Archive for July, 2007

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The F***-Off Factor

July 27, 2007

There’s a lot of advice out there on discipline:

  • “Set out your expectations.”
  • “Don’t smile until Christmas”
  • “Don’t use sarcasm”
  • “Establish clear routines.”
  • “Keep the students occupied” (Is this the same way as France was occupied from 1939-44?)

A lot of it is good. Some of it is dire. But most of it won’t get you past the front gate of your challenging (i.e. badly run) comprehensive because most of it is based on two false assumptions:

  • Assumption No 1: Students will acknowledge your instructions and can, with enough effort and attention, be made to obey them.
  • Assumption No 2: Once you have the class understanding how they are meant to behave you have dealt with the problem.

These assumptions are made because those adopting them believe that discipline is an organisational problem. This is illustrated by the use of terms such as “behaviour management” and “classroom management.” Missing from this is the realities of the contemporary classroom. You could come up with a system of identifying and punishing all crimes and misdemeanours, you can establish all your expectations and rules with the class perfectly, but you still have to face the “Fuck-Off” factor. This occurs at the point where a child in a classroom in which the teacher has established control realises that they are unable to do whatever they like and have a great danger of having to learn. They cannot play with their mobile phones. They cannot continue the conversation/football game/wrestling match/unfinished bullying from break. They cannot play on their PSP. They cannot just put their head down and have a nap. They cannot be the centre of attention for everything they say. They are confronted with the replacement of their social world with the academic world, a world they don’t control.

And they tell the teacher to “Fuck off”.

Or they do something equivalent. They walk out of the classroom to play with their friends in the corridor. They do everything necessary to stop teaching or to get sent out. They call the teacher “pathetic” or “sad” (or “smelly” or “bad breath” or “gay”). Simply put they refuse to be a part of the learning classroom.

It’s what happens here that makes the real difference between schools. If you get good enough at classroom management, have the back up, and don’t try anything too different in your lessons you can get round almost every sort of behaviour in every school, up until the point where the Fuck-Off Factor comes into play. Advice on discipline assumes a classroom can become a place where learning takes place. It doesn’t take account of the fact that some children cannot tolerate a classroom where learning takes place. This isn’t a case of the natural disposition of the child, this is the deeply entrenched belief that they are the most important person in the universe, that learning is unimportant, and any failure to appreciate those two facts (which are acknowledged for 90% of their school day) is a form of malicious bullying.

What should happen is this: The child is made to leave the school and never return. No other public service allows users of the service to abusively decline the service and stop others making use of it without consequence. Doctors don’t treat people who are hitting them. The police can arrest people that abuse or obstruct them as they carry out their duties. Abusive customers are asked to leave shops, buses and bars.

Yet somehow, in the one place that does the most to set future expectations about how to behave the emphasis is on keeping them receiving the same service at the same outlet they’ve just rejected. What does happen about these kids follows this spectrum:

At best:

  • They are excluded for a short length of time.
  • Their parents are contacted.
  • They are told off by a more senior member of staff.

At worst:

  • They swap classes (“it was a personality clash”).
  • Nothing.
  • Nothing is done about the student AND the teacher is blamed for their poor relationships with the student.

You don’t understand modern teaching until you acknowledge the fact that teachers are told to fuck off and many, many times at many, many schools absolutely nothing happens.

Apologists for this state of affairs love to make excuses for the students. If students don’t like their situation then, of course, they behave badly. If you do believe this (and I know some people who read this do) then I have a challenge for you. Every time you are in a situation you don’t like during the next two weeks, just tell the nearest authority figure (or failing that the most responsible person in he room) to fuck off. Whether it’s a traffic warden, a shop assistant, a taxi-driver, your spouse, your children, your mother, your boss, a policeman, a bouncer, a bar man, an air steward, a magistrate, a high court judge, an OFSTED inspector, a council official, whoever they are, tell them to fuck off. If you can do that for two weeks without wrecking your life and possibly ending up in prison, then I will consider the possibility that the students who do that for five years of permanent education are just the victims of unfortunate circumstances behaving in a perfectly reasonable way.

Any takers?

