At the age of 25, I became Head of Science at a challenging school in West London. It had not been my intention. Just two terms earlier, I had joined the school as second in science, expecting this to be my role for the next few years. However, once on deck, I learnt that the Head of Science was leaving; something that everyone had somehow forgotten to mention at my interview. After a brief period during which a senior leader took charge, I got the job.
Those were my clubbing days and I probably wasn’t ready. I looked around and searched my experiences for examples to follow. The school had no overarching behaviour policy at that time, which made life difficult and resulted in the science department having to pursue its own approach.
I decided that I needed to take some tough classes and I took on one of the most challenging groups in the school. Challenging classes are difficult in a variety of different ways. For this group of students, the issue was that they just could not seem to get along. There were constant arguments which threatened to turn physical and which often derailed my plan for the lesson.
I tested what I had learnt about classroom management against the reality of this group. I deployed a wide range of strategies. Yes, I warned students and set detentions, but the technique that had the greatest overall impact was positive reinforcement. “I can see everyone on the back row has written the date and title and started the task. Well done guys, that’s just what I want to see,” I would say and then the students on the middle row would get the hint and pick up their pens.
Teaching in a school is the point where theory crashes into the hard reality of a classroom full of students. It is not the same as teaching a group of young adults who have chosen to be there. It is definitely not the same as working one-to-one with a child in a therapeutic role. This is why many teachers are wary of the next big idea and why they are wary of absolutes.
I have remarked before that the statement, “All behaviour is communication,” is a ‘deepity’, but it is worth considering what it is that motivates people to make such statements. Do they assume that teachers do not understand that children often have challenging family circumstances or suffer from trauma? Do they think we haven’t realised this? One of the most challenging students I have taught was a refugee from the war in Kosovo who had endured terrible circumstances that I will not detail. I knew his background. I understood it as well as anyone who has not had that experience can understand it and I could see why this led to him acting in the way that he did. Unfortunately, understanding was not enough because he still behaved in the classroom in ways that disrupted the learning of others and sometimes threatened their safety. I needed practical strategies. I needed to know what to actually do in that situation.
The voices of non-teachers which, frankly, are the voices that have been telling teachers what to do for much of the past century, are unconstrained by classroom realities. This is why they can call for ever more differentiation without feeling the need to detail how this can practically be achieved. This is why they can afford to have ideological, principled objections to things such as school exclusions or ability grouping or testing or anything that is ‘punitive’ or, latterly, ‘neoliberal’. They don’t have to trouble themselves as to why these things may exist in the first place, what purposes they might serve and what practical alternatives may be developed. They don’t need any alternatives because they don’t have to deal with the consequences.
When teachers voice concern about England’s Chartered College of Teaching being run by people who are not practising classroom teachers, it is not from a position of disrespect. If nothing else, the huge popularity of researchED demonstrates that teachers are crying out for evidence from expert voices, many of whom are professors of psychology or other researchers who are not teachers. Instead, the concern is that these bodies will be seen by the wider community as representing the authentic voice of teachers when they do not.
Teachers have no general enmity towards educationalists and bureaucrats. This is not a zero sum game. For teachers to gain a voice in their own profession it does not require others to lose theirs. The only way it could be seen as a loss is if people fear what teachers might say.
At the moment, we have no such professional voice. England’s Chartered College looks like it will not be able to provide one and I see no organisation that is capable of doing so in Australia. This social media moment is all we have, for now.
So let’s grow it from here. Let’s talk to each other and let’s make our voices heard in the community. Let’s make it less and less acceptable to exclude teachers from debates about education. Let’s write and publish and meet and organise.
Nobody will do it for us. It is our profession and it is up to us to make our voices heard.