“There is not love of life without despair about life.” Albert Camus, L’Étranger.
This blog is based on the book – The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck which has changed my life recently.
I cannot count the number of times in my career where I have been on my own with a parent whose emotional state had totally crumbled away. People who have stabbed, punched, run over family members (or their pets), attempted to take their life, hurt their child (or someone else’s child), hurt themselves, lost a loved one, are alcoholics, desperate, about to be sectioned or hate me because of a rule… the list is very long. My first recollection of an interaction with a parent was as an NQT on a South Bristol estate in which the parent (A bouncer) stormed into my classroom, pointed his finger at me and calmly said, “I am going to break both your fucking arms.” We eventually developed a great teacher/parent relationship. It took many months and I was often scared.
It would be so easy for me to attribute the blame onto a number of issues, poverty, and society in general, bad parenting, bad schooling… Evil, and the devil’s work.
But I am not going to.
The reason I am not going to attribute blame is because these are my problems. I need to accept responsibility for them as they are presented to me. Don’t get me wrong. I am not to blame for them. I could say that these problems are caused by other people or social issues that I cannot have any influence over and therefore it is up to others better placed to do something. But, they are my problems. They will not just magic away. By not accepting them I tell myself ‘a little white lie’ and nothing changes. As head teacher of a very big school I am in the position to make choices that I believe will make a problem better. I may not solve them but I must try. As I have written in previous blogs – it is about brave leadership.
But here is the problem. By accepting these issues as leader of a school I have to get all the other stakeholders to accept them as well. The organisation can only be successful if we do it as one. I read a tweet via #SLTchat recently from someone I usually really agree with. I can’t quote it directly but basically it said SLT’s let down teachers because they don’t remove disruptive children from lessons. It should have said SLT’s let down teachers because they don’t prepare teachers to understand and have capacity to support the most disruptive pupils. I know (before you all shout at me!) this is not easy. This is from a head who did a PEx recently because he could see no other solution. But by passing problems on, by not accepting these problems as OUR problem we just make the situation worse. Anyone can criticise, condemn and complain (Dale Carnegie) but it takes real character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving. I believe that knowing and understanding are very different and this has been much of my recent reflection. We all know that understanding something is far better than knowing something (Something overlooked in education I feel). But by knowing something you need to have a deeper understanding of the situation. This is the challenge because I do not live the circumstances of many of the people I interact with.
I was driving to work last week when it hit me that being an atheist may just be the reason I believe so much in love and understanding. As a teenager I thought that being an atheist was in line with being a nihilist. How very wrong I was. This is a discipline that is testing me but it IS a discipline and one that I believe is helping my evolution spiritually and therefore as a leader in a school. I am calling for a truly ethical education that is not driven by economic expediency, political story telling or religion but by a real commitment to peace and social justice. I believe that it is because of my atheism that I want this. I am not saying that a religious person could not also want this but the difference is I have less barriers.
So, how am I going to achieve this? By being honest to myself (and therefore those around me) and turning up my ‘little white lie’ detector. Though my argument is flawed – I am not speaking falsely. I acknowledge my short comings – but I am trying to do the right things. I am not running away from the issues. I will not pass judgement on others and I will no longer sneak around in the shadows. This will be hard and I will make many mistakes. But I have the greater good firmly in my focus. I look at so many SLT’s and I do despair. They have grown up in an era in which the business of schools is tough, no compromises, no failure, no weakness, hard and fast… they are fed this by people who rarely have to sit with broken and wrecked lives. I feel for these SLT’s because one day their decisions will change lives and if only they could come at the problem with love and understanding. Still might be tough but at least they can walk away knowing that they have added to the world rather than done what is perceived as ‘best’ in a moment, fad or under perceived pressures out of their control. It is our capacity to be human that I am interested in and I believe it is utterly central to leadership.
So, you do have a problem…
What are you going to do about it?
April 3, 2015 at 9:10 am
“It should have said SLT’s let down teachers because they don’t prepare teachers to understand and have capacity to support the most disruptive pupils.”
No. They were right the first time. Keeping disruptive kids in class come what may creates a culture where disruption is normal. No teacher can change that on their own. SLT set the expectations, and if they refuse to, the school will have plenty of bad behaviour. Most bad behaviour is based on peer pressure and the example of peers. The examples have to be minimised and the pressure from the school has to be greater than the peer pressure so students can conform without losing face.
