It’s Time for Some Schools to Come Out

Yesterday was National Coming Out Day and this prompted me to think about the position that many young people find themselves in today. In many respects, days like this can demonstrate how far we have come as a Global Community. However, they also reflect how much further we need to go in order for many young people to feel comfortable about their identities. As a teacher, and as a father, I see many sides of this.

So how far have we come? Well, from a personal perspective, I was proud a few weeks ago when my teenage daughter had the courage to casually inform the family that she identifies as being bi-sexual. A long discussion took place exploring her feelings and talking about embracing her identity and being true to herself. My son who has several friends who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community has also been an outspoken advocate of their rights, even in the face of being bullied by many of his peers for his views. He’s the straightest teenager to be called a “fag”, I’m sure!

Many schools have come a long, long way. I worked in a school where a young, popular and extremely effective teacher (TB – you know who you are!!) became a spokesperson for Stonewall and led the school in developing a curriculum which was sensitive and informative about LGBTQ+ issues. The result was that the culture of the school became much more open-minded and students were more willing to embrace their identities in an environment which was secure. In short, they had an advocate and a member of staff who supported them openly.

It is clear that attitudes are changing. There is more dialogue in most schools. More discussion is encouraged by staff, which allows students to explore the issues they face. Sex and Health education programmes often include more open-minded communication – after all, understanding something in more depth can only be a good thing. Young people now have more role models in society who are more willing to discuss their feelings in public and the growing acceptance of gay marriage in many Western countries is beginning to send out a clear message of tolerance.

But we also have a long way to go. Often, role models are limited to certain industries, and it remains shocking to me that there are apparently no gay footballers in the English Premier League, a statistic which defies all odds. Despite other sports fielding their handful of gay participants, the issues seem to be muted within the confines of the world’s most popular sport. What message does this send out to young people?

But high schools are the most important institutions in dealing with identity issues because it is here where young people make the greatest developmental strides. Therefore, it is vital that schools get it right and I have seen many instances where this is sadly not the case. Within the last two years, I have taught in New Zealand… a country which prides itself on open-mindedness and moral thinking (they were, after all, the first Western Country to give women the right to vote). However, when it comes to dealing with LGBTQ+ issues, it seems that many schools are falling well short of the mark.

Homophobic bullying is commonplace in many schools. I have experienced this first hand and also worked in an environment, by contrast to the UK, where students are deeply uncomfortable in coming out or discussing their feelings openly. In some cases, staff have been so poorly equipped, trained or experienced to deal with these issues, I have been able, through observation, to compile a list of WHAT NOT TO DO WHEN A STUDENT WISHES TO DISCUSS THEIR SEXUALITY:

  1. Do not immediately refer them to a counselor, unless there is an issue of bullying or the student specifically requests this. They are not mentally ill if they think they’re not straight!!
  2. Do not suggest to them that this is just a phase and they’ll get over it!!
  3. Do not immediately call their parents.
  4. Do not make attempts to have “child protection” discussions with senior members of staff – unless there is an obvious child protection issue at stake!! (Being gay in it itself if NOT a child protection issue!)
  5. Do not tell them to go away. They obviously, for some bizarre reason, have chosen you to divulge this information to!!

Just being open-minded and listening goes a long way. You don’t need to do a 15 week course for that.

Furthermore, another worrying trend in the youth culture of Kiwis is the overuse of the term “GAY” as a way of describing something which is rubbish. It is so entrenched in the language of Kiwi teens, that I have seen teachers actually challenge students who have spoken out against this with, “Oh, its just a saying” and “it doesn’t mean what you think.” One teacher even made the point of saying, “Gay means happy, not what you think it means” to a student who challenged the use of the term as an insult. Really? Happy? This particular teacher doesn’t just need to get back to the 21st Century, but should probably come of of the 18th Century because I think the last time “Gay” meant “Happy” was when George III was King of England!! However, before we blame teachers for not doing enough to change the culture of acceptance, it might prove difficult when we consider that teachers have actually been dismissed for standing up for LGBTQ+ Rights.

But the fight has started. More groups are challenging existing cultures and progress is being made but there is a long way to go.

Finally, the more we provide a platform for young people to voice and explore their identity issues, the more openness we encourage within all cultures. A wonderful article by Professor Matthew H. Birkhold discusses the challenges of coming out and suggests that this prevents non-straight people from being “normalised”. While I agree with this argument to some extent, I do believe that coming out, as a teenager, is an important issue because it is their opportunity to gain a platform to be vocal and express their identity publicly, with the scope to promote open exploration of this. This may not be as important for a middle-aged, married man, but for a teenager, this platform which allows public acceptance can make all the difference in how they see themselves in the world.

