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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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37 comments

  1. As a student beginning her PGCE in September, information like this is both shocking and informative to me (I’d rather not shelter myself!). One question, though: what do you consider to be the best method for maintaining discipline?


  2. You’re quite right, but you’re also wrong. Ultimately (and this may be of use to Kathryn), discipline in the classroom is down to the teacher. I found to approaches work really well: 1. a war of attrition in which I always follow up on discipline issues; 2. Make lessons as interesting as possible.
    Although you talk about the battleground, in reality it is usually just one or two pupils who are the root cause of the problem. I’m not saying it’s easy, by any means, but I taught in some pretty rough and tough inner city secondary schools and still loved teaching.


  3. Kathryn,

    The more general advice for how to cope with the above (especially as a new teacher) is in this blog entry:

    FAQs for NQTs

    Although I might produce an entry on classroom management.


  4. “Although you talk about the battleground, in reality it is usually just one or two pupils who are the root cause of the problem. I’m not saying it’s easy, by any means, but I taught in some pretty rough and tough inner city secondary schools and still loved teaching.”

    If it is just one or two pupils then it can’t have been that tough.

    I’ve sometimes had more than ten such incidents in a day at my current school and certainly three or four in a day at other schools.

    That said even if it’s just one or two pupils that’s one or two more than it should be, and there are schools in this country where it’s unheard of, and whole countries where it’s unheard of.

    And of course, should lessons be as interesting as possible, as opposed to as educational as possible? And should we be setting our priorities with the worst kids in mind in the first place?


  5. oldandrew, why don’t you “f*** off” out of state education to private sector teaching/employment?

    What keeps you doing this job (seriously)?


    • can’t believe this comment, even 6 years after it was made


  6. I’m a product of state education myself (a bog standard comprehensive in fact).

    I genuinely believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to have an academic education. I’d like to stay and fight for that.


  7. I think you should get out of teaching as soon as possible. Teachers have to have an understanding that they are dealing with children. Children need boundaries and they can only learn them.

    It seem to me that you are not setting the standards and making the boundaries clear and you paying the penalty for that.

    When I go into Mr. H’s class, these same children are polite and engaged and mostly on task.

    Why are they so hostile to you?


  8. Is this a wind-up?

    Do you think I’ve just started teaching? Do you think that I’m failing to make a difference in the areas where I am free to make a difference? Do you think that the classes neighbouring mine are havens of calm and learning? Do you think I haven’t supported colleagues or had colleagues supporting me? Do you think I haven’t had a quick walk around the school in my non-contact time? Do you think I don’t compare the results my classes get with those the other classes get? Or look up the behaviour records of students who don’t behave for me?

    There are no Mr H’s in my school. (Although in schools where I’ve worked for more than a year there have been a number of times when I’ve been Mr H.)

    In fact my latest response to getting hassled about the number of detentions I give is to ask to observe the students I teach in a lesson where they do behave.

    Somehow nobody ever manages to arrange that.

    (Oh and about “setting boundaries”. If you’d bother to read the post you are replying to you’d know it was about kids who discover the boundaries have been set and are unable to cope with it.)


  9. I too went a comprehensive school. It was an Catholic ex-grammar. IMO a decent academic education was wasted on about 80% of the pupils. And the negative attitutes of many pupils dragged down the ethos/standards of the school.

    Unless you get some perverse pleasure from being tortured i suggest move on.


  10. I’m reluctant to follow the old trick of assuming that an academic education isn’t suitable for “other people’s children”, particularly when it isn’t even being tried on many bright working class kids.

    That said, I’m sure that for the sake of my health and sanity I will at some point give up on teaching in war zones, if not on teaching itself.


  11. Having had to just delete a comment for the first time in ages, may I just remind people that this comment facility is for discussion, not personal abuse.


  12. It is interesting that old andrew is not prepared to allow comment that is contrary to his simplistic and unpleasant view of the people he is supposed to be teaching.


  13. I’m sorry that you find the prohibition on personal abuse to be a problem.


  14. The fact is, oldandrew, that your blog entry is nothing more than abusive tirade against the children you are charged with teaching.

    It is a disgrace, but you do not have the courage to allow someone to express that opinion and leave it for others to read.


