Undermining teachers is easy

Your views are out of date, David and don’t work, just expecting pupils to behave.

Paul Garvey, Education consultant & Additional Inspector

There are two schools in every school: the school of the high-status staff member, with the luxury of time and authority to cushion them from the worst classes; and the school of the supply teacher and NQT, who possess neither.

Tom Bennett, the best teacher in the world.

Everyone involved in teaching wants teachers to teach well. We spend a lot of time disputing what ‘teaching well’ looks like, and that’s fair enough; there are plenty of effective techniques for cat skinning. We also seem to agree that good behaviour is highly desirable, but some see it as the product of good teaching while others reckon it’s a necessary condition for good teaching to happen. This is an important difference.

If you believe good behaviour is a product of good teaching then you’re likely also to believe that poor behaviour is a result of poor teaching. From this, it logically follows that students only misbehave for bad teachers. If kids muck about it’s because you’re not going your job. I wrote about where that leads here.

So how can you plan lessons to get kids to behave? By entertaining them. By pandering to their preferences. By lowering expectations. By being an ‘engaging’ teacher. This has been the prevailing wisdom ever since I started teaching back in the late 90s; kids only misbehave when they’re bored, so good teaching needs to excite, entertain and, above all, engage. If it’s too hard, children will misbehave. If it’s too unfamiliar, it’s not relevant and children will misbehave. If it expects children to master difficult skills, it’s too boring and children will misbehave. The main criterion by which successful teaching is judged is whether or not the “kids absolutely love it!”

There are, to my mind, two major drawbacks to this approach. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it limits what children will be expected to do to the lowest common denominator. Enjoyment doesn’t necessarily lead to learning. The second drawback is that teachers are blamed for bad behaviour. I’ve argued before that while teachers are responsible for holding children to account for unacceptable behaviour; the primary responsibility rests with the school. If school leaders fail to support teachers’ attempts to enforce school rules, and worse, if they blame teachers for students’ decisions not to comply, then children will learn that there are some teachers for whom good behaviour is not an expectation. As long as they tow the line for experienced and senior teachers they have carte blanche to blight the lives of NQTs and supply teachers. The belief that bad behaviour is the result of bad teaching is the Fundamental Attribution Error.

If however you believe good behaviour is necessary for good teaching to take place then your expectations are, first and foremost, that children will comply with schools’ rules and follow teachers’ instructions. Once these expectations are met then students can get on with the business of learning and teachers can provide increasingly challenging work.

In 2003 I moved to a school which went promptly into special measures. During the Ofsted inspection, I was observed teaching a Year 7 class I had known only for a few weeks. Some of the children were determined not to sit in their seats, and the idea of getting them to do meaningful work was laughable. The inspector told me my lesson was unsatisfactory. I wasn’t surprised. I asked what I could have done to have been awarded a higher grade. She laughed in surprise and said, “Goodness me, I have no idea! What on earth could you do with children like that?” This was not helpful.

My first year at the school was bloody hard. In order to cope I lowered my expectations by degrees and focussed on being fun and engaging. This worked for some students but not for others. Some had simply decided I was too insignificant to be worth the bother and did as they pleased, safe in the knowledge that there would be no consequences. Thankfully, the school was so disorganised that no one got around to giving me ‘support’. Even though some staff might have thought me to be a bit rubbish, I was left alone to sink or swim. I just about kept my head above water.

Then, when I started my second year at the school, a little bit of magic happened. Students who had previously defied me at every opportunity began following instructions. When I asked other teachers, they said, “Oh yes. They’ve realised you’re staying so you must be OK.” I worked at that school for five more years and had very few behaviour problems. New teachers came and went, scorched by their baptism of fire. I felt pretty smug.