How do we address school-wide behaviour in a logical way?

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”

These words uttered by Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan explain to Captain Kirk why the Vulcan must sacrifice himself to save the ship. This harrowing moment in my cultural evolution has always stuck with me.

But don’t worry, this is not an attempt to analyse Star Trek philosophy. I do have a serious point to make about teaching. My argument is that Spock’s logical reasoning is lost in our school system, and currently the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.

I am talking specifically about behaviour in secondary schools, and the fact that students who cause major disruption are now put before engaged and committed pupils. Of course, there is always going to be some level of misbehaviour in class – teenagers are teenagers after all, and quadratic equations don’t always set their worlds ablaze. For the most part teachers are good at dealing with this, and young people usually respond in the right way when challenged.

But then there are students for whom this isn’t enough. Take Connor in Year 9, for example. On an average day, he will walk into the classroom shouting and singing loudly. He may even push another student against the wall as he passes. When challenged, he will sit down laughing or launch a volley of expletives at the teacher before being sent to the isolation room. He will get told off by the headteacher and may be sent to an in-house support unit, designed to deal with behavioural problems. Occasionally he will get a temporary exclusion. Then, within a day or two, he is back in the classroom and the cycle begins again.

There are at least 10 more students like Connor in most good schools. Although teachers find these pupils a handful, dealing with them is part of our job. But what about the other 25 kids in my class? Sometimes I feel like I’m in one of those dreams where you are running, out of breath, and getting nowhere. Frustrating does not even begin to describe how that feels every day.

Hailey and Liam turn up for school every day. They are model pupils of average ability. On a good day, they are capable of solid C grades in most of their GCSEs. But they have to sit in a room with three or four Connors, the teacher having to constantly chase, cajole and challenge them until eventually these disruptive students are removed.

They have been learning in this environment for the past three years, and often complain that they can’t focus when Connor is around. They ask why it is that he gets away with as much as he does. My responses are usually generic along the lines of, “You make a valid point and I really don’t know.” Sometimes I might make a good pupil feel better about themselves, “We prefer to spend our time with you guys.” Or more often than not make an attempt to show the Connors of the school some support by saying, “Sometimes the classroom is just not the right environment for him.” But this is often a token gesture. When he is absent, the dynamic of the class is markedly different, with pupils far more settled and engaged. Suddenly it becomes easier for the students to answer questions without fear of an underhand comment. Those that sit on the behavioural fence are no longer pandering to a disruptive audience and therefore knuckle down and actually work harder. Without Connor, it’s no longer uncool to be enthusiastic about learning. Some research has suggested that this improvement is also reflected in attainment.

But what can we do about it? Schools are under pressure now to minimise the number of permanent exclusions and avoid the dreaded red flag of Ofsted. Headteachers try to keep these teenagers in mainstream education to avoid accusations of “poor behaviour” from inspectors, when, really, removing them could be interpreted as adopting a zero-tolerance approach. I would also argue that if given the resources, taking some of these students out of mainstream education might actually give them the specialised support that they often need. The only major drawbacks to this approach are the stigma children undergo when finding themselves in non-mainstream educational settings and often the lack of trained, effective teachers needed to deal with this challenging behaviour.

In an ideal world teachers would be able to offer every individual the specific help that they need. We would spend time with difficult students, stretch the more able and help all those in between. But that would require a huge investment in human resources and teacher time. Schools and outside agencies need more funding to find anything approaching this sort of solution, and with current educational cuts, the situation only seems to be growing worse.

I do not pretend to have all the answers. The truth is there is no magic bullet for this problem but the way we deal with disruptive students must be reviewed. Tough ideas need to be considered. At what point does a school accept that it can no longer provide the resources to cater for all of its students? Since when did it become the right thing to focus on a few disruptive kids at the expense of the rest of  the class? We recognise, of course, that there is always a context to consider when a student has serious behavioural problems, and schools and external agencies work together to support young people with these issues. But we often ignore the impact on the students who do not experience these problems yet have to suffer the consequences anyway.

Surely a school has a responsibility to make sound judgements for its entire population, rather than the small group with the greatest needs. I feel more responsible for the results of the students who are trying to achieve because from a teacher’s perspective, my time with them feels better utilised. I feel like I’m making a difference, which surely is the point. If Einstein was correct in his assertion that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then we are truly going insane.  The system as it stands is deeply flawed because the needs of the few so clearly outweigh the needs of the many. There is no Vulcan logic here.

We Can Learn Something from the Fascists…


In light of recent events in the UK Government this week, particularly Theresa May’s speech and the issue of fracking in Lancashire, there are two groups of people I feel the most sorry for.

