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.

Advertisements

For the Best Experience – Get Out!!!

educational

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?

compassion

“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.

Dear Mr. Gove…

Dear Mr. Gove,

Please accept this letter as a heartfelt plea to withdraw from the Conservative Party leadership race, suppress any further ideas of becoming Prime Minister, and seek immediate help for your narcissistic delusions. I understand why you clearly think that you are the right person for this job. However, my understanding of his is based not on your ability nor your track record of perceived success, but your worrying history of delusional self-righteousness when you have been given positions of responsibility. There seems to have been an emerging pattern in your behaviour where you are absolutely unable to accept that there are people in this world who actually know more than you and on the basis of that knowledge, disagree with much of what you have attempted to do.  I would like to help with your recovery by highlighting only a small number of these instances.

In 2006 you published Celsius 7/7 to extremely mixed reviews. However, one of the main criticisms of this book was your attempt to dilute the issue of Islamic extremism and terrorism into an emotive package that was really just a reflection of pre-existing prejudices held by many. The worst part of this is that you wrote this book with the absolute belief that you were somehow an expert on Islamic extremism and terrorism, and in that process you tried to argue against the real expertise of scholars such as William Dalrimple and policy advisers such as Marc Sageman. As a result, much of Tory policy towards combating extremism was based on your flawed ideas.

This, however, seems incomparable to the work you did while you were the at the helm of the Education system. Your track record speaks for itself as you single-handedly dismantled the entire system and left it in an extremely poor state of health. You also lied about your thought towards professionals here. While you claimed to value the work of professional teachers, you increased the numbers of untrained teachers which had a very damaging impact upon education on the whole. Even Professor Sir Richard Evans said, “Gove presided over the disintegration of our school system; he opened up teaching to untrained people in state schools, because he had contempt for professional educationalists.” See the pattern emerging here, Mr. Gove?

Even when you brought yourself to consult with experts, you then ignored all of their suggestions. The History curriculum is a good case in point. After consultation with some of the top history educators in the country, you ditched their ideas and came up with your own ridiculous patriotic version of events to ram down the throats of our next generation with little regard for the skills they should learn in the subject. Furthermore, against all advice, you changed the GCSE system in 2012 making it much harder for students to compete with those who had sat the same level of exam in previous years. Then when results dropped that year, you blamed the very people who you ignored – the education professionals.

There has been an abundance of research about behaviour in schools, and engagement, and student well-being…. but you disregarded the lot in a bid to recreate your own school experience because, of course, all children in schools are just like you were, and if it worked for you, then it will work for every child in the land. Well, guess what, Mr. Gove, it didn’t work for you at all. You might have little pieces of paper with some qualifications written on them, but you have a long way to go in understanding people. For example, in a bid to improve discipline in schools, you pushed for getting more ex-soldiers into teaching roles. Is this what kids really needed? A sergeant-major figure shouting at them to get them to learn more? Clearly your ideas about school discipline are contrary to much of the current research, especially when we take into account your views about writing lines as a form of punishment. During this whole process you have presented yourself as an expert in learning and behaviour management despite the advice from those who have worked in this field for longer than you have been an adult.

Finally, the only time you have actually referred to any type of model to underpin your ideas was when you suggested that schools should be open 51 weeks of the year and until 6pm in the evening. Here, you cited school systems in the Far East as being models to which we should aspire to, with absolutely no regard for the cultural differences between British and Far Eastern students and the fact that the “Far East” covers a very diverse cultural region within itself. You failed to include the fact that the rote learning that often takes place in Chinese schools has rendered many Chinese students unable to deal with creative and critical thinking required at the highest level of education. But then maybe that is exactly what you would like to achieve because we all know how dangerous critical thinkers can be, don’t we? After all, you have spent most of your career trying to undermine them.

I sincerely hope you will consider withdrawing from this leadership contest. Your track record of such a high disregard of those who really know what they are talking about is disturbing to say the least. Are you threatened by people who you are more equipped with knowledge than you? I don’t know.