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The Third Law of Behaviour Management

July 15, 2007

The Third Law of Behaviour Management is: The capacity for dealing with behaviour is always finite. By this, I mean, there should always be a plan in place for what will happen if behaviour problems increase. This is fundamental because very often behaviour gets worse before it gets better. Dealing with it in the long term creates problems in the short term.

Classroom Teachers:

Teachers should plan for trouble. They should know to give warnings but they should also be prepared for what will happen when warnings are ignored. They should work out what to do if every child refused to co-operate. (Most teachers are acquainted with this from their nightmares). What this means in practice can vary from school to school and from class to class. However, at a minimum, the teacher must have convenient ways to:

  • record incidents (eg. a copy of the register)
  • issue punishments (eg. half completed detention forms that need just a signature)
  • get help (eg. a mobile phone, or an internet connection)
  • deal with disruption by large numbers of students (eg. having strategies for signalling quiet or punishing whole classes)

Ultimately teachers need to be prepared for the worst case scenario, despite often working in an environment where they are constantly told the worst case doesn’t happen and if it does it’s their fault.

School Management:

School managers need procedures in place to stop teachers being overwhelmed. The most obvious techniques are:

  • centralised detention systems
  • quick on-line methods for recording incidents
  • clear and effective ways of removing students from a classroom

On top of this there must be no pressure on teachers to reduce the number punishments or referrals. Every teacher must feel they can act on every incident without blame. In fact it should be the opposite pressure, teachers should feel they can’t ignore incidents of poor behaviour.

Finally, the school discipline system must have contingency plans in place. It should not be possible to be overwhelmed by the number of students who need to be removed from classrooms, given detentions or excluded. The system must be designed with spare capacity, even if it uses a lot of resources.

LEAs and Government

There’s not much to say here. Schools should not be deterred from enforcing discipline. That means no targets should be set at any level to reduce the number of punishments, and no financial incentives not to act. This is particularly important for exclusions.

Every school I have ever worked in was always overwhelmed by the behaviour problems. Even if the system only ceases to work for a day, it will have long term consequences.

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Teach First, Repent at Leisure

July 8, 2007

The latest initiative for tricking gullible fools into ruining their lives by becoming teachers* is called “Teach First”. It is based on an American scheme and is a bit different to what has gone before. Firstly, it is run by a charity and has specific social purposes. It only works in “challenging” schools and is focused on “making a difference” to the underprivileged. Secondly, it is aimed at “top graduates” and is quite explicit that it wants to shape future leaders, whether they stay in teaching or not. This is made particularly clear by the following blurb from their website:

“Teach First unashamedly expects many of its participants to become the future Ministers, CEOs, and serial entrepreneurs of our age.”

The agenda is clear: what challenging schools need are bright, academically able, young people with a social conscience who want to make a difference to the lives of children from deprived backgrounds.

Now, I was once a bright, academically able young person with a social conscience who wanted to make a difference to the lives of children from deprived backgrounds. In fact, except for the “young” bit, I just about still fit that description (although I think the term “sucker” sums such people up a bit more accurately). I therefore feel qualified to comment on the little flaw in this scheme: challenging schools don’t actually want bright, academically able teachers who want to make a difference.

Now, there might be a few well run schools that count as challenging, but schools that are well run soon improve. Any school that has been “challenging” for a considerable length of time will be run, or have been run, by idiots, those too stupid to either improve the school or to leave. The last thing they want is anyone with even half a brain asking questions or pointing out when something they are told makes no sense. There is an anti-academic, anti-intellectual, anti-thinking culture in these schools. If you are academically well qualified you will be repeatedly told that you must be mainly interested in A-level classes or top sets. If you have a good memory of what people say then you will be resented for knowing how many promises those who manage you have broken. If you are alert enough to point out problems before they happen, then you will be considered responsible for creating those problems. If you use long words then you will confuse members of SMT who have a more limited vocabulary (I still cringe with embarrassment about the time I identified the “most egregious offenders” in a class to an Assistant Head at Woodrow Wilson School) . On top of that many teachers with good qualifications will have gone to good schools themselves and know immediately that what is going on around them is a tragic betrayal of the disadvantaged rather than a triumph of heroic school managers over difficult circumstances.

