I’ve been involved in an increasingly nasty debate in the letters page of the Times Educational Supplement (Scotland) over behaviour management. It all began with an anonymous critic trashing the new Curriculum for Excellence, claiming that the only problem with Scottish education is that disruptive pupils can’t be suspended as easily as previously. Paradoxically, this comes at a time when, according to the latest independent survey for the Scottish government, teachers are far more positive about the behaviour they encounter in classrooms
Quite apart from any reference to CfE – and while I generally support it, I know there are huge problems with its implementation – I refuse to believe that the only way to improve education is to punish children more severely. Most teachers of this opinion – cynics to a man and woman – claim that their concerns are for the majority of children whose education is disrupted: I don’t buy that. My experience over eighteen years in schools is that these teachers prefer classes which are quiet, undemanding, biddable: in other words, they want an easy life with children who never cause them any problems.
Central to this belief is that teachers are disempowered in the classroom: bad behaviour is the fault of bad parenting skills, of “feral” children who lack any respect for authority, of senior managers who aren’t tough enough, of local authorities who pressurise schools to keep miscreants in class, of teaching unions who don’t support classroom teachers. The pattern is obvious: never, ever need such teachers look at their own practice, because it is just never, ever their responsibility.
My crime? I dared to suggest that teachers are better equipped than ever to deal with misbehaviour, and that I have seen many teachers employing a vast range of fantastic strategies to build relationships with their pupils, from assertive discipline techniques all the way through to restorative practices. I am heavily involved in behaviour management training on our own course, the PGDE(S), at the University of Strathclyde, and I see every year the fruits of the work we do. New teachers go out into the profession with a level of skill in managing behaviour that took me years to develop during my service in schools.
The response was predictable . First, there was the “who the fuck does he think he is” attitude, with correspondents claiming that “self-styled experts” like me are to blame for the faults of the system. When I pointed out that I would never be so arrogant as to claim “expertise” over others, and that I wanted to congratulate “expert” teachers, the response was, “well, if he’s not an expert, what is he doing training teachers?” It’s culminated in one writer suggesting that I have no right to earn a living, and that the money spent on my salary would better be spent lowering class sizes. Such is the incoherence of the true cynic.
Of course, I can stand up for myself, and I refuse to bow to vitriolic bullying like this. But, unfortunately, it’s always been the case that such people drive debate. Bunkered behind their illiberal, lazy refusal to accept their need to develop professionally, they shout down the vast majority of terrific teachers who happen to think that the education of every child is a job worth doing and strive to find ways of doing it. The cynics’ attitude was summed up succinctly and eloquently by Alan McLean as long ago as 2002, but still they hold sway, and are rarely called out for what they are.
During a behaviour management training session, a teacher once said to me that there was no way he/she would ever thank pupils for doing something he/she expected them to do. Gobsmacked, I calmly tried to relate it to life outside the classroom: we thank people for opening doors for us, even though we expect that they won’t slam it in our faces; we thank waiters for delivering our food, even though we expect it of them. In other words, I tried to reason with the unreasonable. Perhaps I should have said what I really thought: if you can’t treat the children you work with every day with the same level of basic respect with which you treat total strangers, then just get the fuck out of teaching. But of course, now that I work outside the classroom, I don’t have a right to say that, do I?
The views expressed above are, of course, entirely personal reflections, and should not be associated with The University of Strathclyde or with the work I or my colleagues do there.