Why it’s the small things that matter?

When dealing with a pupil’s deteriorating behaviour and the mess that they leave behind them in their wake, it is all too easy to focus on the wrong things. If you try to resolve a pupil’s issues then you can not help but be drawn into looking for the reasons that things go wrong. After working with some troubled children in the last three months I have been puzzling over this deep into the night. The answer I have arrived at is uncomfortable but at least gives us hope.

I should be clear from the onset that we have a strong behaviour policy and hold out the highest expectations of all pupils. We use a rigorous recording system and enforce detentions for misdemeanours as slight as arriving 10 seconds after the front door has shut. We will send pupils home for wearing the wrong shoes. We don’t accept aggressive behaviour and we are not frightened to issue fixed term exclusions when a pupil crosses the line. Fighting and defiance to staff are taken very seriously. We take pupils’ behaviour out of school equally seriously. Our Remove Room does a brisk business with pupils who do not accept an adult’s authority to tell them what to do and set an acceptable standard of behaviour and work in lessons. Yet somehow none of this gets to the core of the issue with a difficult child. Punishment is not an answer in itself. In fact, it usually means something has already gone wrong.

It may be a cliche but with all of our serious cases of pupil misbehaviour there is always something amiss at home. That is not to necessarily blame the parents but when a child does not accept adult authority then there is usually a reason not far from home. This can be a child craving adult attention where and however they can get it. Usually in an inappropriate and destructive way. It can be parents who can’t confront their child and find it almost impossible to talk to him or her. There are no easy to define patterns. That is accept that the authority of the parent is not clearly defined for the child and the blurred lines make it impossible for the child to know when they are wrong.

Even this does not account for our inability to get it right with a difficult pupil. It is not the parents that cause our problems with the child. We regularly make a huge difference to pupils who are much worse outside of school. When we get it right we move a child in the right direction and give them a new way to accept and deal with authority.

The uncomfortable truth is clear. When it goes wrong it is our fault.

We can win with any pupil but we have to focus on the small things to be able to do so. It is the moment that you do not accept the sullen grimace when you ask a pupil to stop talking over you. It is the moment you correct the hands in their pockets when they speak to you. It is the demand that they say “yes miss” politely. All of this is where we win with a child. Even with a pupil who has a dreadful life outside of school.

The moment we accept the shrug of the shoulders or the turn to look away from you when you are speaking these are the moments we lose the child. Teaching is all about these moments. When you demand polite attention then you can teach a child anything. They can then understand that it is your knowledge and your part in their acquiring new knowledge that gives you the authority to demand their attention. At that moment, then when you are face to face that is the moment you can win the right to change the way a child thinks about the world.

“Detention, Saturday night, my office,” said Snape. “I do not take cheek from anyone, Potter . . . not even ‘the Chosen One.’

It is the determination to transmit knowledge to pupils who inevitably don’t know what is important in what they are studying that gives the teacher the authority to demand a child’s attention. This demands that we have a sense of the unique importance of what we are teaching.  But also that we know that the fight to demand a child’s attention is not one we can lose.

You will not get thanked for doing this. Pulling a child up for their lack of attention or their failing manners is a relentless task. But it is the heroic duty we all need to endure in order to succeed in gaining the respect of those we try to teach.

The girl who made me reflect on this last week would easily have fallen by the wayside in another school. She comes from the wrong side of the street and will let you know that if you let her. She has a sharp tongue if she thinks she can get away with it. However, when I told her to drop the snarl and stop looking for fault in her teachers a little girl emerged. One who is trying to do her best in class and avoid the trouble she could get into. The difference between the two characters could not be more dramatic. Yet it only takes the confidence to demand she presents polite behaviour that can transform her literally in front of your eyes.

It is up to all of us as teachers to demand that pupil’s take us seriously and not accept it when pupils act up in front of us. It is these small things these fleeting moments that can change a child’s view of themselves and what they can achieve. It is up to us to demand this of each and every child in our care.

David Perks

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