Tom Bennett

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

‘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.

Cruel Intentions: How bullying can be stopped in cyber space

It’s National Anti-Bullying week, and organisations like Action Work and the Anti-Bullying Alliance are raising the profile of an ancient evil wearing a very new suit: Cyber-Bullying; when people experience harassment and abuse via the internet, or other information/ communication technologies. It’s a foul, horrible way for people to interact, and sadly, it’s on the rise; hardly surprising given the speed with which instant messaging, mobile phone use and social network participation has blossomed exponentially. Remember Twitter? Started in 2006. Facebook? Launched in 2004. Even mobile phones themselves weren’t part of Everyman’s daily luggage until roughly the Millennium.

Communication technology has moved so fast, has created and then colonised new markets so quickly, that our culture struggles to catch up with the impact it has on our daily interactions. Which is where, amongst other residents, the cyber-bully steps in. DfE data from 2003 suggested that even then, approximately 16 children a year in the UK committed suicide due to cyber-bullying. And over two thirds of teenagers surveyed admitted that they had, at some point, been the victims of internet abuse, such as:

  1. Hate messages, where an aggressor leaves a plain threat or insult
  2. Flaming; when a discussion on a forum or website turns nasty, quickly
  3. Identity theft: setting up a social network page for someone without their consent, then posting false opinions under that alias- usually designed to inflame opinion against them , or to instigate trouble between peers
  4. False allegations: claiming, for example, on an anti-racism website, that Person X is a racist, then posting personal details
  5. Releasing private information about that person, to encourage further privacy invasion

And so the grimy list continues. The impact of this can’t be stressed enough; I suspect that many people, for whom internet familiarity has come later in life, struggle to see what an impact this can have. That’s because young people increasingly identify themselves socially with their on-line personae; so when an attack is launched at them on-line, it’s experienced as a direct attack on their identity, their relationship with their peers, and their reputation. After all, cyber-bullying doesn’t just affect the intended victim; it also has an impact on the friends or peers of the victim who witness the attack. Just like a conventional assault.

What can schools do to help combat this?

There are a number of excellent websites and resources available to schools in order for them to address this, but I suggest the following strategies as a good start:

1. Take it seriously. Cyber-bullying can be a living Hell for the children who experience it, so don’t pretend that it’s just a few nasty words in the playground. Comments can stay on-line for a long time; children often accept rumour and allegations as gospel, so lies become truths and damn the victim, especially when they are hurtful and personal.
2. Have a school policy. This has been a requirement in all UK schools since the 2006 Educations and Inspections Act, although not every school has one yet. Of course, a policy is worthless if it isn’t enacted, but it’s a start; it shows that the problem has at least been thought about. And of course, it lends itself to public scrutiny and discussion, particularly when it isn’t sufficiently versatile or realistic.
3. Netiquette. Every school should be teaching their children about what is acceptable practise in cyber-communications and what isn’t. Teachers mustn’t be afraid of laying down the law with regards to this: children will take their behavioural cues from somewhere, and it’s best if it’s from a responsible adult and not the loudest mouth in the chatroom. This can take place in IT lessons, assemblies, PAL lessons, RS, Citizenship- anywhere, in fact that issues of responsibility are discussed. For example:

  • a) Never post something in a public area that you wouldn’t be happy to share with the whole world
  • b) Never give out personal information about yourself on an open forum: address, phone number, where you’ll be, when you’re alone…
  • c) Remember who your real friends are: kids’ self-esteem is so deeply wrapped up with their peers, that they can race each other for friends added in the popularity contest of adolescence. But block-adding means that people you aren’t close to can see your thoughts and feelings…and can get in touch with you.
  • d) Sort out your security settings: every social network site has settings that can be modified to allow varying levels of access to varying circles of friendship. In my opinion, some sites have a long way to go in order to make this sufficiently simple- naming no names, but in my Book, some sites need to Face up to their responsibilities towards children and make the settings easier to access and amend.
  • e) Don’t respond to vicious attacks; save them as evidence.

