“Why should I? You can’t make me!”
Well, can you?
Just about every teacher in the modern era has been confronted with the challenge, “Why should I? Once upon a time the reaction, “Because I damn well said so, that’s why!” would suffice. I say ‘reaction’ because it is not an answer.
Perhaps this still works at your local grammar school, though I doubt it. Today in a myriad of inner-city schools and even more so in Pupil Referral Units and BESD schools, the pupil response could well be, ‘stuff you’, or worse. And unfortunately for thousands of tired and frustrated parents, the response for them is not dissimilar.
So what is the solution? Well, firstly let me advocate on behalf of a genuine answer, rather than a simple re-assertion of unchallenged positional power. For over 100 years of state education we produced servile children who were browbeaten and battered into the blind, unquestioning acceptance of authority. ‘Do as you are told’ or be caned, slippered, belted or worse. The result was the reproduction year on year of a passive labour force that would accept the imposed indignities of dictatorial, aggressive bosses, be that the inhuman brutality of Victorian mines and factories – still present in today’s sweatshops – or the more subtle hierarchical coercion of the modern office. One of the key functions of state education, from its inception, was to ‘socialise’ children for employment, which actually meant making them placid, compliant and ripe for exploitation.
The irony is that in 21st century Britain, socio-economic degeneration and deprivation has created a modern generation of students who are anything but placid and compliant, who are sometimes dysfunctional and angry, and who simply will not conform to the more authoritarian models of behaviour management. In order to deliver the curriculum, knowledge, skills and understanding required, teachers are now obliged to find more engaging and empowering methods of keeping learners on task and on track. In the process, we are obliged to empower our pupils to take assertive responsibility for their future, rather than churn out obedient cannon fodder and industry doormats.
Of course, good teachers and good schools have been doing this for decades. But with the re-emergence of Victorian class sizes and the threat to remove Teacher Assistants from the classroom, the pressure is on. How are we to deliver ‘rapid, significant progress’ and exam results to large groups of children if our pupils just will not do as they are told? The obvious answer is to significantly reduce class sizes, improve Pupil-Teacher-Ratios and restore a broad curriculum. But in the meantime…
“Why should I?”
Well, how about:
‘Because I am asking you to, nicely.’
‘Because it really is the best idea.’
‘Because, believe it or not, I’m trying to help you.’
‘Because it’s in your own best interests, and really, you know that’s true.’
‘Because it’s a lot, lot easier than the alternative.’
‘Because in the end, as the teacher, I’m held responsible for what happens in this classroom.’
That is, because of your role and positional power, not because of your ego and personal power. We should never make it personal. And it doesn’t get any more personal than, “Because I damn well said so!”
I can hear you saying, “Yep, tried that. Didn’t work”. Please read on. There is more you can do.
“You can’t make me!”
Another, perhaps more challenging version of ‘Why should I?’ is “You can’t make me!” Well, can you? There are many teachers who believe they can make the child do as they are told. They honestly and reasonably point to years of successful experience.
What they are perhaps missing is that at some point the child chooses to conform. Whether it be the excellent working relationship established over a period of time, the promise and availability of rewards – which may just be genuine appreciation and praise – or the threat of unwanted sanctions; the student is ‘buying in’ to your authority and the authority of the school.
This becomes manifestly obvious for staff at PRUs and BESD schools. There are occasions, not uncommonly, when the child, at that given moment, will utterly defy the teacher. In that instant, there may be nothing you can do that will make the student conform to your wishes.
Even then, the very best practioners are not disempowered. We have 3 choices.
1. The passive option: concede, give way and live to fight another day. Maybe. But very soon you will spend every lesson, everyday, conceding, giving in and getting nowhere. It will become the easy option, a habit to which you become professionally socialised.
2. The aggressive option: impose your will by every means possible and make the pupil do as they are told. This works, sometimes. Maybe the pupil will concede. If they are sufficiently in control and have the presence of mind to realise the likely consequences and sanctions, they may well cooperate, especially if you have previously established a positive working relationship.
