The death of teaching: Know who you’re not

Written by: Joel Wirth | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What common classroom practices might we change in order to achieve better lessons and better teaching. Continuing his series, Joel Wirth looks this week at rules, and why ‘firm but fair’ consistency is vital

Can we sit in our Friday seating plan? The question, asked by a student, was momentarily confusing. But as it transpired, this was a real thing. Friday is different apparently. “We do fun things and the atmosphere’s a bit more relaxed...”

Nobody is going to deny Friday’s special place in our affections nor pretend that it doesn’t shimmer over the distant end of our collective working week in mirage-like wonder. That said, in every one of my 25-plus years of teaching, it has always struck me – despite the manifold glories of the weekend to come – rather self-evidently as a fairly regular day of fairly regular work.

But, for this year 9 girl and her friends, gamely trooping off towards the back of the class to arrange themselves as they saw fit, it seemed otherwise and disabusing them of the notion that Friday existed as a culmination of the working week rather than an annexe to the weekend was a matter of some moments’ persuasion...

The experience marinated for a while but led me to question the teacher in the following week. “I just like a different atmosphere on a Friday. Sometimes we do fun things – it’s just a bit more relaxed.”

I am a passionate proponent of teachers’ autonomy. Trained well and prepared always to learn, teachers will more often than not work out what is right for their students. But sometimes, we get it wrong. And we rarely get it more wrong than when we’re pretending that we’re something other than who we are: a teacher and all that entails.

And, of course, it is not just Fridays. Stand out on the corridors for a lesson and watch the kids who are out of class. Do it just after break. Occasionally you’ll find a mildly startled-looking child who has been sent by a class teacher to fetch something.

They rarely see the empty-ish, mid-lesson corridors and look like the explorers of a new world. More often you will find that boy from year 9. He’s no stranger to the fall into this crack in the world of learning. He walks slowly – he may swagger. He probably looks into the occasional classroom, might even aim a wave/gurn/obscene hand gesture at a mate through the glass panels. When stopped and asked where he is going, he replies that he is going back to his previous lesson to fetch his report or that he needs to fill up his water bottle.

Or, the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card, that he’s been allowed – five minutes after break – to go to the toilet. He will wave an Out of Class Pass at you as though it were proof of diplomatic immunity. He’s out, of course, because it’s easier for his teacher to let him go than it is to say “no”.

Now follow him back to his lesson. Students like this will be the ones surreptitiously (or openly) attached to headphones. They’ll be the ones who ask you if they can charge their phones (counter to school policy) or if they can have a drink of whatever stripe of sugary drink they’re not supposed to bring on site.

If you ask teachers what irks them most, apart from the manifold imbecilities of the senior leadership team, it will be the failures of their colleagues to follow the rules – and the accompanying failure of senior leadership to ever pick them up on it. Staff hate this inconsistency among their colleagues.

While there are those few at the other extreme who actively seek out confrontations with students, the professional majority diligently establish and police the school’s rules in their own classrooms. They do so in the corridors, too. They challenge firmly but fairly the coat on inside the building, the running between lessons, the eating in the IT corridor that was banned last week after the Egg Sandwich fiasco – and they do so while managing to assure the students that they are somehow on their side.

It is not a capital offence to walk down the Science Corridor at break (despite what the lab technicians would have them believe), but they respond firmly and humanely where they see it happen. All are united, however, in the opprobrium they feel towards the colleague who allows the phone to be charged in lesson (“but Mr B lets us!”) or the uniform infringements that Mrs Coppell seems to actively encourage in her room.

They really resent having to be the one who stops Frankie from chewing on the way to PE when she has already walked brazenly passed three members of staff (“Well, Mr Kimble didn’t say anything...”).

But it’s not just the staff. If you want to experience the single greatest perversity in the jungle law of school behaviour, take the views of the five year 11s with the highest number of behaviour points. They have been the season ticket holders for senior leadership team detention since year 8.

Ask them to name the best teachers they’ve had in school. Every time – and I mean every time – they will mention colleagues who you know have exemplary behaviour management skills.

They’re the “firm-but-fairers”. The ones who show that they have the best interests of the kids at heart not by letting them jump the queue in the canteen but by expecting the very highest standards of self-regulated behaviour. They never choose the geography teacher who didn’t challenge their lateness or the art teacher who routinely let them leave three minutes early for lunch because they asked and because standing against them was somehow too difficult.

Just Say No! No-one likes conflict. We understandably avoid it in our private life and squirm when it happens in public situations. But teaching is, by its very nature, a matter of conflict. It’s the intersection in that Venn diagram of conflict between the adult and the non-adult worlds, between learning and ignorance, between the insistence of the now and the demands of the future. We cannot avoid it and, as all the best teachers know, we must not see avoiding it as de facto “a good thing”.

Teenagers will get it wrong – not always accidentally – and we must be there as gatekeepers of the adult world to let them know, with a smile on our face, how things need to be.

Dress in your authority

I have referred many times during this series to teachers’ professional power (and we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t see it as power). You are not “you” when you come into school: Jess Thomas at home, Ms Thomas at work. Ms Thomas is a teacher and she acts the role of the teacher every minute of her working day.

If you don’t instinctively get this then consciously remind yourself as you put your work clothes on (Jess Thomas would never wear those trousers!) that Ms Thomas is now dressing herself in her authority; that Ms Thomas intervenes when Libby swears on the corridor, even though Jess Thomas would rather turn a deaf ear.

Be who they want you to be

You are not their friend. You never will be. However much they like you and you them. Even when Jamie who left three years ago tries to befriend you on social media, he still sees you as his teacher. That’s who he wants you to be.

For all students, but particularly perhaps for the many students who come from chaotic backgrounds, teachers can embody something routine and dependable. Your willingness to overlook that student’s misdemeanour is not doing them a favour.

Know your route to the staffroom

My first advice to new members of staff was always the same. Walk the route from your classroom to the staffroom with a more experienced colleague. Learn its nuances.

Ask that colleague which rules apply on the corridors, in the social areas, in the yard that you cross and outside the library. Envisage all the things that can go wrong.

Don’t imagine break starting until you set foot in the staffroom. Until then, be alert and challenge what you see taking pace. You will quickly establish an unspoken status with the students for knowing your behavioural onions. This will not only help you establish yourself across the school but also, through the alchemy of students talking to each other, improve the conduct of students in your lessons.

You are a multitude

As a teacher, you are one of many in your school. You know that staffrooms are the most supportive, exhilarating, collegiate places. You know your colleagues will be there for you when it goes wrong. That togetherness is forged in the crucible of collective endeavour and it is that collective that is weakened if you don’t play your part. Do it for them.

  • Joel Wirth is a former teacher and senior leader who now works as a consultant headteacher. You can read the previous articles in this SecEd series via http://bit.ly/2FERRgR


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