Faultlines

The subject of the relationship between teaching and learning, and behaviour, is so fraught, tangled and complex that I hesitate even to talk about it. Notions of blame and responsibility quickly get wound up together, and before you know it, if you even dare to talk about this subject you are accused of saying that it is ‘the teacher’s fault if the children misbehave’. Logically, if we stop to think for a moment, it cannot possibly be a teacher’s fault when a student misbehaves, because the behaviour is not situated in the teacher, it is situated in the child. The behaviour belongs to the child, not to the teacher. If a student stumbles into your room, ten minutes late, firing off a volley of swear words as though they are bullets, this cannot possibly have anything to do with your lesson. If a student refuses to do some work, despite your perfectly reasonable request, this is nothing to do with you, and everything to do with them. But at the same time, this does not mean that you are completely powerless. That you cannot examine your own approaches and consider whether you might adapt what you do in order to get a better outcome for everyone concerned. Because, when it comes down to it, the teaching and learning is the thing over which teachers have most control.

Consider this. When a new term begins, there will often be a flurry of tweets complaining about poor quality INSET. Stories of sitting in a room, wasting precious preparation time listening to someone read out a series of powerpoint slides that had no relevance to anything you might want to do in your classroom that year. Although as an adult you probably won’t directly disrupt the session (especially if SLT are in the room), it could be the case that you lose focus and drift off, send a few sneaky emails on your phone under the desk, or get out your planner and start to organise your lessons, on the pretext of pretending to make notes. For sure, you’re not firing off swear words, or being deliberately defiant, but you are behaving in a way that we would not accept from a student in a classroom. Although your behaviour belongs entirely to you, to say that there is no link between how you are behaving and the quality of the INSET session is not correct. Your behaviour in this situation is (at least in part) a response to the way you are being taught. If I notice that the teachers in one of my INSET sessions are losing concentration, or if they are not finding what I am doing with them to be useful, it is up to me to reflect on it to make it better. The behaviour is not my fault, but I share an element of responsibility.

Some commentators take the position that children should ‘just behave’ – that there should be no link at all between the way that the teacher teaches, and the way that the children react to that teaching. That the school should have a system that ensures behaviour, and that the teacher does not bear any responsibility at all for this aspect of the job. (This does rather ignore the existence of the Teachers’ Standards, but that is probably a subject for another time.) For me, though, this not only misunderstands how human beings operate, but it puts a higher expectation on children than we hold for adults. And it also negates and under estimates my role in the process of teaching and learning. For sure, it is not my fault if the children mess around, but if I hold up my hands and claim that nothing I do has any influence on how the people in front of me behave, and that I should therefore take no responsibility at all for it, I am effectively saying that anyone could do my job, so long as they had the requisite subject knowledge. I absolve myself of any responsibility, but at the same time I absolve myself of any skill.

When I think back twenty five years or so, to my first teaching practice, I can remember completely misjudging the conceptual complexity of some work that I did with a group of children. I wanted to talk about ‘the world’ using a globe; the children didn’t have any concept of ‘the world’ because they had never been outside the town where they lived. At first the children simply looked puzzled, but then they began to shuffle around and fidget. Before long they were losing focus completely. They certainly didn’t learn anything from the time they spent with me that day. If, after that lesson, I had decided that the problem behaviour was entirely the fault of the children, and that my planning had not contributed to the situation in any shape or form, then I would have learned nothing as a teacher. Last school year I did a lesson in which I managed to get the children completely over excited, and then had to claw back the situation before it got unsafe. Their over excited behaviour might not have been my fault, but I certainly felt a measure of responsibility for it. When people say that part of the job of a teacher is to ensure well structured, carefully paced and suitably pitched lessons, that is not the same thing as saying that it is their fault when the children mess around. Yes, the behaviour definitely belongs to the children, but the magic of making them forget to misbehave? Well, I’m perfectly happy to take the credit for that.

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3 Responses to Faultlines

  1. Jane says:

    Exactly right. Most important lesson I ever learned about teaching was on my PGCE course when I shadowed three different boys for a day each for my final assignment. They were so different with different teachers it was a revelation that has stayed with me for 30 years as the most important lesson I ever learned as a teacher. Behaviour and context are inextricable and pointless to argue otherwise. Good job Sue.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. We easily forget that teaching is a social contract just like any other social interaction, all be it one between 30 (still learning the rules) human beings. Everyday adults negotiate hundreds of these social contracts based on the responses of those they meet and their own idea of what is socially acceptable. Even in his teens, I am still educating my (nearly as tall as me) little one in what I think is a socially acceptable response. I have to hope my idea of what is social acceptable is similar enough to the rest of the world for him to thrive or at least survive.

    Like

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