First, my grandparents’ generation because they sacrificed so much in fighting fascists in Europe now only to find themselves in a country that is showing early signs of following the very policies that created totalitarian states in the early 20th Century. Secondly, I feel sorry for my children’s generation who have inherited a world not of their making. A world created by the narrow mindedness, bigotry and lack of intelligence shown by my generation.
If you don’t believe me or think I am overreacting, consider this. Nazism flourished through a process of demonizing outsiders through propaganda, restricting their rights within Germany,  then forcing them to be identified as something different. Nazism was made more powerful by shutting down local governments and moving to a more centralised model so it could control all policies. It changed its school curriculum to reflect it’s own values. It shut down workers who wanted better pay and conditions.
Have I mentioned anything here that the current Tory Government are NOT doing right now?
The most alarming part of this is the fact that the Nazi government took power because a large bunch of people supported them,  but an equally large bunch of people did nothing to stop them.
That’s how dictatorships evolve. Not through evil people taking control of a country by force, but through a slow erosion of the principles we used to hold up as valuable while people stand by and watch and just say “Oh, well, that’s just the way it is.”
If we can learn anything from the Nazis it is this… IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THIS IS NOT THE WAY IT IS.

For the Best Experience – Get Out!!!


Thinking back to my school days, I can’t remember many lessons. I can’t remember a single Lesson Objective or Learning Outcome. I think the only classroom experiences I remember were when something crazy happened – like when a lesson went totally wrong for a teacher, or one of the more challenging students lost control and caused a spectacle for most of the lesson.

But I remember all the school trips. Most of them I remember  because they were fun – but I remember the actual learning that took place too. In many cases, they sparked my interest in the world because I saw things that a kid from an underprivileged background would never see from home.

In many schools, there is increasing pressure to deliver lessons – skills and knowledge – to students in the classroom. As schools are judged on measurable results, teachers and school leaders are feeling more under-pressure to lead this from the controlled environment of the classroom so data can be generated easily on student progress and outcomes. However, the closer we move to this model of education, the more I feel our students are missing out on what I think education should be about – engagement and enjoyment.

There has been a great deal of research on Education Outside of the Classroom. I don’t wish to summarise the wealth of research out there, except for supporting the majority of it which identified “Out of Classroom” Learning as one of the most valuable aspects of a student’s education. A summary of this research from Ohio University suggested that:

“Students who directly participate during a field experience generate a more positive attitude about the subject.” (Behrendt and Franklin: 2013)

It is clear that the benefits are far-reaching. But rather than focus on research, I’d like to focus more on my own personal experiences. I’m sure there are many teachers who will share my views and I am also sure that there will be some horror stories out there which may have tainted experiences of getting students out and about.

Some of my most cherished memories have come from school trips or sporting events. I also believe they are vital in cementing a fantastic relationship with students. Some years ago I ran a football team for a school I worked at. Much of the team was made up of some of the most challenging students at the school. Young, working class lads, disillusioned with education. After a few weeks of training and playing competitive matches, something changed. Many of these students, with some of the poorest behaviour in the school, were trying harder in my lessons. Their behaviour was improving dramatically. By the end of the year, their progress was a dream. But I was doing nothing different in this class than any other, really. The difference was – we’d bought into each other. As I coached them, I saw aspects of their characters that never came out in a classroom. I saw them pour their souls into trying to win, especially the comeback from three goals down to win the game. I saw their competitive edge sometimes boil over – and they experienced my wrath when this sometimes manifested itself into disrespectful behaviour towards a referee or an opposite player – but in the end they understood my expectations. I saw them help out team-mates who were struggling and lift the performances of some of the weaker players, and how exposed they felt when they faced a massively superior team and were turned over by a huge scoreline. The dignity and character they showed through this humbling experience was profound. A new level of respect was created that year and it stayed between us until the boys left school, long after I had stopped coaching them. Overall it was a hugely rewarding experience and I would urge any teacher struggling to find their feet in a new school to coach a sports team or a club of some sorts.

Educational trips are no different. There is a permanent bond formed between a teacher and a student when you take them on an intensive trip. Some of the best memories I have come from a trip to the WWI Battlefields in France and Belgium with a bunch of Year 9 and Year 10 students. Their curiosity was amazing and they probably learned as much in that week as running a full scheme of work about the First World War. They were engaged for the whole time – asking intelligent questions and fully immersing themselves in the experiences they were having.

Teachers should never feel guilty about creating some time during trips for “fun” stuff. Why not take some time out for shopping? Recently, a group of Year 12/3 Marine Biology students were taking time out of school for their trips, which I would always raise a sarcastic eyebrow at because wetsuits and the odd surfboard would be seen accompanying the students. But why not? They were still doing Marine Biology and from a “results and outcomes” point of view, the students are certainly heading in the right direction because they have been fully engaged with the subject. Next term, I will be running some Geography field trips to the coast looking at coastal processes and I can feel a surfboard or two coming out during those!

