Teachers and students want the same things, so what’s the problem?

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Many early career teachers struggle with managing the behaviour of students. As I claimed in my previous post, good classroom management requires high quality training for teachers and a supportive school environment with clear structures and procedures. According to 2013 survey data from New South Wales, many of the new teachers who participated in the survey felt unprepared by their university courses and teaching placements for dealing with behaviour issues. Once they took posts in schools, they often lacked support.

One participant recalled:

“Two boys were taken away from class (for punching me) today and then brought back. However, there was no explanation given to me. I find there is no support from the Principal. I have spoken to him a couple of times but he has a very softly-softly approach and nothing gets done. Communication is lacking. Also, as a principal, he needs to show students that he means business and must have a more disciplined and strict approach rather than merely talking to them. I have also asked him to come to my class but he hasn’t done so till now. “

I learnt the importance of communication during my own experience of school leadership in a challenging school in London. When I first started picking-up significant behaviour issues, I would take action with a student, but because I did not go back to the teacher who had reported the behaviour and explain what I had done, he or she assumed that nothing had happened. It is critical to both act, and communicate this action, to teachers. Good schools have robust systems for doing this.

Other participants in the New South Wales survey talked of rumours that the education authorities had, ‘tied the hands of schools in regard to expulsion of students,’ that the students knew this and that this hampered efforts to challenge poor behaviour. Some talked of behaviour being far worse than they expected. There was also evidence of what Tom Bennett refers to as ‘two schools’, where more senior teachers experience one set of behaviours, while casual and part-time teachers bear the brunt of poor behaviour.

It’s worth realising that poor behaviour and a lack of teacher control is definitely not what the vast majority of students want. A recent survey from Western Australia found that 82% of students agreed that it is ‘mostly’ or ‘totally’ true that in the class of an effective teacher, ‘Student behaviour… is under control.’ By contrast, only 29% mostly or totally agreed that, ‘Students get to decide how activities are done in this class’.

To be clear, students are not asking for angry or sarcastic teachers, but I don’t hear anyone arguing a case for angry or sarcastic teachers. Advocates of better classroom management want teachers who are friendly and in control. The classroom management training that had the most impact on me as a young teacher drew a distinction between three types of teacher; passive, assertive and hostile, with an emphasis on developing an assertive approach. I believe that it is often frustration at a lack of systems and support that drives teachers to react poorly.

So given that teachers and students want the same thing, what is the problem? The problem lies in a strongly ideological and unreasonable position held by many in education that children should not be coerced or controlled; a position with its roots in romanticism, framed through the repetition of mantras and, ironically, enforced through appeals to authority. These conditions hamper access to training and to the flow of ideas about how best to manage classrooms and schools.

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5 thoughts on “Teachers and students want the same things, so what’s the problem?

  1. I’d never heard that “passive, assertive or hostile” division before, but it’s a good one. I think a lot of beginning teachers actually go from passive to hostile within the first few months. (I certainly did.)

    It’s ironic, re your last para, that those who are so anxious to demean or undermine teacher authority are the first ones to invoke a much more arbitrary kind of authority when it comes to education debates…

    1. “I think a lot of beginning teachers actually go from passive to hostile within the first few months.”

      I agree. That’s why assertiveness is such a useful concept and that’s why teachers should be trained in it. It’s such a shame that generation after generation of teachers are condemned to repeat the same cycle.

  2. Assertiveness is probably ideal. However, assertiveness comes from confidence in several factors. You can only assert rules and routines you are clear about and know how to model and monitor. You can only stand your ground behind an assertion when you are sure the consequences you have explained will be enacted by those around and beyond you. Also, you probably need to have seen what you are asserting work when used by others to truly have the confidence to assert.

    I completely agree with your argument, but that paper, after delivering troubling and consistent findings about inconsistent teachers, poor systems, isolation, and lack of support from other staff, returned not to pressuring externalities like school leaders or legislation, but the poor Early Career Teachers themselves, asking them to be ‘resilient, reflective’ among other things.

    Teachers need to be freed to teach. Once they are solely concerned about teaching, and not psychology or policing, then we can start having real arguments about instructional quality.

  3. Your first para there is spot on, but I would also say that assertiveness comes from another very important thing: the actual belief that you have earned the right to be in authority over a group a kids. It sounds trivial, but in my experience a lot of beginning teachers lack this. Either they are unsure of their command of their subject area, or they’re still harbouring the progressivist delusion that they can learn as much from the kids as the kids can from them, or deep down they have a problem with the concept of authority altogether.

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