Wanting to make a difference is also a real handicap for an aspiring teacher. It leads you to try to teach your classes, even year 11 bottom groups. It might make you point out when students are in the wrong sets. It can cause you to resent doing glorified baby-sitting and make you unsympathetic to the dumbing down of the curriculum. It might make you disagree with the endless lowering of expectations on the grounds that nobody can expect much from “kids like these”. It might even make you suggest avoiding the easy option when you know that students are going to lose out. Most of all, it might make you an unbearable cynic who whinges ceaselessly about the terribly disregard for the children’s future that is an every day reality in sink schools.

Because of this I genuinely believe that those who Teach First will be shocked, not just at the state of these schools, but the extent to which their talents and good intentions will not be appreciated. The scheme presumably has been a success in America, which is a reminder of the differences in our cultures. The British class system is enforced from above and below and anybody trying to change society will not be welcome. All I can say to anyone who is prepared to Teach First is good luck. It would be great if you can prove me wrong. There are a number of graduates from the scheme starting at my school next year, filling the vacancies where we simply couldn’t get qualified staff. I’ll do my best to return to this subject when I’ve seen how they get on. That is assuming, of course, that I don’t give up trying to make a difference before they do.

*It’s been a long year. I’ve earned the right to be that cynical. I’ll be alright after the summer holidays. If I survive that long.

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The Core Business of Schools

July 1, 2007

One of the more controversial suggestions I made was in my blog entry about Non-Uniform Days. I put forward the opinion that schools should be concerned with their core responsibilities, i.e. providing students with the opportunity to learn and creating a safe and orderly environment in which learning takes place, and not with (worthy) but less vital efforts like fundraising, community work and school productions.

I’d like to revisit this, partly because I want to explain where I’m coming from and partly in order to modify my position.

I think I formed my opinion on this issue as a result of my experiences at Woodrow Wilson School. The school’s Senior Management Team (SMT) were proud of their links to the local community. A particularly favoured project was the collection of Christmas parcels (usually containing food) for local old folk’s homes. As you can imagine, students and staff made an effort fir this cause, often treating it as a competition between form groups, to see who could contribute the most. For some reason it was seen as a particular responsibility of Year 7, who were expected to really push the campaign with their forms.

In my second year at the school there was a particularly effective Year 7 team. The discipline system was based on referrals, which were written reports of incidents that required action by the Year Head or Senior Management. Ninety percent of referrals would just vanish (at least that was the case when the referrals came from my department). Most noticeably the school’s policy of excluding students who missed a detention twice was not followed by most year groups. Only year 7 responded to referrals, only year 7 saw that students who missed detentions twice were excluded, only year 7 could be relied upon to support teachers. However, they couldn’t be relied upon to collect Christmas packages. They were so busy ensuring that the students in their year behaved and that the school’s behaviour policy was enforced that they seemed to forget that they were meant to do a lot of good work for charity.

One morning Gary, the headteacher, came in and addressed all of the year 7 team for their pitifully small number of Christmas Parcels and told them how ashamed they should be. He didn’t have a go at year 8, where students were having a competition to see who could verbally abuse the most teachers. He didn’t have a go at year 9 where the Head of Year refused to help staff confiscate contraband or deal with the disorder in the corridors. He didn’t have a go at year 10 where the head of year admitted she couldn’t cope and only followed up referrals from teachers who visited her in person. (I’d heard Gary wasn’t happy with Year 11 either, but I may have just assumed this because they were also fairly competent).

I concluded that any project unrelated to sorting out discipline or improving learning was a distraction. Schools could become preoccupied with these projects at the expense of teaching and learning. It’s a principle of management that you should focus on your core business and in schools that core business is what happens in the lessons (and between the lessons) rather than distractions such as charitable acts or public events.

Nowadays I think that is actually going too far. If students and teachers want to organise charitable collections, or school productions, or anything else within reason, it shouldn’t cause problems within the school. There is only one group within a school who might be distracted by high profile but unimportant endeavours: SMT. They should be confined to places in the school where teaching or poor behaviour is going on.

Perhaps electronic tagging could be used to achieve this?

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