But it’s a gamble. The pupil may be on the brink of losing control. Sh/e may suffer from ADHD or a range of other neurological conditions which tend towards impulsive, rather than thought-controlled, behaviour. A report published in October 2012, “Nobody made the connection: The prevalence of neurodisability in young people who offend”, suggested that up to 20% of young people going through the Criminal Justice System have one – more usually, multiple – neurodisabilities. Some children have by-passed the neurological development where conscious thought intervenes and intercepts the instinctive, ‘fight-or-flight’ impulse. What happens when the pupil, rather than conform, opts almost involuntarily for confrontation, ‘fight’ instead of ‘flight’?
The process of the aggressive option is hallmarked by the teacher ‘upping the stakes’ with an increasing scale of sanctions. As the pupil scorns each sanction in turn, the teacher becomes more and more disempowered. The scenario may go something like this:
· You up the stakes, the student does not concede.
· You raise your voice, the student responds similarly.
· You threaten bigger sanctions. The student says, “So what? Do I care?” or possibly stays defiantly silent.
· You walk towards the pupil.
· Your body language, perhaps unconsciously, is more aggressive – hands on hips, leaning forward, pointing a finger.
· None of this works. The pupil begins to ‘fight’ rather than take ‘flight’.
· There is shouting.
· It degenerates into an angry slanging match and spiraling confrontation.
· There maybe threats.
· If you are lucky, the pupil swears at you, throws over their chair and storms out.
· If you are unlucky, or you make a very bad choice, there is physical contact and violence.
3. There is a third assertive option: Assertive Responsibility, where you feel and remain empowered while acknowledging the power of the student over his or her own choices and actions. The key components of this method are:
• Always be in control of yourself and your emotions.
• Remain assertive – about your choices.
• Know and accept that you are not in control of the pupils’ choices, though you are doing everything within your power to positively influence those choices.
• Do not try to disempower the student. It isn’t necessary and in some cases, this may trigger unconscious memories of previous abuse, which can be very frightening for them.
• Be in control of your choices.
• Be in control of the situation.
• Move away – do not move closer!
• Be conscious of your body language. Where are your hands and what are they doing? If possible, put them in your pockets.
• What about your voice: speak calmly, quietly and assuredly.
• Do not make ultimatums or threats.
• What are you going to say?
A possible script:
• “You are right, I can’t make you.
• You are in control of your choices. For your sake, I hope you make good ones but I accept that you have the power to make bad ones.
• I cannot make you make the right decision, only you can do that.
• You will have to make your choices and like all of us, accept responsibility for the choices you make.
• But equally, you cannot make my choices for me, you can influence my choices but you cannot make them for me.
• What am I going to do? Right now? I don’t know. I will have to reach that decision later, at some point.
• Like you, I will have to make my choices and I will have to accept responsibility for them.
• Then walk away, continue with your work-lesson, perhaps address another student, “Now, where were we…”. This allows ‘take-up time’ while demonstrating that you are calm, cognisant and still in control of the classroom.
My money, and experience, says that this script is defusing and calming. At this point, especially if this exchange has taken place in front of other students and staff, the pupil might opt to leave the room, which is not a bad idea. You will then need to manage that development.
At no point have you been disempowered because (i) you have not laid claims to a power you do not have, namely to force the pupil to accede to your will; (ii) you have at every turn retained and asserted control over your professional choices. And there is the added bonus that, having left the student with her/his sense of self intact, there is every chance that your working relationship with this student will not only be re-established very quickly but it will actually be stronger than it was before. In all likelihood the student will choose to apologise to you at some point, probably a little sheepishly.
Our ‘feelings’ in these situations can be our worst enemy. We ask (demand?) that a pupil do something. They refuse. Pupils and staff watch and wait expectantly for your response. You ‘feel’ you have to do something or be disempowered. However, once you recognise these feelings, and understand that, at that moment, you do not have the power to compel the student, rather it is they who have a choice, you cannot be disempowered by their poor choices.
I had this experience on innumerable occasions as a Headteacher, most often when I was called to remove a child from a classroom. I would walk in, hands in my pockets, keeping a good distance between myself and the student, and say something like “come on fella (or Susie, or Ahmed) come with me”. Usually they would come straightaway, content to have empowered themselves by ignoring the teacher’s previous request; or because they didn’t have a grievance with me; or because I had a good working relationship with that student; or because of my Headteacher positional power.
