I often write in the moment, and save a post for later on. I wrote a version of this a very long time ago, frustrated at the low standards of behaviour management expected of me. In contrast, at Michaela, we prioritise strong discipline; a choice, in my view, affirmed by what happens in its absence.
I want to write about behaviour, because excellent student behaviour is the first step to a successful school. Excellent behaviour means students learn more. Excellent behaviour means teachers are less stressed, and so less likely to leave. Excellent behaviour means less chance students will let their bad habits spill over into their future lives, and put their future success in jeopardy. I do not know any professional working in education who would disagree with me on these statements in theory. But I do know plenty who disagree in practice.
Children crave boundaries. Having worked in two girls’ schools, my ability to spot an insufficient tie on entering a co-educational school was poor, but my eye for bracelets was magpie-sharp. I remember asking a student for her bracelets one lunchtime early in September, to be met with her loudly expressed horror: ‘no-one else has made me take these off!’ I’m always doubtful when I hear this phrase, so after broken-record-ing at her (‘you need to give me the bracelets. You need to give me the bracelets. You need to give me the bracelets’), the offending bracelets were mine. I thought I had made an enemy for life.
A mere week later, while ‘learning walking’ my way around the school, I noticed the same child sitting merrily in her Geography lesson, bracelets and all. To not interrupt the teacher’s lesson-flow, I held out my hand. Without a word, she took the bracelets off and placed them in my hand. I moved on, but she hissed: ‘Miss! Miss!’ Thinking she was about to protest again mid-lesson, I turned around and rapidly made the universal ‘shh’ sign. But she simply replied: ‘I have them on my other wrist too,’ and proceeded to hand me those.
In a cover lesson, it is hard to be diligent with sanctions: it is easy to seek the easy life, and let students whisper. That said, the whisper often escalates quicker than anticipated, and you have a full-flown riot on your hands. I’ve learned the hard way to persist in giving sanctions and sending students out. Those students who are sanctioned in my cover lessons do tend to hate me, especially as there isn’t the opportunity to build a positive relationship in the next lesson, but I don’t mind that: 19 out of 20 students get to work in a silent environment and complete their work to a high standard. I’m ok sacrificing the hour of learning of one child who has chosen to behave like an idiot to gain the hour back for every other child in that cover lesson.
In fact, I don’t know if I mind whether students hate me. The strange thing is: they don’t. One student who I’d given more sanctions to than any other child professed to my line manager behind my back that I was his ‘favourite teacher’ (so perfect it should have been a plant). Because with such high expectations, it is vital to be warm; to explain everything I do, and tell students it is because I want them to succeed that I am so draconian. My discipline is my love.
The thing about high expectations is the higher they are, the harder it is. It is hard to constantly remind students what your expectations are. It is hard to give behaviour points on an ICT system so unnecessarily complex. It is hard to set detentions, give detentions, and relentlessly chase the non-attenders of detentions. The higher your expectations, the harder it is; but crucially, the winners in the long-run are the students.
So is it worth it? I have worked in a system failed by its lack of consistent consequences; where a student could walk away from a detention and no-one was accountable; where a student could swear and face no consequence; where a student could be walked out of their 30 minute detention five minutes in by their head of year because they had had ‘a bad day.’ These children are systematically failed by such a system. The different standards of different teachers at every level creates confusion and anger in students, who can’t always understand why the expectations fluctuate so wildly between teaching rooms.
It was in such a system that I was taken to task on a weekly basis for giving out too many behaviour points. In fact, I was told I gave out more than any other teacher at the school. For someone teaching only three classes, that had to be something of a record. The conversation went as thus: ‘you are giving out too many behaviour points. Are you struggling to control behaviour?’ The words of the Headteacher rang proudly in my head in that moment: ‘why can’t every classroom be like yours?’
Every classroom wasn’t like mine because others were not using the behaviour system. Or, they used it, were identified as ‘struggling’ on the basis of the data, and have since learned not to. Those who castigated me for giving out too many behaviour points did not once visit my room. The conversation was not based on an observation of my supposedly deplorable teaching, but on raw data alone. I was told I needed to ‘build positive relationships with my students,’ yet had they visited my room at any point, that is exactly what they would have seen. I was told that my way was clearly not working, as the number of behaviour points I was giving was not going down – as if children would simply start behaving after a few weeks of being given some sanctions. If that were the case, our year 10 and 11s would be the best behaved students in the school, and that is patently not (in my experience at least) the case.
If schools genuinely have ‘high expectations’, then why are children allowed to miss detentions? Why do we give so many warnings before issuing sanctions? Why are we told off for using the behaviour system that has been given to us?
I can’t forget the time at a school I used to work in when a former pupil was stabbed to death. The Headteacher stood up and told the whole staff: ‘what we do is literally life or death.’ He was too, too right. The students we teach in challenging contexts who do not learn to control their behaviour are vulnerable to the draw of the gangs, and possible early death. So I can proudly tell you now: I will have high expectations, I will give endless sanctions, I will ignore any advice to be softer, kinder, easier on my students. Because discipline is the kindest option.