Our western societies are deeply ambivalent about teachers. Yes, there is a warm current flowing through the words of public figures. And we have a tendency to highlight the most inspirational members of the profession; the ones with martyr-like qualities. But most teachers are not martyrs. They are working to pay the mortgage while they dream of writing that novel or starting that business or just spending more time in the garden.
And that should be fine. Teaching should not be all-consuming if for no other reason than the supply of martyrs is limited and we’ve got a lot of positions to fill. But we don’t want to see it that way.
I sometimes wonder whether this is due to an empathy gap. We’ve all been students but few of us have been teachers. So we tend to see ourselves as the students. That’s the overriding societal perspective. That’s the phenomenon that accounts for the education professor who gleefully relates how naughty they were at school. And it’s the phenomenon that places ever more demands on teachers and schools without attending to any of the practical consequences.
When a nurse complains of unruly patients, we don’t say, “Oh, he just wants an easy life – he just wants compliance – perhaps he’s not really suited to nursing”. We take the complaint seriously because we can imagine ourselves as the nurse and we can picture how difficult that must be.
As teachers, above all else, we want practical suggestions. I know how to run a school, keep the learning on track and even help young people, over time, to make better choices about their behaviour. None of this is centred on blaming or pillorying students – which is quite counterproductive – but it does involve rules, procedures, positive reinforcement and negative consequences. And if you want me to keep the staff and students safe, the only way I know is to maintain the option of removing students from lessons and, in some cases, suspending or excluding students.
If any of this sits badly with you then that’s fine. I am willing to listen. I am prepared to accept that destructive behaviour has many causes and is not all about students rationally weighing up the options and choosing to behave unethically. Nevertheless, I can be in full possession of this enlightened understanding and still be faced with the same problems of running a school. So I ask: what exactly is it that you want teachers to do?
I get that you may not like some of the approaches we use, so please explain, in enough detail that we can picture what it would look like in a regular classroom on a regular day, what you do want us to do (and the word ‘classroom’ is important because the bulk of teacher time involves interacting with 20+ students at once). If there is evidence to support your suggested approach then great, we can analyse that. If not, we can still run it past our professional experience and test how plausible it is and what the likely consequences will be for all members of the class.
And there’s one other thing that bothers me about this discussion. Society at large tends to be a little judgemental. It punishes people in both official and unofficial ways. Speeding motorists get tickets. Violent attacks draw criminal charges. People lose their jobs due to sexual harassment. Politicians who use public funds to seek political advantage find themselves subject to media scrutiny and demotion.
If we always treat destructive behaviour in the classroom as a form of communication or the result of some unknown trauma or undiagnosed disorder, how do we prepare our students for a world in which they will be blamed?