I then became head of department at a neighbouring school. I felt nervous about what to expect – would I be back at square one? I needn’t have worried; my reputation preceded me. Various students greeted me with, “You taught my cousin – he said you’re a ledge!” Also, I was in a much more senior position – students were quite properly awed by my shiny new status as Head of English. And when senior leaders came to watch me teach they were pleased by the behaviour in my lessons – clearly I must be a good teacher. This is the Halo Effect. If enough people believe you to be a good teacher then you probably will be; it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy (The Pygmalion Effect.) Like many others before me, I believed the hype and thought myself quite the pedagogue.

Latterly, I moved to a school in a different city where no one knew me. Despite having a senior position at the school, I had no power. Through a strange mix of internal politics, I could tell I was persona non grata from day one. When I ran into ‘difficult’ behaviour, I did what I’d successfully done for the previous ten years, but none of it worked. I asked for support and none came. Instead I got scrutiny and suspicion. From that moment I was doomed. Students and their parents quickly realised I was impotent. If students failed to come to my detention or if they walked out of my lessons they knew there would be no consequence. They were wrong. There was a consequence: I started to doubt my abilities. The Head, who had made it clear he didn’t really want me there anyway, offered me a generous escape route and I gladly accepted.

It’s that easy to destroy a teacher.

It’s much more difficult, but so much better to trust and genuinely support teachers. Do we really value the much-vaunted growth mindset?

There’s a simple acid test to judge the quality of a school. If inspectors want to know how good a school is they should go and work there for a week. If children pretty much do what they’re told and instances of defiance are quickly dealt with by senior staff, you can be fairly sure you’re in a good school. If ropey behaviour is met with inquiries about your teaching or the suggestion that certain breaches of the school’s rules should be tactically ignored, that’s a sure sign you’re in a bad school.

No one wants to compel, force or otherwise browbeat children into a compliant, cowering mass. We all want to be greeted by a sea of happy, eager faces clamouring to learn the wonderful complexities of our subjects. The question is, how do we accomplish that aim? Do we do it by destroying some teachers and prioritising what children want, or do we calmly, patiently and implacably expect children to follow reasonable instructions?

Yes we should work hard to grapple with the heartbreaking cankers of some children’s lives. We should be compassionate and understanding. But we should also be firm and consistent. Blaming teachers for children’s decision to misbehave undermines everyone.

And when those who insist good behaviour follows from good teaching are responsible for leading and inspecting schools, it makes me particularly cross.

Old Andrew: How to destroy NQTs

Tom Bennett: Two schools bad, one school good: Ideas for improving school behaviour

20 Responses to Undermining teachers is easy

  1. […] Read more on The Learning Spy… […]

  2. […] views on behaviour have evolved. This is my most recent thinking. January […]

  3. J says:

    Some teachers do provide classrooms of good behaviour within a poor school culture. It relies on them having behaviour management skills (consciously or unconsciously), experience, and commitment.

    However, the cost is to place unnecessary daily demands on a teacher’s health – physically, emotionally and mentally. Pupils experience the same health problems.

    Behaviour is everyone’s problem, and everyone is part of the solution – leadership, teachers, pupils, parents.

  4. Great post. My brother is a supply teacher in England and he was pretty surprised at the difference in behavior between schools in the USA and UK. He taught at schools in the USA that would be considered by anyone here as “challenging” and yet said it was no comparison to the challenges of they typical UK school. And the testing…. oh the testing that goes on in your schools.

    I’ve never written a blog post about how to whip your class under control, but obviously you need.
    1. Command presence. This can be taught but you have to practice it, often. You know you have it when you can peek your head in another teacher’s room and just look at a class and they shut up.
    2. A decent lesson plan OR the ability to actually teach. Students respect knowledge and a desire to teach well.
    3. A willingness to go to “war” or escalate your interventions with a student and yet the wisdom to ignore small transgressions, when needed, to keep the lesson on track.
    4. Proximity. Get out from behind your podium and desk and move around. No one is doing drugs on their porch when the police are walking down their street.
    5. I start every class with 10-15 seconds of silence. It calms them down after passing period. It serves as a transition. It makes them check into themselves. It’s something we do together as a family, like a church experience. It’s peaceful. This seems to help.

