they do so at the beginning of a lesson and comment on it positively; it will spur them on.
Try and read the communication behind the behaviour. Ask yourself WHY the student is exhibiting certain behaviours before jumping to deal with them. There is always a reason.
Verbalise your response to behaviour. Wonder aloud to the student. “I wonder if you’re getting angry because you don’t understand the question and you’d like a bit of extra help…” Read body language and try to help. Be emotionally intelligent.
Don’t hold a grudge. Even if a student has had a terrible lesson, disrupted the learning of all around them and made your life a misery, let it go. The next time they come into your classroom, act as if nothing happened. Try to find a way to get some genuine praise in early. If you indicate that you remember that dreadful last lesson, you are set up for a continuation.
Teaching is a professional practice, and central to that practice is a professional approach to building relationships which are not coloured by our own personal experiences of being a child or a parent. Prior knowledge and professional strategies, honed as finely as possible to apply to individual students can assist us to build positive relationships which will enhance the classroom atmosphere and gives students the best chance of succeeding in our subjects.