4. Teaching children how to deal with Cyber-Bullying. This means encouraging them to report it whenever it happens. The irony is that cyber-bullying leaves a forensic trail you can see from space: Service Providers, the Police, and sometimes even in-school IT technicians can track down a post to practically the nearest metre, and usually to a specific terminal. Mobiles too. The bullies can almost always be caught- IF they are investigated. This means telling pupils that they can respond to this, and they don’t need to be victims. And it also means having a network of teachers in the school that vulnerable children feel they can trust with the information; after all, many victims internalise their anguish, often blaming themselves. And the Child Protection Officer (CPO- every school should have one) needs to be one of the first ports of call after it’s been reported.
5. Get the parents involved. If I had a child that was being insulted, harassed and bullied by some mysterious cowards, I’d imagine I’d like to know about it. Schools mustn’t shy away from this- and they mustn’t pretend it’s not serious. For some pupils, it’s a matter of life and death.

Bullying has always been with us; in fact, until the seventies, it was accepted by many in the UK as an inevitable part of growing up, as if Lord of the Flies was the typical youth dynamic. Well, it may be inevitable- maybe even a part of human nature- but that doesn’t mean we don’t do anything about it. The new technologies present this old problem in novel and complex ways: the victim can often become part of a network of avenging bullies, retaliating against the original attacker, quickly involving others. Blame can often be difficult to assess- who started it? Who’s the real victim? And of course, the anonymity of the internet and SIM cards can mean that conventional barriers to antisocial behaviour- customs, fear of retaliation- are removed, and aggression is easier to express. But that anonymity is a shade; an illusion, IF the victim gets the right support to track down the harasser, and IF the victim’s guardians take the event as seriously as the victim does.

Finally, the best thing teachers and schools can do is to model good methods of communication between themselves and their pupils, and being role models for how to speak maturely, and how to resolve conflict, and disagreement. If we can train children how to express themselves with wisdom and kindness, or at least tolerance and manners, then we will have helped them in more ways than one.

How schools destroy expectations

There is a moment for every new teacher: the NQT with energy, enthusiasm and high aspirations, leaves the rarified air of the training experience and lands on Planet School. And suddenly you walk into an atmosphere that seems unable to sustain life, let alone learning.

But this is what New Teachers are fed as soon as they born, like some hideous Matrix, or Brave New World: don‘t expect too much; accept bad behaviour; let them get away with it; the kids can’t help it. It’s pathetic; it’s an absurd, surreal inversion of what we came here to do, and it’s such a clear assault on the way children should be raised and educated that it could be reasonably claimed to fall under the definition of child abuse.

Children start off knowing next to nothing about the world (apologies to the Continental Rationalists); they learn almost everything from…us. From their parents, peers and educators. If they are taught that cussing a teacher is acceptable, then they will do it when they please. And it may please them to do it a lot. So even if the parents haven’t set boundaries for them, we bloody well can- and should. And must. Deep down, most of them want us to do it- they crave boundaries, and security, and certainty, especially if their home lives are chaotic and barren. They might not realise it, but that’s what they need.

And if they don’t realise it, so what? It’s our job to provide it, because we are adults, and trained professionals, educators and mentors. It’s our role and our responsibility to provide boundaries and rules for them. And in that partially controlled, safe environment, we provide a climbing frame to make them more free than they could have possibly imagined. We restrict them to give them liberty, despite the apparent absurdity of that statement.

Any adult in any way engaged in the business of educating children needs to get on the bus with that very basic premise; and if they’re not prepared to do so, then it is they who should get off the bus and start looking for jobs in Tesco. It isn’t the ambitious, hard working teachers who actually have an intuitive understanding of what children need in order to succeed who should be shown the door, but the flaccid, workshy fops whose only ambition seems to be to make it to the end of their careers with as little contact with children as possible.

If an NQT doesn’t get this basic level of support then they should push the eject button and go somewhere that deserves to have them, because schools that don’t support their teachers should be drained of staff until they collapse like pub Jenga.