What I do know is this. I am no expert in politics or education. I am not as experienced as you in government affairs. Whilst I do have more qualifications than you, please don’t feel intimidated by this because they were gained long before your reforms took hold and in your eyes are probably meaningless. I do know that I left the teaching profession and the UK in part as a result of your reforms, and I was a half-decent teacher, despite the ridiculous restrictions you were placing on my practice. But given that I am not a recognised expert in the field, and with your clear history of rejecting the views of experts, maybe this time you will listen to someone who is far beneath you in your perceived pecking order and you will do the right thing and retire with your destructive legacy intact.

Yours Hopefully,

A former UK Teacher.

 

Class War in the Classroom?

A recent, magnificent article by Sarah Moore in the Guardian got me thinking about the issue of class in the UK. As a teacher from a very lower class background, I find myself in the minority. Okay, I get all the sociological arguments about access to education and all the fluff about working class culture, but the fact remains that most teachers in the UK are from backgrounds that carry with it some level of privilege. Here is where I hold my hands up and scream out my disclaimer- I know I’m generalising (I know lots of working class teachers), I know it might appear that I am suggesting that class has any impact on the excellence of a teacher (it really doesn’t). But one worrying pattern that I cannot help to notice is the fact that the education profession is generally led by people who are quite far removed from many they are paid to teach. This permeates throughout British society from the highest level right down to the types of teachers certain schools can recruit and keep hold of. If Britain indeed is locked into some kind of class-war, as has been suggested by many social critics, maybe that war starts in the classroom; in schools which end up creating ideas about class, privilege and rights within our young people which has led to the vast ideological chasm about what it expects from people in society today.

Recent studies have suggested that despite the rhetoric of inclusion and the famous “every child matters” agenda which has been a cornerstone throughout education recently, under the current government we are moving nearer to a divided system which favours the agenda of the ruling class. A paper published only days ago by the Social Market Foundations Commission on Inequalities in Education has pinpointed several problematic issues with teacher recruitment in secondary schools. In short, schools which have a higher percentage of Free School Meals (FSM) employ more staff who are either underqualified or newly qualified. In addition, many of the NQTs in these types of schools end up leaving after only a short time. This is further exasperated by the fact that these schools pay teachers less on average, which could be one reason for their short lifespan. However, from my own experience, I would suggest that it is not just the issue of money which drives many of these NQTs away – sometimes it is social class. In many cases, these NQTs came from “nice” grammar schools, then onto a university education, followed by placements in schools which were performing well, and it may be a simple fact that many NQTs from more privileged backgrounds simply struggle to connect with lower class kids from schools in deprived areas. If we follow this paper trail further, we find that less lower class people are going to university because the funding structure and the astronomical fees just don’t support their enrollment. Furthermore, often university culture is alien to most young, lower class people, especially if their parents can offer no help or advice whatsoever. The whole system needs a shake up and more working class kids need to be going to university.

The structure of education itself is also changing. Education is supposed to be about expanding minds and building vehicles for creative and independent thinking. Instead, teachers are now trying to work within a system which is obsessed with measuring and tracking numbers in order to prove to an overbearing organisation that everything works. The outcome of this is deeply ironic because this crazy obsession with measuring progress to a detail means that less education is actually taking place. Those with power in education are increasingly trying to adopt a business model to it, which only further reinforces the capitalist system which favours those with privilege and power. Examples are abundant. Performance related pay in the UK – where teachers are now expected to meet targets like sales assistants in a department store. The academisation of schools – allowing businesses to dictate terms and conditions. There is even talk of businesses running education curricula. We are already in that dangerous zone where capitalism overrides education when we consider the cost of textbooks for underfunded departments in schools. There is a reason why Pearson Education are a multi-billion pound a year publisher. In a wonderful article published by the education blogger @Teacher Toolkit, we should consider a quote which sums this up eloquently from the book Flip the System by Evers and Kneyber, “Education is threatened on a global scale by forces of neoliberalism, through high stakes accountability, privatization and a destructive language of learning.”

