You know those children that take your breath away? The children who keep you up at night with thoughts of exactly what else you can do to help them. The sort of children who require constant curiosity to unpick and unravel their unpredictable behaviour. The children who no matter what you do, and what you try, they refuse to conform to a system that is not designed for them. I’ve been thinking a lot about those children recently.
Every teacher has worked with these children. Every person working in education has a story of a child that they can’t forget after many years have passed. We have all felt the frustration of believing we are failing a child because, despite all the effort and energy, we still haven’t cracked the puzzle of the individual and unique range of needs this child has.
This post is a celebration and recognition of those children first and foremost, but also of the team of dedicated and incredibly resilient professionals who have worked tirelessly to help these children. In the time I have been teaching and working in schools I have had the absolute pleasure and joy of working with so many children whom, for whatever reason, do not fit the traditional mould of schooling. So many children who have required a creative, flexible and alternative approach to achieve progress, success and flourishment. And the successes I have observed are incredible. Heartwarming. Life-changing.
The key to every single element of success I have ever experienced with children facing challenges like this, is relationships. Strong, meaningful and at times irrational relationships. The teachers and support staff and other professionals I have worked with who have invested heavily in these relationships have made the difference. Tireless in the pursuit of helping that particular child feel more safe, more valued, more loved.
Relationships are the keystone in the bridge between these children and them feeling like they belong. Professionals who are dedicated above all else to making the child in front of them feel loved and cared for. Someone who is willing to look past the rigid and inflexible pursuit of conformity and to see that child for who they truly are; a fellow human with their own outlook and perspective of the world. From my experience, with the gifted and incredibly talented staff I have had the pleasure of working with, it is this that makes the difference beyond anything else. When you boil it down, taking away all the strategies, interventions and different approaches, what you are left with is an adult who cares enough to care.
That adult who believes in relationships is not weak. They are not simply allowing the child to do what they like. No. Because they care so much, they are relentless in their approach to helping that child do better. They are dogged in their attempts to make that child succeed despite the challenges they face. I get frustrated when I hear a focus on relationships described as a “soft” approach. It’s the hardest thing I have ever been a part of. It would be easy to let a child do what they like and not hold them to account. It would be soft to give out high fives when being met with flying chairs.
But any teacher who has ever invested in relationships knows that in order to build meaningful relationships with children like this, the key lies in unwaveringly high expectations. Difficult conversations, consequences and accountability are a hugely significant aspect of relational practice. But these are far more powerful If that child knows that you care about them, and are holding them to account because you care too much about them to allow them to fail. These practices have much more impact if they run alongside a huge level of support, where the professionals change their practices and adapt approaches to ensure that they can better meet the needs of the child they are working with. High levels of support crossing over with high levels of expectation and challenge is where you build strong and purposeful relationships that lead to a child facing significant challenges beginning to realise their potential. As well as the child beginning to flourish I believe that relationships also come with a significant reward for the professionals involved. I say this from personal experience. My understanding of fairness and respect has been altered by my interactions with these children. I am more aware of the impact of my decisions and the unequal amount of power I have as the professional adult in these relationships. I have a better awareness of the lived experience of children who have faced unimaginable challenges, and this has fuelled a passionate desire to create a more inclusive and understanding school and education system for them. I have laughed, cried and created memories I will cherish forever with these children. In short, my life has been changed for the better by the relationships I have formed with these truly amazing, incredible and breathtaking children, and by working alongside some truly inspirational colleagues in the pursuit of something great.
I recently wrote a blog post outlining some of my thoughts on behaviour. The post was emphatically contested by several people on Twitter. This follow up post is by no means an apology, or a way for me to back-track on the comments made. I remain steadfast in my belief and perspective outlined in the original post. However, there are elements where I feel I may have been unclear and certainly there were aspects that were misunderstood. I was hopeful that in writing the original post, I would stimulate interest, debate and discussion. It clearly did do this, but I would like to go over some of the key issues raised to be able to further my own thinking in this area and continue the discussion.
The thing that was abundantly clear from many of the comments was that there are diametrically opposed positions being argued over. Which can feel redundant at times. I feel that the polarity that exists in education, and particularly on social media, is problematic. I do not mean to fuel this in anyway, but I think it is important to understand that there are certain fundamentally conflicting views at play here, and it is important to interrogate your position in this debate in an informed way. As I said in my original post, I think that it is important to determine what you see as the fundamental purpose of school and education. What is it all really for? I think your answer to the question of purpose has a hugely significant impact on your approach towards behaviour.
