The Progressive Narrative on Behaviour Part 3

June 23, 2018

Previously I have discussed two important parts of the progressive narrative on behaviour:

  1. The idea that children are liberated by a lack of discipline.
  2. The idea that children are not responsible for their behaviour.

The third and final strand of progressive thought on discipline can be summarised as “teacher blaming”. The idea is that bad behaviour is caused by individual teachers in the classroom doing the wrong thing for individual students. Slogans used to express this philosophy include:

  • “you make the weather in your classroom”,
  • “good behaviour management is based on good relationships”,
  • “perfect planning prevents poor behavior”,
  • “he/she always behaves for me”.

Teachers do have a responsibility to enforce discipline. We cannot absolve a teacher who refuses to enforce the rules or who undermines their colleagues by lowering expectations. Where a school behaviour policy is clear and workable, any teacher who doesn’t follow it, is making behaviour problems worse, even if only by making life harder for the teachers that do. We all have our part to play if a school behaviour system is to work well.

However, beyond this, you cannot run a school’s behaviour system on the basis that where bad behaviour occurs, it is the fault of the teacher, not the student. There are several reasons for this.

  1. We all make mistakes. We are only human; we all mess up on behaviour management sometimes. If you are relying on every teacher to get it right every time, for 23 lessons a week, you will be disappointed.
  2. Kids coordinate their behaviour based on more than what a teacher does. A teacher may get bad behaviour because they are new, because they are the wrong race/gender/sexual orientation, or because they teach an unpopular subject. Sometimes a teacher will get a lot of bad behaviour just because one ringleader among the children randomly takes a dislike to them.
  3. Some classes are just tougher than others. Your bottom set of 30 year 9 boys is not usually going to be as good as your class of 5 girls doing A-level. Blame the teachers for the bad behaviour, and you create incentive for those with power to use it to get the easiest classes and dump the tough ones on the powerless.
  4. A lot of the strategies for “avoiding” bad behaviour, are actually forms of appeasement. If you get good behaviour by winning over the ringleader among the kids, by making sure the content of the lesson is fun, or by never asking a kid to do something they don’t want to do, you may avoid confrontation, but it will be at a significant cost to their learning. This should not be encouraged.
  5. If teachers will be blamed for bad behaviour they will live in fear of a child “kicking off”. Kids will notice this and exploit it. In the worst schools, kids set the expectations not the teachers, and teachers are deterred from trying to raise expectations.
  6. Many “behaviour management strategies” are only useful at the margins. No matter how skilled you are with them, they cannot change the whole culture of the school in one lesson. If a sufficient mass of kids want a classroom to be in chaos, no amount of phrasing your instructions as a choice, or meeting the kids at the door with a smile will change that.

Working behaviour systems come down to making it easier for all teachers to enforce the rules. If all teachers know exactly what to do about behaviour and the school has the capacity for them to do it, behaviour improves for everyone.

When it comes to behaviour management, the most common criticisms of teachers (other than enforcing rules in the first place which has been covered by my first post) are:

  1. Shouting (and/or showing your emotions). We have all been there, either losing one’s temper, or just raising one’s voice and when that doesn’t work, having nowhere to go with it. No advice is worse for teachers than “remain calm”. If you still have a choice about being calm, then you are calm. This is all just a way of criticising teachers who are upset by bad behaviour, in order to blame them for the bad behaviour. And we all know at least one “shouty” teacher who has perfect behaviour.
  2. Having boring lessons. It may well be the case that if you just showed the kids cartoons instead of making them do quadratic equations, their behaviour would have been much better. So what? We are there to teach, not to entertain. And even then, it’s a lot easier to make a lesson enjoyable if you can trust the kids to behave.
  3. Having “bad relationships” with kids. Some teachers rely on being able to charm the kids into submission. This works to an extent, but often only by appeasement. However, most of us actually find that for the most part it is good behaviour that leads to good relationships and bad behaviour that leads to bad relationships. You can’t take the effect and make it the cause.

Things do differ between contexts. Primary teachers spend a lot more time with the same kids and have more of a chance to set expectations than secondary teachers. Also, the length of time you are at a school seriously affects the chances of being able to set expectations for your classes regardless of what happens elsewhere. Starting at a new school is often enough to quickly learn how little difference one teacher can make to behaviour. It is staggering how often those who claim that an individual classroom teacher can get perfect behaviour in their class without a supportive behaviour system are not themselves classroom teachers. Anyone who thinks they can turn around 9Z6 on a Friday afternoon just using their own personal classroom management skills and good relationships, has a moral obligation to be a classroom teacher in a tough comprehensive in the place of us mere mortals.

Strangely enough, they rarely are.



  1. All good stuff, but I think this series has missed two important points:

    Competition–one of the biggest lies peddled in ITT is that it demotivates the least able pupils. This may well be true in a mixed-ability class where pupils are expected to create, evaluate, analyse and apply when they don’t even understand and quite possibly can’t even decode words, but given a rational, knowledge-centred curriculum, competiton can work wonders with the most unpromising human material. I discovered this as a military instructor, and found that it worked just as well teaching SEN pupils.

    Fear–kids can sniff it a mile off, and like it or not, this brings out the worst in their behaviour. Humans are not naturally good, and pity the fool who thinks they are. There’s no easy answer to this, but I think it’s safe to say that a BEd is the worst possible preparation for a career in teaching, especially for someone who’s straight out of school. A year or two working in a McDonalds would be far more effective. Even better, working on a building site.

  2. As usual, this blog is spot on about classroom behaviour. After ten years I left teaching mainly because of the exhaustion that “managing” student behaviour caused me. The exhaustion came from working in overly permissive schools with systems that punished teachers (with extra workload organising restorative chats etc), rather than pupils, for poor behaviour. In my country we have a teacher shortage now and few teachers stay in the profession for the long haul. Behaviour I think, over and above low pay, is the key issue.I’d rather be destitute than suffer the poor behaviour and abuse to be quite honest.

  3. I would like to add one to your list of teacher-blame: failure to use the behaviour management system where the system itself is overly onerous on the teacher. I agree that where a behaviour management system is workable there are no excuses for not applying it. However, where such a system would end up with teachers giving up the majority of their break / lunch times to detaining students or chasing up non-attendance at detention then the system is unworkable, and blaming the teacher for not enforcing the sanctions is unreasonable.

    NQTs are particularly susceptible to this method of teacher-blame. All too frequently they appear to be the only one having trouble applying the sanctions and it can be a while before they realise that nobody else in the school even attempting to. Where the sanction system is rarely used yet behaviour is still poor, the first place to look is at the sanction system itself – yet far too often SLT simply argue “if you applied the sanctions it would be fine”.

  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

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