Behaviour has been preoccupying me a lot recently. There have been a few incidents in school where I’ve found myself angrily thinking things I always thought I’d never think. Days where I’ve verged on turning to the Daily Mail in my desperation to find someone else to blame for ‘them’ (alright, I exaggerate, but I was pretty desperate!). Then as I veered at the precipice, two blogs steered me back in the right direction. Firstly from Tim Taylor @imagineinquiry and then from Gordon Baillie @aflpie – both reminding me that behind every child is a complex system of reasons for behaviour and that each needs to be viewed as an individual. I knew that of course, but it’s easy to lose sight when you’re tired and faced with a group of children pocketing money from a charity box that their heavily pregnant teacher dropped as she tripped.
I started working in a new secondary school this year and niavely expected that behaviour would be good because the school is in a fairly leafy, middle class area. I was wrong of course. I don’t think I’m daft enough to simply assume that middle class children would be ‘better’ behaved, but in the other schools I’ve worked in, challenging behaviours have been almost invariably linked to deprivation, neglect and loss. So I wasn’t expecting so much sass from the middle class, whose parents unfailingly attend parents evenings, demand extra homework, push for their children to be challenged, and where necessary, to be statemented and supported. I think I expected that with all that value placed on education by families, that the children themselves would, well, value it. So….what’s going on?
Gordon Baillie reminds us of Ken Robinson’s statement in his excellent RSA talk, Changing Educational Paradigms (available on YouTube) that ‘children are living in the most stimulating times in the history of the world’ and that in schools, we respond to this by teaching mostly boring stuff. I have always believed that the key to good behaviour was a pedagogical issue and not a pastoral one, and recent experiences have reinforced this for me. But it’s much, much more complicated than simply teaching more interesting lessons. I’ve seen (and planned) lessons which have been active and ‘fun’ and which have been sabotaged by children being children – pushing the boundaries to see what would happen and spoiling what might have been effective learning. Similarly, I’ve observed lessons which have been static where behaviour has been excellent, largely I suspect, because the children have been happy to comply when not being asked to think too much or do too much. This type of compliance is simply passivity and too often we mistake it for ‘good’ behaviour.
The best behaviour and best learning I’ve ever witnessed and experienced have been when children have been immersed in learning which is taking place in an adult realm – in the mantle of the expert. In MoE, children have to adopt the roles of adults with a pressing problem to solve. I’m starting to think that the power of mantle is not in the excitement of the context, or the thrill of role, but in inhabiting the adult space. For example, in one mantle with Year 8, peers who veered from the path of righteousness were hastily hushed by classmates who tutted and said ‘You’re not being very professional!’ There was no need for teacher intervention and it was fascinating that the language used was from the workplace, not the classroom. Similarly in a recent mantle I have developed with Year 9, children have vied for ‘promotion’ as an incentive to work hard. The promotion is entirely fictional – the title of sergeant rather than constable, or inspector over sergeant. There are no extrinsic school rewards or prizes – just a title, but one drawn from the adult world again. These children are starting to manage their own behaviours because they are practicing being adults and they recognise that this demands higher standards than those they need to practice as children. Teachers who have worked in alternative curriculum models where pupils incorporate work experience into their learning often report improvements in behaviours as have those who use enterprise and ‘real world’ learning projects. In all these models, children are practicing adulthood.
There are huge implications here. It suggests that children need to practice responsibility in order to manage their behaviour. In recent times, the burden for managing behaviour has very much fallen on the teacher. This can be problematic. Kids will be kids for as long as they are kids – of course they will – but learning to wait, to listen, to be patient, to empathise, to be resilient, to be bored sometimes, is a essential part of becoming adult. How are we equipping them with these skills if we believe that it is our job to entertain them in every lesson? Is the push to engage and inspire actually inhibiting progress in this area? Don’t get me wrong, I strive to both engage and inspire, but not all the time. Sometimes, when drafting writing, or rehearsing a play, or figuring out a problem, there are prolonged periods of boredom and frustration. We need to expose children to these emotions in managed environments in which there is the thrill of success at the end. That’s one of the beauties of working in a Mantle – some of it is hard work, but it is necessary work – ‘we’ve got a lot to do, we’d best crack on’ . I am beginning to wonder if instead of thinking of teaching and learning in terms of levels of engagement, we would be better to consider levels of responsibility and ownership.
So that’s responsible pedagogy. Now, responsible relationships. Another thing I’ve believed, and something that both Tim and Gordon reinforced, is the enormous importance of relationships in managing children. They need to know that they are liked. And sometimes the ones that are hardest to like need to be liked the most. That’s a tough gig. And the thing is, you’ve got to mean it. For those of you interested in neuroscience, read up on the role of mirror neurones in relationships. Basically, when we look another in the eye, we are capable of downloading their emotional state and throwing it right back. And we hardly know we’re doing it. You have to be in control of the state you are presenting to children and you have to be really careful not to mirror their states back, if they’re not in a good state of mind to start with. And when you’re tired, that’s really hard. But it’s crucial. Carl Rogers, the counselling guru speaks of ‘unconditional positive regard’ in dealing with clients. The same is true of the teacher/child relationship. One of the things we tend to do as teachers (and parents) is to remove positive regard from testing children. You have disappointed me. I liked you, but now….There are only two responses to this removal – begging for it to be reinstated or a ‘f*** you’ response. Neither is healthy. We, as adults, need to react carefully to situations which make us want to punish, through removal of positive regard, the children in our care. And this is a challenge, not only for us as individuals but as a profession. Because tired adults don’t make the best teachers. For this reason alone, the NUT proposals for a limit of 20 hours teaching per week is a sensible one.
Which leads me on to cultural responsibilities. Many of the challenges I receive in my day to day teaching come from children who think that teachers are in some way foolish for having become teachers in the first place. For many of the middle class children I teach, this comes from parents who have bought into the ‘those who can, do, those who can’t, teach’ myth, and who, despite their demands for excellence in the education of their children, fail to impress upon those children the idea that their teachers are generally well meaning and well educated people who are trying to do the best for them. Instead the ‘support’ takes the form of policing the teacher, keeping up pressure to make sure that the teacher is doing their job ‘properly’ and, perhaps most damagingly, talking teachers down in front of their children. And who can blame them? The briefest of glances at our media would convince the most reasonable adult that the system is in crisis; that teachers are work shy enemies of promise and that standards are very much falling. Set this against a background of high unemployment, competition for university places and economic uncertainty and there is little wonder that parents lose faith. What we need is maturity and mutual respect. We need to build bridges with parents to let them see the reality of what it is we do. We need to bypass the media – largely written by the privately educated whose own children are privately educated. Last term, I ran a couple of open lessons where parents could come in and just watch a lesson. I think they did more for my relationships with those families than any parent’s evening could achieve. ‘What an eye opener’ one said. We need to open more eyes.
In short, we need to develop pedagogy that allows children to practice being adults.We need relationships which allow children and adults to practice liking each other and to work in environments where they are not too tired to do so. We need to open our doors to parents, and take control of our own professional images. And this is going to demand a huge cultural shift and an openness and maturity in the way we talk about behaviour, learning and each other.