For me, I believe that one of the fundamental goals of education should be to challenge learners to see the (social) world differently, to be critical of the status quo and to try consciously work towards a world that is inclusive and fair for everyone. This is a view that draws on the thoughts and ideas from Critical Pedagogy, Progressive education, and Transformative Education, and has been heavily influenced by writers such as Gramsci, Freire, Giroux, Biesta, Dewey and more. Through this critical lens, those committed to this type of approach:
“Acknowledge and connect with learners’ personal and emotional experience, rather than neglecting the learning potential that lies in these experiences;
Engage these experiences through dialogue, which is a form of social interaction that integrates different perspectives, including affective knowledge (emotion/feeling) and experiential knowledge. Dialogue is differentiated from discussion, which can tend to put aside the affective and experiential.”
If you read the statements above with behaviour in mind, this gives you a totally different perspective and subsequent set of pedagogical practices to utilise than if you hold a different belief about the purpose of education. On reflection it appears that this is why there was such disagreement, because it seems from the comments I received, that I have an entirely different view of the purpose of education to many of those who disagreed with what I wrote. This is the salient point. Everything else is secondary.
As mentioned in the original post, this is a hugely complex and challenging issue. Of course it is. Because, just as I approach the conversation with my own unique set of beliefs and lived experiences. So do you. However, part of the anger and frustration around this debate comes from the fact that behaviour can be such an emotional and highly impactful aspect of school life. I recognise the emotion, frustration and anger. I work as a Depute Head in a large Primary School. I have a very good understanding of dysregulated behaviour and the impact this can have on school life. I do not want to appear flippant or removed from the issue, or to belittle the very real concerns of my colleagues across the profession. This is what I do every day in my job. I think there is agreement that things are not perfect and there is work to be done in the system to make things better. I also know that everyone, not matter what their perspective or answer to the question on the purposes of education, believes they are doing the best they can to support the children ad young people in their care. However I think it is naïve and reductionist to say that violent, aggressive or even low level disruptions exists and persists because of a restorative practice approach being used in a school. To ignore the wider societal inequality in this debate is theoretically flawed and morally wrong in my opinion. Schools do not exist in isolation, and any impact or effect must be read and understood in the entirety of the context.
My views here have been influenced by the ‘private troubles and public issues’ distinction put forward by Mills (1959) where ‘troubles’ are concerned with a person’s individual character and experience, and ‘issues’ are to do with matters that transcend the individual and the local environment of their life. The following example illustrates the distinction well:
When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual.
(Mills, ibid: 9)
To individualise problems around behaviour, we risk viewing behaviour as a ‘personal trouble’. However, the fact that so many schools can speak to similarities in terms of the struggles they face around behaviour strikes me as more of a ‘public issue’. When analysed further, and you see the trend of children from low socio-economic status, or with additional support needs being excluded at a rate disproportionately higher than their counterparts across the country, there is even more evidence of a ‘public issue’ that requires resolution at a system-wide level, not an individual one.
I was also criticised for trying to monopolise practices that lead to social justice. For me to lay sole claim to equitable practice or the pursuit of inclusion and social justice is wrong and I would never attempt to do this. I am yet to come across anyone working in education that would say they would willingly perpetuate in-justice, or that they are not affected by the inequality that is ever-present in the education system and wider society. It is clear that reading through Tom Bennett’s book – ‘Running the Room’, that there is a clear belief that the approaches he suggests will have a significant impact on the children who are most vulnerable in society. It was clear in the follow up comments to my original post that people believe the way to challenge this inequality is to give the children the skills to behave through high levels of adult control, direct instruction and clear consequences and boundaries in place for any infractions. The argument goes that to tackle inequality, we are duty-bound to teach the children who are not provided with correct models of behaviour, exactly how to behave. This will inevitably lead to more equality.
The approach to tackling inequality promoted here, seems to be an individualised one though that addresses the problem as if it were a ‘personal trouble’, to engage with Mills (1959) again. i.e. helping individual children overcome deficiencies of their character or immediate local environment to gain key skills, attributes and knowledge required to enter the labour market and perhaps advance socially and economically.
My argument here is that to view this as a problem of the individual, rather than a systemic issue, it does nothing to move society forward. We simply have a practice which leads to success for some, but nonetheless perpetuates the status quo which is inherently unequal and unjust. Children are given the skills to advance individually, but only into a system that has a large degree of inequality.
