Have you noticed the signs all over the place, asking the public not to abuse the staff, not to take out their frustration on the people dealing with them? There was one on the bus the other day; I’ve seen them in council offices and hospitals. But they’re not in schools. Think about that. And consider now the recent findings about the most abused professions – those jobs where people are verbally or physically assaulted during the course of their working day. It’s not the police, or nurses, or even those who work in jails. It’s teachers.
A recent survey found that over 40% of teachers have been abused during the course of their working day and many have witnessed abuse of colleagues – verbal and physical. Teachers routinely have chairs thrown at them, are barged, pushed, sworn at, shouted at; each day brings low level contempt, rudeness, aggression, sneering and refusal to follow simple instructions.
Recently in London a teaching assistant was attacked by a father outside a school because the TA had the temerity to admonish the child for poor behaviour. The father was having none of this, so he followed her and beat her up, knocking her unconscious, resulting in horrifying facial injuries and long-term damage to her neck. This violent man was given a 12 month suspended sentence, to wit, he was let off. What sort of message does this send the public and the profession?
It doesn’t really matter what the causes, what plethora of excuses exist in the world for poor behaviour, the fact is the behaviour of children and young people in schools has dramatically deteriorated over the last thirty years. Blame the parents, blame the teachers, blame food additives and electronic gadgets, blame the governments – it matters not, teachers are not safe at work and most people don’t really give a shit.
It works like this. All schools have behaviour policies. All schools have the right to exclude/expel on limited or definitive bases. All schools have a shit-load of paper-work to jump through for this to happen. Ofsted judges schools on their expulsion rates and if there are too many you get black marks – because excluding students is a mark of failure. The paper-work trail is a nightmare. For a student to be permanently excluded you need a file as thick as your arm. Unless they’ve brought a knife into school in which case it’s all over. But violence or aggression towards a teacher, well that may or may not result in some form of exclusion, it may or may not mean that child returns to your class, you may or may not have to deal with them again. You have to provide all sorts of witness statements because your word is not good enough. I understand there are untrustworthy teachers out there who do things they should not, but most of us do the right thing, yet we are treated with suspicion.
I had an incident recently with an aggressive boy who barged me in my room. I wrote my statement but his version was that I had attacked him. Fortunately for me there was another adult in the room, a TA, who clearly saw what happened and verified my version of events. But really, why would I lie about such a thing? I’m in a position of responsibility, the incident occurred in front of the whole class and had to be reported. In fact, this boy had been increasingly aggressive and defiant over weeks, had been removed, counselled, but his poor behaviour kept on escalating. He was not interested in behaving appropriately on any terms. In the past this boy has committed similar physical ‘attacks’ on other members of staff. Yet he is still in school. His parents support him. He is their angel. So here is an example of what happens to entitled pampered children – they don’t behave, they are ‘consequenced’ as much as the school can, the family does not support (or often is the cause of the behaviour) and so the child returns from their exclusion, is removed to another class and will undoubtedly offend again.
While my current school is pretty good on serious offenders, the truth is these children return to school, very rarely having learnt any sort of lesson. Teachers tread a dangerous path. We have to maintain our cool and calm under extreme duress: we have to remain the adult at all times. Often behaviour management comes down to some sort of mystical dynamic on behalf of the class who decide whether they will or won’t co-operate with you. Rules and procedures only go so far, some students simply don’t care: their purpose is to disrupt, defy and destroy. If you are lucky as a teacher it will be only one student and you will be able to manage them. But if the whole class goes along with the one, or there are many, you’re sunk and you can’t have half of your class removed because they won’t behave. Because if that’s happening then it must be something you’re doing, mustn’t it? If only you’d follow the behaviour management guidelines, you’d be fine…
This is what happens. A classroom is a bit like a pack of wolves. If you can establish yourself as the Alpha-wolf, or if you have the Alpha-wolf of the kid-pack on side then you can manage your class, teach your lessons and be safe. If you struggle for authority and the pack smell your vulnerabilities (you’re new to the job or the school, you’re supply, they know the hierarchy don’t support you) then you become fair game. You will face defiance, aggression and abuse. You will not be able to do your job. There won’t be any learning. The students will not make progress and you will be blamed. There is no win here for anyone.
Teaching is in crisis. Young people are not staying in the profession, older teachers are retiring as soon as they can, or moving to other professions. More and more of those of us who remain wonder what will happen. We are blamed for the ills of the modern world, we are berated by students, parents and Ofsted; tricked and wrong footed by exam boards; dictated to by government ministers who really don’t know the first thing about education; expected to do more with less time and less money, and somehow, somehow remain sane and devoted to the job.
Students take less and less responsibility for their learning and their behaviour. Teachers are expected to bear it all. If a student fails to make progress the teacher is asked why. If a student won’t behave the teacher is asked what they have done to make the child behave. Successive governments have created this situation.
Once upon a time the poorly behaved child was a rarity, now they are common-place. Once upon a time the failing child was held to account for his own failures. Now it is the teacher who hasn’t taught or managed well enough – it is not the child who has failed to learn or own their behaviour.
Perhaps it’s time to switch things back again – to place higher expectations on students for all aspects of their life in school? Learn, behave, bring a pen, become a decent citizen. And let teachers be safe at work, like most other professions. Before there are no teachers left… (Pictures from Private Collection)