    I have two blog posts on student engagement, if you are interested.

    About the “game” we play when we talk about student engagement: http://thereadinessisall.com/2013/09/12/the-oldest-game-in-education-hey-that-kid-isnt-listening/

    And what happens to students when we try and force engagement:
    http://thereadinessisall.com/2013/02/05/the-dark-side-of-the-course-what-star-wars-can-teach-us-about-student-engagement-and-not-paying-attention-in-class/

  5. This is a brilliant blog:really insightful and thought provoking. Thank you.

  6. SCG-S says:

    I absolutely agree that a great lesson/enaging lesson etc etc isn’t the magic solution to behaviour. I realised this in my training year – I desperately tried ‘fun’, ‘engaging’ and ‘kinesthetic’ day after day, and lessons usually descended into chaos. Then one day I’d just had enough of it so I told a class they were going to do some writing in silence. I talked them through what to do and, guess what, they sat and listened. Then they sat in silence and wrote. Now, years later, I generally start the year with fairly dull, straightforward lessons that enable me to establish expectations. Lots of work is produced which I mark in great detail and I think this makes a difference – they know I am bothered about them and want them to learn, and they seem to buy into this.

    Once good behaviour is established, I don’t mind getting the ‘engaging’ stuff out, relaxing a bit and enjoying things and I spend much time feeling I am teaching behaviour for learning too, but the process that works for me seems to make a total lie of the idea that if your students don’t behave it is your fault for being boring. I know I’m only one person but I’ve since mentored trainees and seen them try so, so hard to do all sorts of things they are told to do to ‘engage’ students, that just don’t work because they don’t have the relationship or presence yet to manage it all – but they’re encouraged to reflect that the activity failed because they are simply not good enough. And I think that is a real shame.

    The culture of entertaining the class is so pervasive that even parents buy into it. At a recent parents evening I commented that I felt a student was coasting, not making progress, that they look for excuses to work and try to distract others. When the boy could not identify why he misbehaves, other than to say “I just get easily distracted” his Mum helpfully provided him with a menu of excuses (which basically involved blaming me for making the work too difficult, or not difficult enough, maybe too boring etc) until he chose one “Yes, I suppose it’s too difficult.”

  7. Bill Feeble says:

    I find talking to them as humans generally works. That and the wobbly hand trick.

  8. Bill Feeble says:

    Also, fucker lives in Dawlish. Hotbed of extreme behaviour. The worst he’s ever seen will be a child being mildly disengaged.

  9. I think there’s a lot of truth in this

  10. Mark Bennet says:

    Inspectors should go and teach there for a week – genius suggestion. And glad that feedback from new staff at a school where I am governor is that the response to issues including behaviour is unexpectedly swift, and that monitoring reports seen by governors reference defiance (and what is being done about it). And how easy it is to destroy a potentially great teacher – we can’t afford the level of waste we have.

  11. […] Undermining teachers is easy by @LearningSpy: The blogdaddy David Didau reiterates the necessity for schools to master behaviour as requisite for learning, and decries the damaging line of thought (avowed in this instance by a school inspector, no less) that states that good behaviour is merely a product of good teaching. […]

  12. […] we have been working hard with students on their attitudes to learning in school. As David Didau has explained, “good behaviour is necessary for good teaching to take place,” and we completely […]

  13. Lazz says:

    Really insightful. We have those exact leaders in charge in my school 🙁 I’m a head of year so I see the effects of their undermining everyday on staff. It also means that the students who want to comply can’t learn because some students are effectively given permission to misbehave by senior staff through their lack of support.

  14. […] misbehave in their lesson- but this is absolutely the case. David Didau describes the two cultures here where he presents them as (a) believing good behaviour to be a product of good teaching and (b) […]

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