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Last week was a very exciting week. I was privileged to have the opportunity to give evidence to the Education Select Committee. Nick Gibb MP who spoke to the committee after the panel had given evidence gave a commitment to improve behaviour training in teacher training. We have been working for years to secure this. It is a really positive outcome.
Keeping under the teacher's radar is not a skill that some boys ever develop. In girls it can seem innate. Well-developed skills in the art of looking busy allow some girls to cruise along, avoiding work and fuelling disputes without being caught. While wriggly boys distract the teacher, the girls quickly realise that there is room to play. Sitting and pretending to listen comes easily to Chantelle. Like a stealth bomber she delivers her payload undetected. The fallout will be felt for some time to come."
A restorative approach leads each party to a point where they can take responsibility for their own behaviour and its consequences. It must not be, however, a prelude to a forced apology.
The British have always had a penchant for using force to win their battles. Now we are engaged in a war with a generation of lost souls where force is simply paraffin to the flames. Battles like this are not won in a day. What is needed is more sophisticated than laser guided missiles or the latest set of behaviour management ‘tricks’. We need to break the ‘them and us’ culture between students and teachers that is the cancer of British state education.
Legislation on restraint, confiscation, stop-and-search in schools, CCTV and detention of students are symptoms of political desperation, a lack of control even. Teachers are regularly being told to avoid all physical contact with students (yes, all) while on the other hand given training to meet aggression with physical restraint. Many schools have more security than a small airport. Hawk-eye CCTV cameras, metal detectors, ID swipe cards, a dedicated security team and cavity search booths, ‘Darren you’re next on the arse-o-scope’. (Ok that last one is not true, but watch this space). The children look on and see the traditional boundaries crumbling before their eyes. It must look as if the adults have given up. The sad truth is that so many have.
We manage the symptoms of an increasingly violent youth in schools. The root causes lie elsewhere. Thatcher’s mantra of ‘there is no community, only individuals’, has had a profound and lasting effect on society. A sense of community left some time ago and a selfish pursuit of ‘stuff’ moved in shortly afterwards. Apart from isolated pockets, the British live insular lives with surveys showing that children play closer to their homes that ever before and few people knowing the names of the people living next door. Childhood has become an indoor pursuit. As waves of media paranoia about youth crime erode any sense that the adult world is in control children are falsely protected and medicated with screens. (Children in the UK watch more TV than anyone else in Western Europe). As TV and video games dry the empathy from our children we attempt to replace it with educational programmes led by teachers who are themselves struggling to remain calm through the crisis.
There is still no compulsory behaviour management training in initial teacher training programmes. There are behaviour management strategies that are proven, skills that can be taught and are techniques that are flexible enough to be taken into diverse settings. SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) is the latest sticking plaster to be presented to secondary educators. Whilst no one would argue against students becoming more emotionally literate, they learn so much more by the example of the adults around them. While we attempt to teach emotional literacy programmes we are still not training our teachers to practice emotional restraint. Without effective training for teachers the scheme will reinforce the rules for us, rules for them mentality. ‘You! Sit down, shut up and do your emotional literacy worksheet!’ may be an inevitable consequence.
The British media likes to teach us that intervening with challenging behaviour on the streets gets you killed. It is strangely obsessed with it in fact. Those who agree that the ship is sinking buy into this paranoia enthusiastically and cross the street to avoid conversations with young people. The truth is that our sense of fear is mis-directed. We have far much more to lose if we stand by and watch. So it goes in schools.
What works in the best schools working with the most challenging children is the relentless commitment of the teachers to train together, agree a plan together, stand together and intervene together. To make this consistency palpable in language, environment and classroom practice. To put aside idiosyncrasies and yes, at times, individual teaching styles and give to the collegiate effort.
Good teachers in the UK and in Canada know that the best rewards are relational not material (we have got to stop lying to our children that the one who ends up with the most stuff is the winner.. ‘Dust your coffin with diamonds sir?’), that relationships based on mutual trust are hard fought, that emotionless responses to challenging behaviour work and that agreed cues in language drip feed consistent messages. To break the ‘them and us’ culture we don’t need more of the siege mentality but a relentless pursuit of a more caring approach. Schools can wait for society to repair itself or set an example of how an inclusive community can turn ‘them and us’ to ‘we’.
© Paul Dix 2010
If you are new to teaching or have just moved jobs behaviour management can be difficult. Without any relationships with staff or students it can be a lonely and frustrating few months. Regardless of how many people tell you that challenging behaviour is not personal it still feels very personal. You have probably spent a great deal of time creating fantastically engaging lessons and are wondering why no one seems interested in them. Students who have never met you treat you with disdain. Before you reach for the bottle take a step back.