Most countries manage to keep a lid on the behaviour in their schools. We can tell this from the shocked faces of staff and students who arrive from overseas as they see what British education is actually like. (A friend of mine worked with refugees and discovered that more than one family left Britain to face persecution and possible torture in their homeland rather than put their children through the British education system). A few generations back we also managed to stay short of the current anarchy. To excuse the situation we are in now it takes a certain amount of deceit. The following lies are the ones I’ve encountered most often.
Lie Number 1:“If your lessons are good enough you won’t have any discipline problems.”
Who’s told me this lie: PGCE lecturers, OFSTED, LEA consultants, teachers from posh schools.
The Truth: Pupils don’t misbehave because you haven’t met their high pedagogical standards. The kind of kids that cause most disruption would consider any lesson where they can’t adjust their make-up, discuss their sex lives, and try and make one of the shyer kids cry as unsatisfactory. In fact one of the things most likely to make them kick off is seeing the rest of the class learning. The worst kids are a problem before you’ve even tried to teach them. They don’t care about the lesson and they don’t have a reason for misbehaving. They misbehave because they can.
Lie Number 2: “Discipline is all about relationships.”
Who’s told me this lie: Senior managers in schools where senior managers don’t do anything about discipline.
The Truth: A relationship is not one way. Students choose whether they have a good relationship with an adult. If the discipline system isn’t tough enough they will take every opportunity to have bad relationships. In tough schools you get hassle from kids you’ve never met. Complete strangers will yell abuse or throw things at you. There is no relationship there to be a problem. Moreover they will look for easy targets – the people management won’t support. In some schools that’s new staff, in some schools that’s particular departments. When I worked in the Woodrow Wilson School and SMT had fallen out with my department, they declared that all the teachers in it had problems forming relationships with the kids. It was considered more plausible that ten teachers all had the same failing, than that the consistent efforts of SMT to undermine the department might actually have had an effect on the kids’ behaviour.
Lie Number 3: “I’m sorry.”
Who’s told me this lie: Kids (usually accompanied by somebody more senior than myself.)
The Truth: When they say “I’m sorry” they actually mean “I’m not sorry at all, but somehow you’ve actually managed to get me into trouble with one of the few people with any power in this school. While they are here I will apologise but the moment they are gone I will make it entirely clear that it was your fault that I am in trouble and that I take no responsibility for my own actions. Moreover I reserve the right to do the action I am apologising for again, along with far worse behaviour, at the very next opportunity”. At Stafford Grove School one of the kids who apologised for his “uncharacteristic” poor behaviour when accompanied by the Head (“David’s not so bad”) was arrested later in the year for burgling the school and was last seen by me sneaking onto school grounds with a can of beer in his hand, accompanied by several other students no longer on the school roll, no doubt looking for chocolate and valuables to steal.
Lie Number 4: “We can’t do anything with him/her at home either”
Who’s told me this lie: Parents of obnoxious brats who I have foolishly phoned looking for help.
The Truth: Of course you can do something. You could stop paying for their mobile phone until they stop using it in lessons. You could cancel their Christmas presents. You could take that TV set out of their bedroom and lock the Playstation in the cupboard. Parents have a hundred times more punishments available than teachers. That said, parents have more to put up with too, so maybe the problem actually lies with the idea that teachers (the professionals) should rely on parents (amateurs) when trying to get schoolchildren to do what they’re told.
Lie Number 5: “Well we can’t expect too much. They are just kids.”
Who’s told me this lie: Teachers making excuses for the anarchy around them.
The Truth: No, they are not “just kids”. In many cultures they’d be considered adults by now. Many of them are as big as adults. Unless they suffer from a severe form of mental illness they should be able to be quiet. They should be able to listen for ten minutes. They should be able to avoid hitting others or verbally abusing them. Children of the same age in many other cultures manage it. Children of the same age in our culture used to be able to manage it. The problem is this has been thrown away due to the belief that controlling others is wrong and that even self-control is wrong. This lie is made twice as bad when the politics of class are brought into it. Not only are children too immature to behave like human beings, they are too poor. I’m not going to pretend that deprived areas don’t have their own problems, but having one or two kids from single parent families does not mean that you are in the ghetto. Woodrow Wilson school had supportive parents who would (both) come in on parents evening and tell you how puzzled they were that their child had started behaving badly since they started at the school. Many of them were Asian but a fair few were white middle class too as you would expect in the suburbs. Yet to hear the school’s SMT talk you’d think we were in The Hood. “You have to understand” said Gary (the school’s third head since I got there) “these aren’t middle class parents we’re dealing with” when one of the non-attenders at parents’ evening tried to blame me for their son not doing his coursework. I didn’t think to ask him “If they are not middle class parents why are they all living in houses twice the size of mine?”