One of the biggest challenges for teachers on trips can be behaviour. However, in most cases from my experiences, most students have the ability to step it up during trips. I think its about giving some of them the responsibility that they maybe don’t get in the classroom. Let them out – trust them – and mostly they’ll repay that by just getting on with it. Rarely have I been let down by students during a trip. Teachers can manage situations really well by being low key. Accept that the excitement of a trip might initially be a lot to handle for some. My golden threat is that any misbehaviour warrants half a day with me – and I can be the world’s most boring human being. It usually works. Clear boundaries, easy instructions and a good sense of humour can work wonders in managing students on trips.

I would say to most teachers – do more trips! If you can find a way of getting the kids out of the classroom, do it. There are clear benefits to their learning – even indirectly. There are hidden treasures. After eating a school lunch in a French school, my students never complained about our dining room ever again!! After seeing the serious lack of litter in Belgium, my students realised how messy they really were!! But apart from the educational benefits, there is a huge advantage on returning from a trip and having that shared memory with the students. They get to see that human version of you which doesn’t come out as much in the classroom! You might find that they’re more engaged, buy into you a little more, want to give you that bit extra that was missing, and help you develop that relationship with them that makes the whole process of getting them through the tough stuff more effectively. From this angle, I think the value is invaluable.

Should we teach “Compassion” as a new subject in our schools?


“You look like a sex offender.”

“You 12 Year Old Faggot.”

“You should drink bleach and kill yourself.”

“I hope you get cancer.”

These are some of the comments left on a teenager’s YouTube channel after posting a series of short clips. As an adult, let alone a teacher, I was shocked to find comments like these in abundance. These comments were sent by other teenagers specifically to criticise the content of a channel. Having looked at other social media, the trend is very similar, particularly on Instagram.

I don’t want to get into a debate about how we teach internet safety to our kids. In my opinion, its a no-brainer that we should be teaching kids to be more intelligent and “streetwise” when it comes to the internet. However, to me, comments like these do not simply originate from a lack of understanding of how to use social media, but grow out of a total lack of compassion for other peoples’ feelings. Worryingly, as a teacher, it seems I am seeing more examples of this complete lack of understanding of how the actions of our students impact on their wider world.

Before I start suggesting that things are worse than they have ever been, I’d first like to reflect on my own years as a teenager. At times, teenagers can be cruel. Arguably, many lack the empathy we would expect from them as adults. It is easy as a teenager to get drawn into unpleasant behaviour due to many factors – peer pressure being a big one. But I would argue that the anonymity afforded by social media has allowed the very worse elements of teenage behaviour to take route, which is more reason why schools and individual teachers need to take more responsibility in supporting their students to make the right choices, maybe to the point of formalising this in the classroom.

Homophobia has been a recent case in point. In many schools, low-level homophobic comments have largely gone under the radar. “Oh, that’s gay!” says one teenager to another when referring to something they dislike. I continue to hear about comments like these unchallenged by teachers in charge of a classroom. On the upside, I have also worked with an amazing colleague who brought this issue to the forefront of her school, becoming a leading member of the Stonewall campaign to raise awareness of the use of this language in schools. The results were outstanding as students began to really understand the impact of their actions. More of this needs to happen.

But as teachers we are facing a battle. How do we teach compassion to our kids when the world around us is becoming increasingly hostile? A case in point was an article in the Guardian today about the wearing of the “Burkini”. I was shocked and dismayed that a supposed democratic, enlightened nation could enact and enforce such prejudicial laws for little purpose other than it “may offend people” on religious grounds, and was not in keeping with a “secular” society. I wonder how many Catholic Nuns were asked to de-frock in Paris today as a result of their religious expression?

After the Brexit vote, race hate crimes in the UK rose by 57% according to some research. Yet in the midst of all this intolerance from our societies, we expect our students to be tolerant, open-minded, non-prejudicial? We are fighting a losing battle!

My point here is that in the climate of intolerance, injustice and prejudice, maybe we need to be clearer to our students on ways in which to avoid this. Maybe we need to specifically teach the values which education SHOULD be about – compassion, understanding, open-mindedness. I know teachers that do this already – they are amazing. Their kids listen to them and learn a great deal about life from them too (and they know who they are!!) But I also know many teachers who avoid tackling these issues head on. That is why I would suggest that there needs to be a more formal approach to teaching these values in school.

At the moment, our societies have a great deal of room for improvement. But if we want to start making those improvements, maybe we need to start with education and the values that this should bring to our young people and start that process in our classrooms.