Picture the scene. It is 1996, I am a trainee teacher, keenly equipped with newly de-cellophaned Moleskine and retractable pencil, waiting eagerly for my cross-subject lesson observation to begin.
I have been told that the head of English is a decorated behaviour maestro, the pivotal figure from whom I can etch the blueprint for a lifetime of Spartan disciplinary skills I will need in order to survive the next 30 years at the chalkface.
That was literally how the observation exercise was described to me: watch him, take note, learn and re-enact. Learn to take no prisoners.
He was the teacher renowned for “dragging a grade C out of the barely animate, the feckless and the feral”. I am not choosing my vocabulary here; this dialogue was the norm at the time.
I had chanced upon the teacher in the corridor earlier and watched with wonder at how students immediately shifted from sprawling to rigid in his presence as they traversed between lessons. How on earth did he do that? I could only dream of ever having such sharp and commanding discipline.
I must have caught the corner of his eye because he summoned me momentarily for a word. Despite his authority, he was warm, charismatic and affirming as he briefed me for my observation, and his words will stay with me forever.
“What you will see Jo is the secret of survival. Go in hard and never, ever let them think you are in any way bothered.”
I nodded as he strode down the corridor and watched the sprawl of students part and fall into neat lines as though Moses himself was standing at the Red Sea.
Everyone who ever trained to teach anywhere must remember that icy-cold wait for the “proper teacher” to arrive as you are parked in the corner, ready to observe.
The class was literally going wild, running over desks, engaged in enthralling bouts of the Macarena (don’t ask), and smacking each other about the head with their boot bags.
Suddenly there was a loud thud, followed by another, then another which made the students scarper to their seats in silent terror. It was Mr Discipline heralding his arrival by smacking copies of the Anthology on the desk as he strode to the front, accompanied by a well-scripted opening gambit.
“Okay, you lot. As usual, it’s Friday last lesson. I don’t want to be here, you don’t want to be here, but we all agree it’s a great idea to make it to the weekend without casualties. Page 33.”
I have never ever seen a class so silent for so long before or since, which at the time felt like an amazing accomplishment.
Without discussion at all, they wrote down what he said, answered his questions, and copied the poems beautifully. Everyone left at 3:45pm according to a well-honed drill and no-one got the 10 sides of never-to-be-handed-in lines I was so accustomed to dispensing in my own battle for pedagogical survival.
In sum, I know he was bothered, deeply. He taught with flair and passion and dispensed the gems mined from rich seams of literary knowledge with a rare artistry.
Judging by the answers he dragged out of them, and the paragraphs they ejected onto paper, they got it too. The secret was to let the students believe that these carefully dispensed units of educational currency were mere transactions to be banked – and not the lovingly crafted learning experiences they evidently were.
Do you dare to care?
I never did manage to emulate this performance, despite my best efforts to appear frosty and distant. Kids could always work me out. They knew I was driven by pure care – and I resented them for it.
I have tried and tested many, many masks – Aloof. Detached. Haunted. Grimacing – only to consign them to the dustbin of rubbish discipline.
I would like to say that changing times have moved the profession away from such draconian mindsets, though silent corridors, scorched earth, grass-flattening, and zero-tolerance practices continue to gain kudos and applause in some corners.
Now to the point of this vignette – daring to care. While prepping for my first whole-school behaviour role, I read Paul Dix’s 2017 book When the Adults Change Everything Changes.
I was nervous about stepping into a challenging school on a trajectory of growth and imagined needing to don the steely cloak of the relentless disciplinarian to make it to last bell unscathed.
But Dix didn’t refresh my 1996 blueprint at all. Rather, he advocates cultivating a form of positive reinforcement referred to as “being bothered” or “botheredness”.
The idea felt dizzying at first. Was I really supposed to walk into this school and show instant humanity, even though this ran headlong into everything I had personally defined as effective behaviour management for more than a quarter of a century?
It felt cheesy, glib and wrong, and I imagined bursting through the door with a forced smile with an awful microscript: “Hi kids. Been kicked out of class again? Don’t worry, I’m Mrs McShane and that REALLY bothers me. In a good way. I think. Errr.”
On digging deeper, Dix positions this as a “drip effect” as opposed to a disingenuous, nauseating tsunami of feigned emotional investment. One simply cannot pour some magical elixir of “botheredness” and expect the kids to sup it up and glow with joy, connectedness and gratitude. Believe me, I tried – and with harrowing consequences.
It takes time…
As I approached the end of my first week in post, I felt I was making in-roads with some students via quiet and measured affirmations.