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April 3, 2015 at 5:17 pm
I think I need to expand on what I meant by ‘have capacity’. I did not mean that in isolation – as the teachers job alone (Though the sentence implies this). I should have said have supported capacity… which may have meant extra support. What I was trying to get at though was that the problems do not go away and if we just push them on they will still be problems – just somebody elses… Experience has certainly taught me this. I will go away and re-think this though.
April 3, 2015 at 6:45 pm
There will, of course, still be problems, but they will thankfully be confined to the pupil removed, rather than the other twenty-odd pupils in the class.
With a bit of luck, too, many of the pupils removed will learn from the school’s implacable stance and rectify their behaviour. But remember one thing: you can’t save all of them, no matter how hard you try. As a Head, your actions should be driven by utilitarian principles, an approach that means you must protect the majority from the disruptive minority. If that means exclusion from lessons or even the school, so be it.
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April 3, 2015 at 8:59 pm
Hi Joe. Have done just that. Have written a better explain action to blog tomorrow. Thank you for replying. There is nothing you have said I disagree with.
April 3, 2015 at 7:07 pm
I agree that the person on SLT chat was correct too. I think that while you mean well – don’ want to let pupils down, I think it would be helpful if in your role and no doubt as a member of NAHT, you ask for better solutions to some of the problems.
For example: how can one best support pupils who are from abusive families and becoming that way themselves? Look closely at the solutions presented and tell me how keeping that child in the class is actually helpful once they have started to drag the teacher and pupils around them into a relationship based on abuse and mistrust because that is all they know?
Should compassion and kindness come into the solution? Absolutely. Should we follow through with the solutions proposed on the large out there – absolutely not. In my ten years of teaching I have never been presented with a solution based on anything more than anecdotal evidence from well being liberals who want their solution to be correct because it makes sense to them from their perspective. At best these solutions are based on incredibly poor misreadings of psychological studies or ignore the reality out there because it does not suit the sensibilities of those in charge of education at the moment.
Take the ‘give the child a toy to calm down solution’ – this seems to be rewarding a child for poor behaviour – because it is. The only place I have found a study supporting giving children access to comforting toys was
a) not in a classroom setting but for pre-school age children.
b) the children were not allowed a toy after then had behaved poorly – they made a choice when they started to feel angry to go to the toy calm down for a set number of minutes and then speak to an adult.
c)the idea was to learn self-control.
Look at how this has been extrapolated, manipulated and applied to the classroom setting.
Demand better research, find out what actually helps to support children from abusive families instead of falling for bleeding heart liberal solutions based on nothing but a desire to help children, face the reality of what neurological studies tell us. If you reinforce a neurological connection it gets stronger not weaker and you do not form a new connection unless some cognitive dissonance takes place.
What teachers are being told pure and simple is to play the abuse victim (blame yourself for the unreasonable behaviour of the child, walk on eggshells, do not confront them, let your personal boundaries be blurred, think at all times what you did to cause that behaviour) – go and ask professionals who deal with partners of abuse and tell me how this behaviour is different to theirs?
Of course the child is pushing to maintain an abuser – abused relationship because that is all they know. What you do by giving them a victim in the form of a teacher/TA is to reinforce that connection. That is why those solutions do not work.
In order to help these children why don’t all the SLT members actually use their influence to ask for studies into children who grow up in a abusive families but don’t end that way themselves. What is the difference? What is happening to actually negate the effects of abuse and allow them to build healthy relationships?
While you insist on comparing apples with pears (children from abusive families with those who don’t come from them you will not find a solution).
Last warning shot – if you believe that those children have worse problems or are suffering more in some way then go back to psychology – the Gestalt theory is a start but there is over 50 years of research that shows that two people can go through the same experience and yet deal with it differently.
He who shouts loudest does not have the most problems – and while you are allowing this abuser-abusive relationship to be played out – what effect is it having on the rest of the class? What does it do to the child who is in an equally abusive home but who is being supported by a family member or sibling to create connections for a healthy relationship as opposed to the abuse they see. Are you tipping the balance for them? Now where is your compassion? If being in an abusive environment is damaging then why are 29 odd other children witnessing this in class each day with your support?
