The Good Kids

July 13, 2008

A new Year 7 intake usually includes a large proportion of children who are intending to learn and behave. It’s a bit of a shock to stand in front of a shiny, fresh Year 7 class and see the attentive faces of The Good Kids all around the room. The proportion of Good Kids falls throughout their time in secondary school, until it is a tiny minority by the first term of year 11, when it may pick up again as the real world bears down on them and some of the worst students stop attending.

The process by which The Good Kids are weeded out begins almost immediately. Students are establishing themselves in a hierarchy almost as soon as they arrive. They quickly want to establish themselves as the coolest. In the first few weeks they may be under the impression that it might be cool to be the most academically successful child; to be captain of the football team; or to have a fifteen year old girlfriend and a Playstation 3. Soon it becomes clear that the coolest thing to be is an outlaw: somebody who wrecks lessons, tells teachers to fuck off and is known to all the adults in the school. Once this has become clear the alpha-males, and most of the alpha-females are lost from the ranks of The Good Kids, along with their followers. That’s not to say they all reach the extremes of poor behaviour, but they are desperate to avoid getting caught being good.

By year 8 they have firmly established their roles. Many may still want to learn, but only the chronically uncool respect authority. Their classes are still controllable, but the attitude within them is often negative, and teachers have to work to maintain a good working atmosphere, even in top sets. It is here that we get to see the Good Kid Glare. When a teacher spends time in a class re-establishing control The Good Kids who want to learn are left waiting. They won’t complain about waiting, but they will sit glaring at the teacher, the clear expression on their faces saying: “Why are we having to wait? Why can’t you just teach us?”

As hormones take effect on students and they move into Years 9 and 10, they become more and more preoccupied with how they are seen by their peers, and less concerned about how they are seen by their families and teachers. Even those who are committed to learning begin to change perspective. Some just become “one of the gang”, learning only secretly when the true authorities in the school won’t notice. Others decide that simply sitting glaring while waiting to be taught is not enough. They begin to see their willingness to learn to be something special, something to be rewarded. It will be withdrawn if they aren’t adequately praised or if they aren’t allowed to sit near their friends. Unfortunately when sat near their friends their interest in learning diminishes. They also become bored waiting to be taught and are more demanding of their teachers. They develop the expectation that if they are going to work then they should be sat at the front, they shouldn’t have to wait for the rest of the class to be cooperative, and if, every so often, they don’t feel like working then they might as well have a day off, as they are still doing a lot more than many of their peers. And every so often becomes more and more frequent.

In their own heads they still remain the Good Kids. Unfortunately, as you stand in front of them establishing order in the class they no longer glare at you in impatience. They stare at you in disbelief:

“Why is this teacher trying to get the whole class to learn? Doesn’t he realise we are the special ones? Why waste his time on those who don’t care? Why does he criticise us when we chat, or take a break? Doesn’t he realise we will do some of the work he gives us? What more does he want from us, other than a bit of neat work in most lessons? Does he actually expect us to listen? Why should we? Nobody else will. Why does he tell us to stop talking and listen? Why doesn’t he just set some work we already know how to do, and let us do it while we continue our conversation?”

And they will become as aggressive as any other child in their efforts to establish that the teacher has no right to expect anything more from the class than occasional bursts of effort by those who want to please. They chat continually; they often sulk when challenged, and they very often don’t work. And you stand at the front and you look from Good Kid to Bad Kid, and from Bad to Good and from Good to Bad again; but already it’s impossible to say which is which.


  1. You must have been a fly on the wall in some of my classes this year! I thought it was just me… Great description of the crazy psychological juggling act that teaching can be. Will be very interested to read other comments.

  2. As a primary teacher I can confirm that the “good kid glare” begins before year 7. The most heart-breaking part of my job has always been meeting that glare while I’m constantly asking the same “challenging” children to sit in their chairs or shut up.

  3. Good stuff. I think you exaggerate though… There are a few good kids that make it all the way through, till the end, remaining good, all the way. But they are few and far between. And they often end up without any friends. It is a sad sad story, what we are doing to our children.

  4. Why should they have to wait for their peers to decide that its time to work? When they are enthusiactic YR7’s they should be in a separate group, who all want to learn. Why do we keep wasting time with those who don’t want to be there and learn?

  5. Julie, have you ever tried to teach a class that doesn;t have a single ‘good kid’ in it?

  6. the good ones who really broke my heart were the bottom set year 9 kids who were really really good. No matter what crap was going on and there was plenty they were cheerfully optimistic, kind and patient with the demented middle aged bloke in front of them.

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