A smile, a thank you, a “that means a lot and is much appreciated” here and there were starting to bring about some early signs of relational green shoots.
Then it all went wrong. I asked a student on the corridor to stop. He waved his hand as if trying to shoo an annoying gnat and continued to walk as the rest of his peers looked on, grinning. It was clear I had a fight on my hands, and would need to drag on one of my masks before I lost the teeny bit of the credibility I’d won during my first four grueling days. I tottered after him in my heels, and initiated a transaction I will never forget.
- Me: Stop! Stop!
- Student: Wafts hand over shoulder
- Me: (Trying humour): Look, I can’t run in these heels – please just stop a minute and we can get you where you need to be.
- Student: Stops, doesn’t turn around but waits for me to catch up.
- Me: “Pleased to meet you (handshake). My name is Mrs McShane, new assistant head.”
- Student: Accepted my handshake, looked at me wearily and mumbles his name.
- Me: I need to get you to lesson, can you give me a hand?
- Student: “Look man, I’m really not bothered. I don’t care.”
- Me: “Well I’m bothered and I care.”
- Student: Silence.
- And then he said: “If only you knew how many people have said that to me in my life and not meant it in the slightest.”
I had no answer.
I had no answer because I had no fundamental relationship with the student from which to build the “botheredness” I wanted to show.
He walked away and I stood there feeling helpless and numbed. I had learned my biggest lesson about building behaviour-positive relationships with students – it takes time, layering, effort, and a certain degree of pain.
As Dix writes: “Botheredness needs to be a deliberate daily act that is built into the teaching routine. It is relationship-building done properly, in slow motion. Gentle, kind and caring.”
Dix goes on to warn of the expectation of immediate impact being flawed. He paints a picture of difficult territory, where exercising botheredness can see you floundering in a swamp if you attempt a one-size-fits-all microscript with which to varnish everyone.
I adore the story of “Extreme Botheredness” he presents in his book – about the teacher who stood at the PRU gates every day and received a prompt “fuck off” every time he greeted Leon with an enthusiastic “good morning”.
One day, the teacher was absent from his usual location and Leon was bothered, to the extent that he found the member of staff and apologised for his previous, sustained rude behaviour. From this point, a positive, impactful, professional relationship grew.
The key to cultivating botheredness it seems is planning and the conscious adoption of personalisation strategy. Commanding a nuanced blend of relentlessness and positivity without “gushing” is hard work, as is making students ̱feel seen without over-egging their importance in a way that makes them retract.
So, what can you do?
Botheredness starts on corridors, on duty and in the dining room. It’s the warm smile, the simple “hello” and your careful choice of words when praising specific students in public.
Some students love the kudos of you knowing the fact that they aim to drive a Bugatti one day, while others blossom because of the quiet nod you send in their direction at assembly along with the words: “You made it here. I’m happy.”
But don’t go for the instant toffee apple approach – have you ever been greeted by an overly warm authority figure who makes you feel like you’ve had a bucket of warm treacle doused on your head? Exactly.
Pupils, especially those who are untrusting and hyper-vigilant, will find too much too soon impossible to handle and will likely meet your efforts with a hurtful rebuttal. Building bonds of botheredness is a naturally slow process. So accept this, start slowly, with a smile and a hello and without being overly effusive.
You don’t need to aim for a personality transplant. As the incandescent Brené Brown says, be authentic, even if it feels a bit goofy. My favourite quote of hers sums up the fuel you will need for your forays into the terrain of the bothered: “Stay awkward, brave and kind.”
I used to crave being a “rock hard” teacher for all the wrong reasons; fearlessness, spreading terror and not caring one jot about what the kids thought or felt as long as they shut up and complied.
Now I see being tough in a different way. Entering the school atmosphere every day is akin to being a meteor of relentless botheredness. As you blaze a trail of care, bits of you will doubtless fly off and disintegrate, but sparks of warmth and positive recognition will settle like embers in students’ souls.
After all, that’s why you bothered to drag yourself in today. Good luck and keep me posted about your wins and successes!
Jo McShane is assistant headteacher for behaviour and attitudes at Benfield School in Newcastle. She works primarily in the Behaviour Provision where she is designing interventions to develop relational practice. She is also director of jomcshaneequinetherapy.com which supports vulnerable learners via interactions with her Shetland pony herd. Find her on X (Twitter) @JoMcShane13
Further information & resources
- Jo McShane was among the guests on a recent episode of The SecEd Podcast focused on how to build connection and strong relationships with your students. Find this episode here.