Tom Bennett

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We need you to be rubbish: when to ignore whole school policies

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‘Restorative Justice my ass’.

I just answered a question on the TES behaviour forum; it made me hopping mad, so I thought I’d repost my answer to it here. Basically, a teacher wrote in with an interesting problem. They’ve got great relationships, behaviour management, etc…but because the SLT want to introduce some whole school standards of classroom conduct, they’re in a dilemma- change what works, or submit to the spur and the lash of the almighty teaching cookie-cutter. This is my response…..

‘Only in the Wacky-Races world of education would we even have to consider such a farcical situation; you have great relations with your students; you have great behaviour in a school where that isn’t the absolute norm (which means you’re beating the curve), you love your job, you’re delighted to help out and you’re keen to work with the team. And you’re being encouraged to upset this fantastic balance.

It reminds me of the Simon Pegg character (Nick Angel, I believe) in Hot Fuzz; he’s a pioneer, ace cop who gets sidelined to the sticks because his track record is too good; he makes everyone else look bad. It also reminds me of a time in a previous school where one of the best behaviour managers I ever knew (fierce, almost terrifying; but his kids loved him and they worked hard for five years straight to do well) was given a satisfactory for his behaviour during an observation. When he queried this inexplicable grade, he was told that he ‘wasn’t using the whole school system enough’. I facepalmed myself so hard I spent a weekend in Holby City when I heard that.

What you have to do now is a delicate balancing act: on one hand you need to change your actual teaching style as little as possible, because the primary recipients of education (I shudder at the term ‘consumer’)  are the students; they benefit from your expertise, your relationships, your ardour and your vigour. Your responsibility is to them; NOT the middle leaders; NOT the SLT; NOT the ‘team’; secondly, your responsibility is to your integrity, your dignity. Do you want to go home and sleep soundly, knowing that you’ve executed your duty to the best of your ability? Or do you want to try to please everyone? That’s a rhetorical question (I asked an English teacher).

Also, teachers have been increasingly neutered in the last three decades by a succession of well-meaning but essentially clerical administrations who confuse uniformity, regularity, and quantitative scrutiny with rigour and professionalism. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, if surgeons were subject to the same level of pedantry and direction as classroom teachers, they’d all be stitching people with their elbows. Using liquorice shoelaces. That’s why teachers are the best judges of teaching practise, and people in offices are better at counting paperclips, or whatever the Hell it is they do. Jenga, perhaps.

And yet, and yet…their arguments aren’t entirely made of water; there is something to be said for an element of whole-school predictability. If pupils expect to, eg line up outside every lesson, then they become habituated to it. If the school standard is to salute the Head as he passes, or whatever, then at least they learn to follow a standard until it becomes routine. In industry, I heard it called ‘Flagpoling’ (or some other piece of alien jibber-jabber). But you know what? I’m not getting the impression that you’re a crazy extremist who teaches while hanging from the lightbulb; I bet you already have loads of structures in place in your classroom that are perfectly in line with whole school policy. Perhaps if you took a step back and looked at the proposals then you might be able to adopt a few of them relatively painlessly, without disrupting your existing routine. That way you can’t be accused of trying to buck the school, and your conscience might be salved slightly.

But if there’s anything they’ve proposed that you feel will actively spoil the good relationships and good teaching that you enjoy, then I would simply say can them. Seriously. Who cares? If other teachers are having problems in their classrooms, then they need to be more like YOU, not the other way around. Or perhaps I can be more precise and say that they need to be more like themselves, or the best versions of themsleves they can be. The greatest mistake an educational administrator can make is to assume that there is one ideal way of teaching; there isn’t.  We all have our own styles, which we learn over time. While there are undoubtedly many things in common with most good teachers (like high expectations, tough, fair, etc) there isn’t a universal cookie-cutter for teachers yet. That’s because we’re professionals. And helping to create people, not bake scones. Everyone’s oven works differently.

If the SLT are approachable, you might want to take your concerns to them; they may after all be open to suggestions. If they are not, then keep your marvellous classes to yourself. And for God’s sake, when you get observed, make sure you’re doing everything they love. Then go back to being good again.
Good luck to you. You should be doing INSET for everyone else!

‘I didn’t know!’ ‘You know NOW….’

PS If anyone tries to flannel you with the ‘but if you don’t make them do it, they won’t do it in other classes’ flim-flam, then scoff at them. Pupils tend to behave for teachers they respect, who usually have rigour, clear boundaries, reliable sanctions and an adult demeanour. If the pupils don’t behave in other’s classes, it’s not because of anything YOU’RE doing, or not. It’s primarily because of their own indiscipline. My God, it’s bad enough to claim that kids misbehave because of the teacher; it’s worse to claim it’s because of a teacher in another room…’

I might add that this isn’t one of those teachers who lets them base jump from the chandelier, chew gum and plan anarchy- this is a teacher, who, by the sounds of it, has good behaviour and gets them to work hard. If a teacher wants to do his/ her own thing because they’re just lazy asses, or because it’s easier to get the kids to like you than to get them to learn well, then there’s an icy Hell waiting for them in the basement levels of Dante’s Inferno. There’s a reason why we have some structure and routine to our schools, of course, but most of the reasons are aimed at supporting weaker teachers. Until they work out and get a bit stronger, and know how to tame their charges. But routines shouldn’t be a collar that chafes; they should be a skeleton; a climbing frame. And when they can assist your ascent no longer, you need to take off.


2 Comments

  1. cannonfodder says:

    Unfortunately in many areas of education, it is considered that there is only one way of doing the classroom thing. You have to conform, you cannot be yourself and find your own ways- which would include some of the 'standards'- because there is always the threat of more observations and competency proceedings-unofficially in the first instance but they do it to make your life as difficult as possible.

  2. Tom Bennett says:

    While there are undoubtedly benefits in shared standards, these need to be regarded as a scaffold for human interaction, which is by its nature, sensitive to context. There is not, nor do I suspect there ever will be, an ideal, universal way to teach. There very well might be things that work in the majority, or even the vast majority of circumstances, such as the use of consistency, fairness and rigour to achieve good discipline, but until every human being comes off the conveyor belt with a barcode on its ass, the business of raising, nurturing and training children will remain immune to standardisation.

    Unfortunately, the nature of administrative bureaucracies is that they live to do, to act; they are addicted to passing resolutions, issuing guidelines and sharing best practise until suggestions become requirements. The byproduct of this system is a form of tyranny by ledger; when all that is valued is what can be quantitatively described and recorded.

    The usual way to deal with this is to do what works in your classroom, and run the school systems when you're being observed.

    That said, every participant in school should carefully consider if the proposed whole school routines are such an imposition at all: for example, simply asking all teachers to make their students line up outside a classroom before entering isn't such a big deal, and very few circumstances would prohibit the adoption of this, unless space and geometry prohibited it. But it's when they want you to, for example, use the Consequence Code 'no matter what', that laws become handcuffs. Bust 'em open.

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