  15. There was no personal abuse. You simply delete opinions you don’t like.


  16. That’s self evident nonsense ; nor is the blog an “abusive tirade”. There’s an undercurrent of controlled anger – but it’s controlled.


  17. I’d like to add that any anger I feel is for the system not the kids.

    Even the worst kids could have been stopped, and it’s hardly their fault they weren’t.


  18. oldandrew,

    You have tapped into my identical feelings of frustration and anger regarding this subject. In June, I completed my most recent school year with the class from hell. Until that class, I really only did ever have one or two troublemakers per class. This one had ten!

    Nothing from my usual bag of tricks worked, nothing new that I tried worked. On almost a daily basis, these ten students shut down my classroom, and I constantly felt horrible for the good kids in that class who sat there with a calm demeanor, but on the inside, I could tell they were seething with rage at the incorrigibles who were wasting everyone’s time.

    I don’t quite understand the motivations of the commentors here who read your post and then dismiss it as an “abusive tirade”. My question to those commentors is, who is getting abused here? I have read my teaching contract, and nowhere does it say that I have to put up with some of the things that students have said and done to me.

    So, any complaint on my part about my treatment is to be considered abusive and dismissed out of hand?

    Keep fighting the good fight oldandrew; I totally understand how you feel.


  19. When you contact the parents – what happens? What IN THE WORLD is going on at home?! I mean… if it’s as bad as you say, I cannot IMAGINE actually LIVING with these children. *shiver*


  20. “When you contact the parents – what happens?”

    Generally speaking the schools have a procedure for serious incidents that doesn’t involve the teacher contacting parents personally. I suspect that is part of the problem, because the people who are meant to contact the parents don’t.

    (Note to self for next academic year: Always contact parents yourself)

    That said, there are a certain proportion of parents who will kick up a fuss on their child’s behalf. Children who have refused to work or listen claim they have been picked on and these gullible, stupid parents believe it. The worst is the “Personality Clash”, this is where a child who refuses to behave gets to move classes because clearly the teacher was the problem.

    Strangely enough it NEVER solves the problem.


  21. Just got back from holiday, jetlagged and needing a laugh. I am of course laughing at you, archie, and presuming that of you teach at all, it is in the kind of leafy-lane top-of-the-league comp I used to or an Independent.

    Oldandrew echoes my experience of the middle-to-bottom comp precisely, as usual.


  22. Speaking as a secondary school teacher of 27 years standing, I echo the comments of the writer (who I am reading for the first time now having just found the blog). Though my comprehensive school could be described as “leafy” it is also very large with over 2000 students and the anonymity that can bring. We have a fairly rigid in school exclusion proces whereby if a student seriously steps out of line eg tells you to “fuck off” or even fails to obey your instructions repeatedly then s/he is collected by a duty member of staff and is excluded from the lesson with work given to do. It helps that we have centrally computerised registration and can call for the duty staff member without leaving the room. Result – student is collected, no more time is wasted and the lesson can proceed. This is not a completely foolproof solution but works for 95% of the time. I dont think any system would be able to cope with students (pupils?) who were seriously bonkers. Incidentally – a word about sarcasm – while I am never corrosively sarcastic to students personally, I find that they do have a well developed sense of the ironic, and part of my relationship with a class depends on them being able to understand irony and to some extent sarcasm when applied to institutions or rules. Sarcasm and irony can be used creatively IMHO.


  23. The truth threatens many people – you’re doing a good job telling it on here.

    I once had a child sit in my class with F off written on his arm in large capital letters – he kept flashing it at me when asked to write or stop disturbing other children. Senior members of staff believed his story of it actually being ‘duck off’ that was written (or said they did, he was the school doctor’s son), so I got no support in discipline. This was actually a leafy, alternative, independent… I got out, but admire your staying power in far worse situations. I despair at where the system will end up though !?


  24. I went to an independent C of E boarding school in the West of England in the 80s. So did my older brother and sister. One day my brother John said f*** off to a science teacher, one of the weaker and less popular teachers in the school.

    John was at once sent to the Headmaster, where John was forced to explain himself, and was instantly suspended for a week. He did not sleep at the school that night. My mother had to come and collect him that day.