A lot of the comments I received were around the fact that people believe the approach I advocate for (a strongly relational and restorative approach) is impractical, people claim it simply does not work in a real school. “Utopian sentimentalism” was the great phrase Tom Bennett used, which I think was meant to be used pejoratively, but may well be the title of any book I ever write. This speaks to the question raised at the start about your position on the purpose of education. If you favour a neoliberal, business-like efficiency model of education which is built on the transactional value of learning experiences and promotes a replicable model for ensuring children learn more content and does not value highly the lived personal and emotional experiences of children, then I agree that a restorative approach probably is impractical.
Biesta’s excellent article ‘Why “What works” wont work: Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research’(Biesta, 2007) has had a significant impact on my thinking here. Biesta argues that evidence-based practice, or the over-reliance on finding ‘what works’ or what is practical restricts the scope of decision making in education to questions about efficiency and effectiveness. He argues that this also restricts the opportunities for teachers to participate in educational decision making. A focus on efficiency and research-based practice serves to deny teachers the right to make values-based judgements on the educational desirability of any action or strategy and consequently removes their right notto act according to evidence about “what works”. The problem here is that discussions around practicality or finding strategies that research suggests ‘works’, is that it fails to give sufficient weight to the moral and values-based issues inherent in all educational decision making. Why is practicality and efficiency valued above all else?
I think behaviour is far more complex than simply finding a range of strategies that ‘work’. I think this suggest that education and any approach to behaviour is linear, with a simple and observable input-output model. There is no simple solution towards achieving progress with behaviour. It is for this reason that I refuse to be drawn into an argument that poses certain strategies against others to determine which is better. Some strategies will work for some children some of the time. It will be a complex blend of strategies for some, and a more straight-forward approach for others. But what we cannot lose sight of, is the bigger question around purpose. Why are we doing what we are doing?
The approach I am advocating for here is highly personalised, and unique to individual children. It is about connecting with children’s personal emotional experience and being responsive to a range of needs. This is not a cookie-cutter version of simply ‘managing’ behaviour that can be replicated with ease from school to school. It is about growing and developing genuine human connection and meaningful relationships built on tolerance, mutual respect, unconditional and relentless positive regard for the children we teach. This process will be different for every teacher and child working with each other, in every school up and down the country. Yes, there are strategies and approaches consistent in all schools committed to restorative practice, but at the foundation of it all is practice that is built on relationships before anything and everything else. This is a cultural approach, a statement of values, a community working together – not a shortcut to an efficient model to fix things in the short term. Perhaps some of the criticism restorative practice receives is from teachers reflecting on their own experience of restorative practice, where children descend into chaos, are relentlessly disrespectful and start acting like they own the place. The belief is that the children take advantage of the lack of punishment and consequences which ultimately leads to serious disruptions in learning and puts people’s safety at risk. This is not what restorative practice looks like in my experience. But just as those who advocate for stronger boundaries and more consistent consequences feel frustrated when they are characterised as punishment-driven, joyless, cruel, Dickensian teachers, so to are those who are faced with the above caricature of restorative practice.
R. F. Mackenzie, a key figure and radical voice in promoting a progressive model for Scottish Education said:
“I believe that human nature is generally good, that human beings react generously to conditions of freedom and that therefore teachers doing experimental work in education would be wise not to try and mould children into some shape but to help them grow into freedom”
There is a certain amount freedom that is afforded to child through restorative practice. Freedom to find out who they are and how they want to interact with the world and those around them. I am not suggesting for a second that children do not need guided or nurtured through this process. A high level of support is required to help children grow into this freedom.
I find McCold and Wachtel’s (2003) notion of the Social Discipline Window helpful to explain more fully the intent behind restorative practice and what this ‘freedom’ looks like. The axes of control and support give us 4 quadrants to describe approaches to behaviour.
The idea here is that with a high degree of support, along with a high degree of control/challenge, we can work with children to achieve better behaviour choices and actions.
If we have a high degree of control, with low levels of support, we are in the quadrant where our choices around behaviour, as the adults in the building, are simply given ‘to’ the children, without any flexibility or opportunity for challenge. This quadrant is punitive, and in my opinion, less aligned with my aims for education as laid out previously.
I know that some of the criticism around this approach is often directed at practice that would actually fall in the bottom two quadrants, described as neglectful or permissive. This is not the approach I argue for, and I think it sometimes leads to the misconceptions around what restorative practice involves.
