Titter ye not, but I’m a behaviour nerd. Such is the debasement of the language that you’d expect that to mean some super-strict schtick, and may be goggling at my effrontery. How can someone simultaneously be interested in school behaviour while allowing trainers? Woman’s a nutter.
Allow me. Teenagers need structure. They need it not just as training for adult life, though that’s a useful side-effect. They need structure because their brains are constantly reassessing and confronting potentialities. They’re risk takers, boundary-pushers, programmed to start breaking away from home and focus on independence and friends. Some do this more than others. Socio-economics notwithstanding, some are happy to fit in, some rebellious. Some arrive ready for pleasant community life, some are prickles and pickles from head to foot. The needs or desires of the one seem hardwired to clash with the deserts of the many.
This is the context for secondary behaviour management. How you respond thereafter is a matter of educational principles, of belief. Do these children need to be metaphorically battered into obedience to save them from themselves or coaxed into their best selves?
I’m thinking about the last 50 years in these pieces. I was about to go to a girls’ grammar school in 1971 which turned co-ed and comprehensive in 1973. I suspect there was little thought given to behaviour management in the former system, which may have been regretted after the merger. Some grammar school staff didn’t last long – or perhaps they were all very old, they seemed so to me, but that probably just meant they were over 30. As a schoolchild I was disorganised, lazy, opinionated and loquacious: the kind of combo that finishes off the weaker kind of chalk-botherer but is easily squashed by the stronger, or the more interesting. I spent a lot of time outside classroom doors but if anyone had even thought about phoning my mother I’d have been silent for a month. Parents’ evenings, as I must have told you before, held significant terrors for me and were often followed by Ominous Silence on the Home Front.
I don’t remember a behaviour management focus when I started teaching in the eighties, though you soon got a feel for the ones who could hack it and help you. Sanctions, as in punishments, weren’t routinely discussed. There was no expectation of restorative conversations, just a vague idea that children should know how to behave and be shouted at until they did - though probably the best colleagues had more strings to their bows. My second school was out of control and I left teaching for a bit. Later, in a middle management role in the nineties I got hooked into a US training programme called Assertive Discipline. Looking back, this was probably the start of the kind of detailed, consistent whole-school behaviour policies which are now everywhere. I love tangling with human nature and the systems seemed blindingly obvious to me. I became a trainer with the chance to help struggling teachers – but did it make a difference to my practice? I’m still a bit disorganised and personally disinclined to use rigid systems when I could generally generate a decent climate in the room by other means, notably a really interesting and quite challenging curriculum.
When I first clawed my way up the greasy pole to leadership I worked in an eccentric school with an arcane and largely unknown behaviour policy. We could codify simple expectations: do your homework, listen carefully, don’t swear and so on. A Deputy Head more experienced than I decided to set about the ‘unwritten rules’ which appeared to catch out lots of children – don’t go west to east along the upper science corridor, don’t use reception as a short cut into the lower science corridor and so on. She collected them into one document with brief explanations, twelve pages long and utterly unusable.
When I started as Head at the turn of the century we were up against it so introduced some quick and specific rules. In an exceptionally challenging school I still stopped short of monolithic classroom expectations because I knew I was temperamentally unsuited to enforcing them. Quality standards, yes. Identical structures, relationships and lessons – no. Did I let them down? Lazy, disorganised and opinionated again? Returning to the eccentric school we tightened it up a bit, got fiercer at the sharp end and one Head of Year introduced the only fully teacher-proof rewards system I’ve ever seen.
When I was interviewed at Tallis (finally, you gasp) no one talked about behaviour. I did, quite a lot, when I got the job and we’ve been on it ever since. Why? We’re a mixed community with liberal values. Children expect to have things explained to them. They don’t share similar backgrounds. We encourage debate. Parents are of all sorts. We have to be subtle and nuanced. We have to try to work for everyone. We are about as far from zero-tolerance as you can get and yet our behaviour is reliably good – a working definition of excellence, actually.
I’m not a nutter. I was recommended Professor Michael Marland’s matchless magisterial Craft of the Classroom in 1983 and I’ve clung to it ever since. A product of its time, it sets out the basics of behaviour management at classroom level and upon its methods rest all learning and good order in my view. I sometimes buy colleagues a copy for about a quid off the internet and at a penny a page it’s the very best value. Some bits need excising or explaining: this from a section on ‘physical action’ is very much of its time, for a book first published in 1975.
All that having been said, I must add that we are all human and tempers can be lost. There are very few teachers who have not struck a pupil at some time or another int heir career. A time will come when either you are in a particularly touchy state or a pupil is extremely irritating, and you strike out. Should this happen, don’t cover it up. Send at once for a senior member of staff. If one is not available, go to see your Head of Department or the Deputy Head as soon as the lesson is over.
We forget how far we’ve come.
I think that my view – the minimum rules needed for a fair and safe school - is reflected in the way that the United Nations characterised the conditions necessary for justice for young people, also in the eighties and expressed in eighties language:
Behaviour is a language of communication. Like all languages it needs to be learned and understood. It needs support and constant attention. Children learn how to behave well when they trust the adults around them to do the best they can. Adults do the best they can when they are appreciated, supported and trained. None of this is easily measurable but all of it is vital, vital to all of our fulfilment and happiness in every generation.
The young people of the twenty-twenties are learning to behave in a time of trial perhaps unprecedented, certainly unknown to the generations before them. We pressure and commodify our young through capitalism and the examination system in a way that raises expectations of equality just to crush them with the class boundaries we still, inexplicably, endure. They struggle with racism, gender-based violence as well as plain old misogyny and all in a context of pandemic, uncertainty and poverty for many and catastrophic, exploitative climate change that threatens us all.
Old Machiavelli lived in difficult times and had some difficult solutions to offer. But he knew that the state was safer if people’s lives weren’t made too difficult, and he underpinned that with a simple insight:
A city based on good laws and good orders has no necessity, as have others, for the virtue of a single man to maintain it.
It takes a community to raise a child and that community needs good laws and procedural regularity. That’s what we try to do at Tallis, fairly, and persistently. As we build up our young folks to lead the future we dare to be different, we stick with difficulty and we tolerate uncertainty. We try very hard to do it fairly, because there’s no peace without justice.