    Telling a teacher to f*** off was universally understood to be beyond the pale. It was the only such incident I heard of in my entire time at the school, and I was there from the ages of 10 to 18.


  25. It’s happened to me twice (from what I can recall) – not those specific words, though it happens often enough to colleagues – but a pointblank refusal to co-operate.

    On both occasions the response was one of your ‘at worst’ scenarios. The first occasion that was completely wrong, the second I think I could defend it. The first it was essentially considered to be my fault for letting a situation reach a head and the student was not disciplined at all (probably some sort of half-joking telling off from their course tutor who didn’t approve of me anyway, so would probably agree with the student!). The second I chose to do nothing (other than go over the work the student had missed calmly during my break to ensure that they had understood it and got it in their notes).

    The second student was autistic.


  26. Pip,

    I went to a bog standard comprehensive. I never heard of anybody swearing at a teacher. Not even once. I think we all assumed that it would result in expulsion.


  27. Duncan,

    in a large class in a challenging school the moment one child is seen to get away with swearing at you and not working, they will all start. The sense of power is too great.


  28. Insofar as I think you should play the situation, then I agree with you. I just don’t think one size fits all.


  29. I just don’t think one size fits all.

    Are you not the Duncan who was arguing for mixed ability teaching on another thread just now?


  30. Yes, and the two things aren’t remotely contradictory, but then you are fond of your straw men!


  31. In case anyone was wondering this does all happen at the primary level too. I have a year 5 charmer who has told me and several other teachers to fuck off. He’s on his last chance (for the 3rd time).

    The appeasers make me cry with frustration too. I once told our ed psych how disappointed I was that Kieran’s PSP contract says he only has to do as he’s told 80% of the time. Her response (in a finger wagging tone): “Do you do everything you’re told first time?”

    I was planning to put this into practice. The next time the head asks me to do something I’m going to walk off, muttering under my breath and kicking chairs.


  32. [...] to put myself by proxy in new situations and try them on for size. When I read an article like the F… off Factor, for instance, I want to read OldAndrews wise words of advice on how to effectively deal with such [...]


  33. Having worked my way through most of your posts my only reaction is admiration tempered by a faint surprise that you have dared to say the unsayable.

    I returned to Britain a few years ago and took on subbing being too old and too long out of the British system to expect consideration for a permanent post. Rowdy uproar is indeed a norm in schools as is rude and insolent behaviour to outsiders coming in.

    School offices quite frequently call at the last minute for a ‘surprise’ and I’ve often walked into to lessons five or ten minutes after the bell to find students sitting in relative calm who will, at the instant the stranger arrives, begin to act up. It starts with a question about the reason for the teacher’s absence followed by a series of negative comments about her abilities.

    Then requests to go to the toilet come in, and these become demands followed by graphic reference to how critical the need has become. I’m full cognizant with SMT catch-22 – weak if you let them go; confrontational if you refuse – so I refuse.

    This leads to further demands and protestations of the usual kind – and we are still only three minutes in – so I throw caution to the wind and slam a blackboard ruler down on a desk, or slam a desk lid if there is one and shocked silence ensues. I silently mouth a warning and then quietly request books to come out, and and the DHM, alarmed by the sound, promptly pops his head around the door and gives an interrogating glance an interrogating glance at me the teacher, and the question ‘is everything all right’ for the students.

    Rebellious commment is made sporadically for the rest of the lesson – I’m not doin any work; he’s not a proper teacher; gay etc., etc.. At the end of the day I pass the DHM as he is gazing abstractly into the distance as I pass without drawing his attention any more than the shouting and jostling of ‘his’ students.

    In many schools I’ve put students down for vile behaviour even while knowing this reduces to nil the chances of another assignment. It’s just my own futile gesture against the self-serving oblivion that exists in secondary education.


  34. [...] crisis in behaviour in schools, and the inability of schools to permanently remove students that adversely effect the education of [...]


  35. [...] Five boys from the set above got moved down and things haven’t been the same since. The fuck off factor was evident from week 1. They are convinced being moved down was due to a personal vendetta by the [...]


  36. […] blogposts that accurately described the school and situation I was working in was Andrew Old's 'The F***-Off Factor'. In the post Old accurately identifies the limitations of the sort of behaviour policies one finds […]



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