I was a new teacher, already discovering that I had much to learn about classroom management, when I first read DH Lawrence’s 1915 novel The Rainbow, and encountered his graphic description of the young Ursula Brangwen’s struggles with her class.
Ursula, in search of independence from home, becomes a teacher, determined to win over her pupils, spread happiness and have a lovely party in the classroom at Christmas.
But she finds herself running Standard 5 – 55 children of around 11 or 12 – in a rough elementary school led by the ruthless Mr Harby, whose favoured mentoring technique is to humiliate Ursula by berating and disciplining her class in front of her (“...worst-behaved and dirtiest class in the school!”).
“He began to persecute her because she could not keep her class in proper condition, because her class was the weak link in the chain which made up the school.”
Her children became more and more out of control, so that, “...when Sunday night came, and she felt the Monday morning at hand, she was strung up tight with dreadful anticipation, because the strain and the torture was near again.”
How many teachers know that feeling? I certainly had my share of it. Then there’s this, which some of us also recognise: “When she went into Ilkeston of a Saturday morning with Gudrun, she heard again the voices yelling after her: ‘Brangwen, Brangwen’.”
If you are familiar with the book, you will know that Ursula, in the end, restores order, brutally, at great personal emotional cost.
Ursula’s plight is extreme of course. She is young, untrained (“uncertificated”) and unprepared, thrown into a huge class of feral children in a crowded room. The bullying head is a constant menacing presence. Colleagues sympathise and share her hatred of Mr Harby, but are understandably focused on their own survival.
Of course that was a century ago, a different world. And yet there are uncomfortable echoes across the years in the stories we hear at union conferences of teachers who lack support, are blamed for being the weak link, and humiliated in public (distant voices calling after you in the street pale by comparison of what can happen on social media).
Then you consider that 40 per cent of new teachers leave during their first year and it all adds up to the possibility that Ursula Brangwen’s experience might be, at least in part, still alive and well.
So does this mean that Mr Harby is still with us? That bit, surely, is unthinkable, yet it’s evident that Ursula’s problems were considerably multiplied by a lack of what today we would call a clear and consistent behaviour policy.
Lawrence puts it beautifully: “The headmaster and the teachers should have one will in authority... But the headmaster was narrow and exclusive. The will of the teachers could not agree with his, their separate wills refused to be so subordinated. So there was a state of anarchy.”
The effect on Ursula was that she carried the blame for her own inadequacy, in her own eyes as well as that of the head.
She was, in effect, a victim of what teacher Jane Setchfield, a delegate at the NASUWT’s recent annual conference, described as a “blame game” – a failure by leadership to accept that problems might be caused by whole-school issues and a lack of clear rules. So: “In order not to accept that they’re at fault, they will blame individual teachers.”
The cause, undoubtedly is that the external pressures on school leaders and governors to maintain the appearance of good order and steady progress are now so great that in some cases the first reaction to any disruption is a bit like my own when I was a young dad and one of my children was sick in my cherished car.
First, unreasonable irritation, even anger, quickly followed by a rush to wrap everything up quickly, leave it behind, squirt the air freshener and move on.
The challenge for the leadership, then, is to recognise that while the instant, exasperated, bang-the-forehead “what now!” reaction is understandable, and recognised by every hard-pressed head, it has to be set aside in the interests of justice and professional integrity.
After all, any teacher who has a traumatic episode with a class or an individual already feels a sense of personal failure: “I’m a trained and experienced professional, why did I let that happen?”
What’s wanted from senior leadership at that point is support, reassurance, and the offer of help and guidance. Neither needed nor helpful is tight-lipped disapproval with an implicit (or even openly expressed) accusation of having brought in something unpleasant through the cat flap.
Of course there should be discussion about prevention, and CPD, and revisiting of policies, but all that can come later. And surely, somewhere on the top corridor, there must be someone who says: “This is a teacher who wants to succeed. We chose them to come here and it follows that we have to do our part in making the deal work.”
Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1