Finally, there has to be some recognition of the existence of a class culture within Britain without the Thatcheresque denigration of working class people. Most working class people are not stupid but many don’t get access to the pathways that allow them to become teachers. So, for now, maybe a start would be to redress the system by teaching compassion and understanding rather than a business model of productivity. Maybe if education leaders change their attitudes towards working class students, more of these young people will want to support the system, but until that happens most working class people will see the system as exclusive and oppressive, which will simply reinforce the cycle we are in currently in. Sadly, it appears again that this model is something that favours those with privilege, which I believe is why we find ourselves in this social situation right now and those with the power have very little incentive to change things.

In the long run, getting more teachers who can tap into the cultural needs of working class students is the key. I have worked in a school where this was superb! Teacher retention at this school was fantastic and the number of young, dynamic teachers who moved onto middle leadership was also impressive. In short, few teachers left. (I emigrated!) What was the formula? Simple, teachers were employed on their ability to connect with the types of students they would be teaching. Many of these were teachers from lower class backgrounds; some were from more privileged backgrounds that were prepared to listen and learn. A special culture had been generated. The most important outcome here was the success rates of the students. The school punched above its weight in these terms.

To finish with, I cannot help but cast my mind back to an online argument I had with a student whom I won’t embarrass from a University that should be embarrassed to have him. When I challenged his political thinking he referred to me as “you people”. To me – it spoke volumes. Because I had defended a working class point of view, he made certain assumptions about me and in those two words he assumed that I was uneducated, bitter and somehow jealous of his privileged position as a university undergraduate. Maybe one day he’ll move on to become a teacher. I hope not because he would simply reinforce everything that is wrong with the social system in which we live today. The words “you people” did suggest a difference; a struggle.

For me, this struggle starts in our classrooms.

Lose this subject at your peril!

Recently, in secondary education, it seems that there has been a shift away from some subjects in favour of others. This trend had been a global issue where certain subjects such as the arts, music, drama and languages have taken a hit in favour of the more “functional” subjects such as maths and the sciences.

Now, I am not suggesting for an instant that one subject is more important than the other. Surely, in a good, balanced curriculum, there is room for everything. The maths and sciences are hugely important in training our next generation of explorers, engineers and inventors as we hopefully move towards a more technologically advanced era.

However, without certain subjects being kept alive and at the forefront of learning in our schools, we might not even get there! This is because we are living in an age where we are now making the same mistakes over and over again. Even more worrying – many of us cannot even see it!

What I am referring to here is the subject of History and our tendency towards allowing it to repeat itself. In particular, the fuel for this article came from a disgraceful cartoon recently published by the Daily Mail which depicts immigrants as rats.

dailymailmacislamophobia

There have been several bloggers who have made comments on this and it has been pushed around the social media network avidly over the past 24 hours. Many people might agree with it’s rhetoric. But whatever your views on immigration, there is no escaping the fact that this cartoon bears a horrific resemblance to those found in Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s and those aimed at the Japanese by the Americans in WW2.

As disgraceful as this approach might be (and as ashamed as the Daily Mail should be for publishing such an image), I cannot help think that this rhetoric and imagery comes to us in our mainstream media at a time when subjects such as History are on the decline.

Surely, this serves as an argument to actually increase subjects such as history, religious education and the social sciences in an attempt to educate our young people today about how certain views are disseminated within our society and the damage they have done in the past. Moreover, history can teach us what these views can lead to. What starts off as casual racism towards a group of people turns into widespread persecution and genocide. The dehumanising of any group of people is a by-product of these views. We can look at countless case studies in history to demonstrate this.

I will save the argument about how we teach and what we teach for another day… but one thing is for sure – getting rid of subjects which help our young people recognise these types of approaches is a dangerous game and one which we play at our peril!