The Bisected TeacherSeptember 14, 2008
There are some writers and advisers out there who give genuinely useful advice about classroom management (see this post for some book suggestions). They focus on concrete ideas about routines, classroom organisation, or language. However, I increasingly encounter behaviour “experts” who try to pass on ideas about the character and personality of the teacher. These “experts” paint a fairly consistent portrait of the kind of teacher who experiences poor behaviour:
“Teachers with negative attitudes generate problems for themselves. They wind kids up; they expect trouble (and get it). Their classroom has a negative air. When behaviour problems occur, which they frequently do in this environment, they quickly escalate into serious confrontations because the teacher’s response tends to be aggressive, sarcastic or dismissive.”*
“Those who adopt the punitive/hostile approach when dealing with pupils tend to see relationships as a waste of valuable time and aren’t concerned about the feelings of the pupils they teach. It’s ironic that these teachers are often the ones who complain most about standards of behaviour in school.”
The message is clear and echoed by hundreds of other educational professionals: it is the attitude of the teacher that causes problems. This principle is one that can be extended to suggest that if a teacher is upset by the behaviour they endure then it is their fault:
“A classroom that is managed by emotional responses from the teacher is an unpredictable and often frightening place in which to learn … They are watching for your reactions and testing when emotion will take the place of reason. If you display your ‘emotional buttons’ don’t be surprised when they are pressed.”
“If the students see you becoming tense and angry, you are giving them an incentive to misbehave in future. An explosive reaction might be just what they want to get from you!”
There is some truth to the suggestion that, if you are upset, it will diminish your ability to do your job. There is plenty of truth to the suggestion that teachers who are upset are probably having trouble managing behaviour, but, of course, this is to muddle cause and effect**. Children do not behave badly because their teachers are upset; their teachers are upset because they behave badly. Telling teachers not to be upset is simply blaming the victim. This is wrong, not because there is any great benefit to being upset, but because children should not be allowed to upset teachers.
The “human sponge” theory of teaching, in which teachers simply soak up the abuse without complaint has very little to commend it. While rage and frustration is not constructive, a neutral response to the unacceptable helps to make it acceptable. Behaviour would not improve if teachers were inhuman teaching machines, able to stoically accept all abuse without any hurt feelings, because part of behaving well is considering the feelings of others.
Now, the other side of the picture is the teacher whose classes behave well. Inevitably the good teacher isn’t good because of any ability to enforce discipline. It is their attitude to pupils that mark them out:
“[T]eachers who choose to see ‘problem’ pupils as ‘pupils with problems’ and reach out with offers of support, assistance, trust and respect generally have the most success in terms of preventing and dealing with incidents of bad behaviour. Those who see positive relationships as an essential part of teaching can often perform miracles with the most challenging pupils”
“The drive to be part of a group, connected to something, valued, appreciated, heaven forbid call it ‘loved’ – is essential to all human beings. We all positively need to be loved … positive relationships are a sure-fire way to get the most from any under-performing pupil and are the foundation of any successful discipline plan.”
“Do try to make your students feel that you like them, and that you are interested in the things that interest them”
Again there is some truth here. Nobody thinks mutual hatred is the classroom ideal. Those few forms of poor behaviour that are motivated solely by hatred of the teacher may not be directed against a teacher who is well-liked. But again cause and effect have been muddled. Are children really well-behaved in classes because their teacher likes them? Isn’t it more likely that teachers like classes where the children are well behaved?
But there is a more important point here. There is a basic contradiction in these two ideas. The teacher who (at least apparently) is never angered by cruelty, or disruption to learning and the teacher who (at least apparently) cares about their students are unlikely to be one and the same. You cannot be concerned about children and unconcerned about behaviour that harms them. The only teachers who are comfortably numb about bad behaviour are those who don’t care about its consequences. Even the pretence of being emotionally indifferent to poor behaviour spells out clearly that you don’t care about those children who lose out due to poor behaviour. Concern for those who suffer injustice and anger at those who cause the injustice are utterly inseparable. The behaviour “experts” may think that they have identified a virtue and a vice, but actually they have attempted to separate two sides of the same coin. You cannot bisect a teacher into two parts existing in different moral universes; one part wanting children to learn and the other part hating it when they don’t.
One suspects, however, that if the behaviour “experts” didn’t slice teachers in half they couldn’t simultaneously get them to pay for behaviour advice and still blame them when the advice provided doesn’t work.
*You may have noticed that most of these quotations are from one or two individuals. I apologise if this comes across as picking on anybody, but it is, if anything, a compliment to how clearly they write. Or as Midgley (2001) put it when she found herself repeatedly quoting and criticising the same writer: “I do not do this in order to persecute him, but for a reason that is greatly to his credit, namely, because he writes so clearly. Clear expressions of important mistakes are very useful things, making it much easier to move on beyond those mistakes than it is when they are wrapped in confusion”.
**Despite clear warnings from the Philosopher Jack White.
Cowley, Sue, Getting The Buggers to Behave, Continuum 2001
Midgley, Mary, Science and Poetry, Routledge, 2001