But sometimes they would refuse. I would say, “look, I can’t physically make you leave this room and I’m certainly not going to try and drag you out kicking and screaming. You have the power to stay in here, of course you do, even though that would not be a good choice. You also have the power, and the intelligence, to make a better choice. All I can do is advise you to be at my door in the next few minutes. While I cannot make your choices for you, you cannot make my choices for me. And for your safety and education it’s my choice that the students are not in physical control of school spaces. You know that. So have a think about it and hopefully I’ll see you in a minute.” Then I would leave.
The student was no longer challenged by my presence. I was no longer there to ‘fight’ against and they could not gain any false empowerment by resisting my will. It avoided the ‘stand-off’, which disempowers staff and empowers pupils negatively. It was their decision, to stay or to leave. But there would be consequences depending on their decision. I was both empowering the student positively – they have the power of choice – and leaving them with the responsibility for their actions, for which they would be held accountable. They knew, from previous experience, from the consistency of behaviour management practice and because of effective Senior Leadership, they would be held accountable.
The usual scenario would then be that the other students would say to him/her, “Don’t be an idiot, you know he’ll stick you in seclusion or exclude you”. This, of course, is music to the student’s ears, who desperately wants an excuse to leave the room without losing face. After a few “So?”s and grunted-under-breath expletives, reluctantly, under protest, dragging his/her feet, s/he would appear at my door.
On the very rare occasions when they remained in the classroom, we would move the group to another room. I would call the parent/carers and exclude for ½ a day. When I said I cannot have pupils in control of the physical spaces of the school, I meant it. A line must be drawn. The pupil would then return, with a parent/carer, for a post exclusion meeting and a de-brief. This would conclude with an apology to the member of staff and the student writing a “Behaviour Self-Evaluation Form” (more of that in another article perhaps) The pupil could then return to lessons.
Rather than try to force an early conclusion, perhaps try the above. Combine this approach with a variety of behaviour management tricks of the trade:
· Take-up time – walk away and give the student a short while to take up your instructions. It is the instruction that is important, not you.
· Time out – a short time out of the classroom arena to compose themselves, re-think, re-focus and evaluate their behaviour and choices. This is always best undertaken with the support of a trusted Teacher Assistant.
· Inescapable follow-up and consequences – this is dependent partly on you, partly on the quality and consistency of an effective system of behaviour management and partly on the calibre of the Senior Leadership Team.
In the end, your professionalism and commitment will be either reinforced, or undermined by inconsistent whole school practices and the quality of your SLT in supporting behaviour management and transformation.
• If you think you can dictate and force the pupil’s choices (aggressive) you will certainly be exposed at some point. This is not good for you, not good for the development of your students and, ultimately, is not safe.
• Do not allow the pupil or group to control your choices (passive). You will be ineffective and unhappy in your work and you will be letting down your students.
• Retain authority over your choices (assertive). You don’t have to ‘beat’ or disempower the pupil.
Remember: your authority does not reside in the moment. Nor does it reside within your personal power. It lies within the authority of your role, control over your choices, the authority of your vocation and moral purpose, the authority of a fair institution, and the justice, certainty and consistency of its sanctions and leadership.
Managed effectively, the defiance of this generation of youth can become a creative energy, a force for change. This does not mean tolerating abuse and disruptive behaviour. It means challenging it and transforming it through developing assertive responsibility, where the young person is empowered rather than repressed into passivity; where their critical independence is encouraged rather than destroyed. Rather than batter them into submission as though we were an arm of the state, rather than crush their fighting spirit, we need to challenge and forge it into something positive and irrepressible.
Teaching isn’t just a job. It is a wonderful honour, and an onerous responsibility. We are charged with developing the young minds of those who will inherit and, hopefully, transform and preserve this planet. My generation, and previous generations, have made a pretty awful mess of things. To overcome our chronic mistakes and neglect, we do not need a cohort of automatons, meekly accepting the status quo. We do not need Lemmings, following us over the cliff’s edge. We need a nation of young, determined, responsible, assertive ‘revolutionaries’. Empower ourselves as teachers, certainly. But, in so doing, we can and we must empower our youth to be more than we have ever been.
Director, 2nd Chance Learning