Lies my teacher training taught me #2: Bad behaviour is your fault
‘Schools must ensure an appropriate curriculum is offered, which must be accessible to pupils of all abilities and aptitudes… By engaging pupils more effectively, standards of behaviour improves [sic].’
Steer Report, 2005
I have just completed my first week back at school. The pain and suffering of our department’s new teachers has reignited my indignation at what is perhaps the cruellest of lies propagated by teacher training. This is the lie that bad behaviour is the consequence of bad lessons. Trainee teachers are made to think that if you are a good teacher, who plans engaging lessons and motivates their pupils, bad behaviour will be eliminated.
In 2005, the Government commissioned the Steer Report on school behaviour and discipline. Its hundred plus pages did not get round to admitting that there is a behaviour crisis in British schools, but did entrench the fundamental myth of ‘behaviour management’. One head teacher quoted in the report summed up the received wisdom thus: ‘If you get the learning right, behaviour isn’t an issue.’ This outlook can also be seen in the chapter on behaviour in the standard textbook for PGCE teachers. It claims: ‘The design of effective lessons is fundamental to high-quality teaching and learning. This in turn promotes and supports behaviour for learning in the classroom.’
This outlook on pupil behaviour is both wrong, and extremely damaging. Supporting this opinion is a Romantic conviction in the natural goodness of a child. No child, it suggests, would ever misbehave if treated properly by an adult. It is the damaging influence of adult teachers with bad lessons that creates misbehaviour. Thus, the pupil is absolved from blame, and all responsibility rests on the teacher consistently to deliver faultless lessons. Any right thinking person knows that children are not naturally good, and if not given rules and consequences, will behave in a less than satisfactory way. But whoever said that those in the education establishment are right thinking?
First and foremost, there is an obvious moral objection to this notion. The ‘behaviour management’ outlook implies that if a lesson or teacher is below par, the pupils have every right to misbehave. It tacitly condones bad behaviour in poor lessons, as if it is the just comeuppance of teachers too incompetent or lazy to deliver good lessons. Good behaviour needs to be won from the pupils by hardworking teachers, not expected as a social norm to be practiced irrespective of the situation. This can be seen in the idea, popularised by the New Labour Government, of ‘behaviour for learning’. The phrase implies that good behaviour is nothing but a convenient means for learning to occur, and not a virtue to be upheld as a good in its own right.
Of course, there is some truth in the claim that the worse a lesson is, the worse the behaviour will be. But this is far from the whole truth. Lessons which are engaging and interesting are more likely to prevent bad behaviour, but this is not the condition to which all lessons should aspire. In a good school, some lessons also need to be challenging and difficult. As Aristotle observed, ‘The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.’ Making pupils work hard in an unruly school is sure to provoke misbehaviour, so ‘engaging lessons’ becomes a euphemism for dumbed down, Mickey Mouse learning. Such lessons do not so much ‘engage’ pupils, as placate them.
Lastly, on a practical note, not all teachers are superhuman, and even the best teachers have bad days. For such situations, a general expectation of civil behaviour in the classroom must be the norm. In particular, new teachers suffer greatly from this lie. Having not yet honed their craft, they are met with chaos in the classroom, and when they ask how to solve it, they are confronted with a litany of things they need to do better: more praise, less writing, shorter activities, swifter transitions, building relationships with pupils. Is it any wonder that half of new teachers leave the profession within five years?
The most disgraceful aspect of this lie is that it enables school managements to turn the blame for bad behaviour onto their staff. If you work at a school where the senior management are too progressively disposed (or, more likely, lazy) to implement a centralised detention system or a working system of escalating consequences, then bad behaviour is not your fault. Any member of senior management who tells you that it is, is shamefully absolving themselves from the blame.
The core text prescribed during my teacher training summed up its chapter on behaviour management with this message: ‘At the heart of this approach is a recognition that old-fashioned notions of authoritarian discipline are no longer viable or efficacious (if ever they were). This way of working tends to be unsatisfactory for both pupil and teacher.’ Could there be any more damning evidence of why we have a behaviour crisis in our schools?