And all the while your solutions fail – time after time and in classroom after classroom but you don’t want to accept the something that needs to change is your solution.
April 3, 2015 at 9:11 pm
Wow? That is a comprehensive reply. Thanks. I feel that you really have got the wrong end of my intentions. Please read some of my other blogs to understand I am not the person your reply thinks I am. I have continually removed children to support teachers. I have sought through out my career to work in the most challenging places. In my last three schools behaviour has been judged outstanding (Tower Hamlets, South Bristol and Somerset). That has only been achieved through taking really difficult decisions. I have never lost a teacher through them feeling unsupported… I say this because I feel your reply is based on your experiences and OURS have not crossed. Though, clearly some of my words have touched a nerve… But… Really, thank you for replying there is much here I will go away and digest. I really want to find a way forward… I am dangerously messing with books I do not fully understand yet…
April 3, 2015 at 11:09 pm
I have re-read that post and there are a lot of ‘you’s which are meant as plurals but it has come off as personal to you. For that I apologise as reading over that it is indeed pushing a whole load onto you which you may or may not have done but which in my mind is linked to the type of head who does not remove disruptive children from a class.
I do not apologise for the content or criticisms of the solutions there are. No one is asking for the cane back. But as someone who grew up around a lot of abusive relationships, I obviously understand first hand the damage these relationships do.
That is why I say mitigate the effects – removing a child is better than leaving them in because if all they can do is play out an abusive relationship then they need serious (psychological?) help not saving from a well meaning member of SLT or a Head. You may not wish to hear that but the truth is not always what one wants to hear. Adults who are abusive do not flick switch at the age of 18 and become that way, it is learnt behaviour over time – reinforcing it, even with the best of intentions, will not lead to an adjusted individual. Only start the cycle again – and in the process damage teachers, other pupils who have to witness the abusive behaviour and the particular child who now has a whole host of memories of being abusive. The nature of being abusive necessitates excuses and blame – the sheer scale of the wrong that is committed means that those who are committing it are highly emotionally disassociated. I never forget that those brought up in abusive environments are both more likely to be victims but also to be perpetrators of abuse – solutions that focus on the former and ignore the latter can never be of real help.
I don’t look back and wish I had been taught by the people who excuse that abusive behaviour and wish I had been allowed to act that way myself. I am grateful that I had alternatives, that school was a safe place precisely because I was witnessing and able to form healthy relationships with adults who had boundaries. I am rightly horrified when members of staff and behaviour support teams make the same excuses for children being abusive as I heard as a defence for the abuse I saw.
No teacher or head can change or erase these experiences, only give them a healthy environment to grow up in at school. Enabling abusive relationships is never healthy. No one can act as a substitute for ones parents – those relationships have to be worked out over time. All that trying to replace them does is confuse the role of teachers. Being a stable adult is not the same as seeking that important relationship. A teacher who focuses that much on one child can only do it at the expense of other children in the class. If there is a teacher who does this without neglecting the other children – I am open to being proved wrong.
I hear you about teachers not saying they were unsupported but truth be told many will not say and many will put up with it because they are being told over and over again it is the right thing to do. Even more so you may have to think whether they actually did not say because they thought you were decent and did not want to make you feel bad if they thought your hands were tied. Teachers want to do the right thing and being told they are responsible and should change makes them go down that line only to find it erodes boundaries that are in place for a reason – those boundaries enable healthy relationships to occur. If they complain or say the solutions don’t work the reaction is more likely to be that they are not implementing the solution well enough or there is some personal fault rather than taking a good hard look at whether the solution is actually helping. If its not then it should be dropped. I have seen many SENCos and SLT be loyal to a particular solution. It’s insane to watch when it is failing to impact on the child. I have seen many teachers undermined and then expected to teach the child as though nothing bad has happened when blatantly an important line has been overstepped by the child.
As a final thought – when I was about 8 I remember being upset and felt it was highly unfair that my friends all had happy parents (at least they seemed to have) and did not have to put up with what we had to – my brother who was only a year older than me at the time. He told me straight that they were only children themselves and it was not their fault that we had the circumstances we did, and that we should not let our unhappiness affect the way we think or feel about or act towards them.
That is true compassion, kindness and understanding for others and in the end people can bleed their liberal hearts in front of me but if it can’t match that then it is unlikely I am about to trust their solutions.