There are two schools in every school: the school of the high-status staff member, with the luxury of time and authority to cushion them from the worst classes; and the school of the supply teacher and NQT, who possess neither.
Tom Bennett, Behaviour Tsar
Everyone involved in teaching wants teachers to teach well. We spend a lot of time disputing what ‘teaching well’ looks like, and that’s fair enough; there are plenty of effective techniques for cat skinning. We also seem to agree that good behaviour is highly desirable, but some see it as the product of good teaching while others reckon it’s a necessary condition for good teaching to happen. This is an important difference.
If you believe good behaviour is a product of good teaching then you’re likely also to believe that poor behaviour is a result of poor teaching. From this, it logically follows that students only misbehave for bad teachers. If kids muck about it’s because you’re not going your job. I wrote about where that leads here.
So how can you plan lessons to get kids to behave? By entertaining them. By pandering to their preferences. By lowering expectations. By being an ‘engaging’ teacher. This has been the prevailing wisdom ever since I started teaching back in the late 90s; kids only misbehave when they’re bored, so good teaching needs to excite, entertain and, above all, engage. If it’s too hard, children will misbehave. If it’s too unfamiliar, it’s not relevant and children will misbehave. If it expects children to master difficult skills, it’s too boring and children will misbehave. The main criterion by which successful teaching is judged is whether or not the “kids absolutely love it!”
There are, to my mind, two major drawbacks to this approach. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it limits what children will be expected to do to the lowest common denominator. Enjoyment doesn’t necessarily lead to learning. The second drawback is that teachers are blamed for bad behaviour. I’ve argued before that while teachers are responsible for holding children to account for unacceptable behaviour; the primary responsibility rests with the school. If school leaders fail to support teachers’ attempts to enforce school rules, and worse, if they blame teachers for students’ decisions not to comply, then children will learn that there are some teachers for whom good behaviour is not an expectation. As long as they tow the line for experienced and senior teachers they have carte blanche to blight the lives of NQTs and supply teachers. The belief that bad behaviour is the result of bad teaching is the Fundamental Attribution Error.
If however you believe good behaviour is necessary for good teaching to take place then your expectations are, first and foremost, that children will comply with schools’ rules and follow teachers’ instructions. Once these expectations are met then students can get on with the business of learning and teachers can provide increasingly challenging work.
In 2003 I moved to a school which went promptly into special measures. During the Ofsted inspection, I was observed teaching a Year 7 class I had known only for a few weeks. Some of the children were determined not to sit in their seats, and the idea of getting them to do meaningful work was laughable. The inspector told me my lesson was unsatisfactory. I wasn’t surprised. I asked what I could have done to have been awarded a higher grade. She laughed in surprise and said, “Goodness me, I have no idea! What on earth could you do with children like that?” This was not helpful.
My first year at the school was bloody hard. In order to cope I lowered my expectations by degrees and focussed on being fun and engaging. This worked for some students but not for others. Some had simply decided I was too insignificant to be worth the bother and did as they pleased, safe in the knowledge that there would be no consequences. Thankfully, the school was so disorganised that no one got around to giving me ‘support’. Even though some staff might have thought me to be a bit rubbish, I was left alone to sink or swim. I just about kept my head above water.
Then, when I started my second year at the school, a little bit of magic happened. Students who had previously defied me at every opportunity began following instructions. When I asked other teachers, they said, “Oh yes. They’ve realised you’re staying so you must be OK.” I worked at that school for five more years and had very few behaviour problems. New teachers came and went, scorched by their baptism of fire. I felt pretty smug.
I then became head of department at a neighbouring school. I felt nervous about what to expect – would I be back at square one? I needn’t have worried; my reputation preceded me. Various students greeted me with, “You taught my cousin – he said you’re a ledge!” Also, I was in a much more senior position – students were quite properly awed by my shiny new status as Head of English. And when senior leaders came to watch me teach they were pleased by the behaviour in my lessons – clearly I must be a good teacher. This is the Halo Effect. If enough people believe you to be a good teacher then you probably will be; it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy (The Pygmalion Effect.) Like many others before me, I believed the hype and thought myself quite the pedagogue.
Latterly, I moved to a school in a different city where no one knew me. Despite having a senior position at the school, I had no power. Through a strange mix of internal politics, I could tell I was persona non grata from day one. When I ran into ‘difficult’ behaviour, I did what I’d successfully done for the previous ten years, but none of it worked. I asked for support and none came. Instead I got scrutiny and suspicion. From that moment I was doomed. Students and their parents quickly realised I was impotent. If students failed to come to my detention or if they walked out of my lessons they knew there would be no consequence. They were wrong. There was a consequence: I started to doubt my abilities. The Head, who had made it clear he didn’t really want me there anyway, offered me a generous escape route and I gladly accepted.
It’s that easy to destroy a teacher. It’s much more difficult, but so much better to trust and genuinely support teachers. When push comes to shove, do we really value the much-vaunted growth mindset?
There’s a simple acid test to judge the quality of a school. If inspectors want to know how good a school is they should go and work there for a week. If children pretty much do what they’re told and instances of defiance are quickly dealt with by senior staff, you can be fairly sure you’re in a good school. If ropey behaviour is met with inquiries about your teaching or the suggestion that certain breaches of the school’s rules should be tactically ignored, that’s a sure sign you’re in a bad school.
No one wants to compel, force or otherwise browbeat children into a compliant, cowering mass. We all want to be greeted by a sea of happy, eager faces clamouring to learn the wonderful complexities of our subjects. The question is, how do we accomplish that aim? Do we do it by destroying some teachers and prioritising what children want, or do we calmly, patiently and implacably expect children to follow reasonable instructions?
Yes we should work hard to grapple with the heartbreaking cankers of some children’s lives. We should be compassionate and understanding. But we should also be firm and consistent. Blaming teachers for children’s decision to misbehave undermines everyone.
And when those who insist good behaviour follows from good teaching are responsible for leading and inspecting schools, it makes me particularly cross.
Old Andrew: How to destroy NQTs