By working predominantly in the ‘To’ quadrant, by forcing children to comply to a system with very low tolerance or flexibility for any behaviour that does not follow the rules, I believe we are not recognising children as humans in their own right, with their own perspective of justice and what is fair. We are simply reproducing the set of societal and cultural norms that have been agreed upon by those in positions of relative power, and have led to a large degree of inequality and a system in need of change. For me, this approach to behaviour does not model the democratic, transformational, or critical potential of education that I hold dear. It does not allow children to find their voice and learn about making morally or ethically based decisions by themselves. If children are simply ‘behaving’ for fear of the punishment, my view (through a wide range of experiences and observations) is that when the fear of the punishment is no longer there, the undesirable behaviour can continue.
I have argued repeatedly in this post for approaches to behaviour to be discussed in a way that pays cognisance to the question of the purpose of education. What you believe children are at school for, and what experiences you believe are educationally desirable, will have a huge impact on what you think is the correct way to approach behaviour in schools. I have acknowledged the tendency in this debate for toxic, unhelpful polarity to take hold, and while I disagree with the notion of perpetuating false dichotomies in educational debate, I do believe it is important to question your beliefs, and align these with writers, theorists and practitioners who argue for a similar thing that you believe in. By not doing this, you risk working in a system and adopting a range of strategies that perpetuate injustice and do not lead to meaningful change for those who need it most. As the adage goes; If you don’t stand for something, you risk falling for anything.
Biesta, G. (2007). Why “What Works” Won’t Work: Evidence-Based Practice and the Democratic Deficit in Educational Research. Educational Theory, 57, 1-22.
Mackenzie, R.F. (1965), Escape from the classroom. London: Collins
McCold, P. & Wachtel, T. (2003). In pursuit of paradigm: a theory of restorative justice. Restorative Practices
Mills, C. Wright (1959) The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
Through the Into Headship programme, I was fortunate enough to listen to Gayle Gorman at one of our national conferences. She spoke passionately about taking the politics out of education in what can be seen in her quote below.
Move from a politically driven to a professionally led system.
Gayle Gorman, HMIe Chief Inspector, Education Scotland (April 2018)It made me consider the importance and value of professional learning and the huge potential we have already within our education system. And made me reflect on there never has been a better time in Scottish education for professional learning.
Professional learning is at the heart of the GTCS Standards, enshrined in How Good is Our School? 4 and a key feature of professional practice across Scotland.
In light of our recent move to the online world, it is now time to reflect on the professional learning opportunities available to all in Scottish education and beyond. Arguably, the way in which we engage with our learning will change as a result of organisations, charities, Education Scotland and local authorities adapting to this new world. Will we ever attend a course in person again? Probably. However, we may experience a wider range of opportunities as people are now comfortable with attending online lectures and conferences. It may in fact open up more opportunities where previously people were unable to attend.
With a five yearly focus on Professional Update and an annual review process encouraging all teachers to reflect on their learning, I do feel like we are in a good position. However, is it tokenism and does this help with our drive for high quality learning and teaching? That is a question teachers will need to reflect upon individually, however I think it does and believe that high quality PRDs link in with school improvement which in turn impacts on pupils learning.
I would argue that there is an increasing shift away from attending a course. We now have podcasts and blogs being developed at pace right across the education system. There are also pop events and conference organised by and for teachers. It is encouraging to see this organic movement but does beg the question what the formal organisations responsible for the delivery of professional learning are doing about it. For example, the recent change to the Scottish learning festival which will now be organised by the professional learning and leadership directorate instead of the wider education Scotland. And what about the role of local authorities? Teachers are professionals and are more than skilled and capable to collaborate themselves however are they being failed by the wider formal structures which should be providing a service? I’ll let you comment on that!
The focus on leadership development has also been a key focus, and remains so. With the development of the framework for leadership and the many online learning modules created to support the different categories:
I do think we are now at a stage where our professional learning opportunities are excellent in terms of the choice and breadth, however we do now need to consider the depth and quality of professional learning. Perhaps this is where we need to consider again a masters level approach so that each professional learning engagement is supported by a university and contributes towards something like a qualification. This would help bring coherence to our overloaded system and also support the idea of high quality in depth learning.
Lastly, we need to recognise the potential knowledge and experience within our schools, universities and local authorities as it currently stands. Each school could have specialisms which they could share their experiences in which may foster greater collaboration. We need to reduce our reliance on courses which are paid for. The reason for this is that as budgets tighten then fewer people can benefit from this and I believe we don’t always have the quality when CPD companies churn out another course with little consideration for the person attending. If we had a greater collaborative culture across schools where we could regularly share in our own in-house developed programmes, this would reduce the competition aspect within education.
Therefore, I believe we have many opportunities in the years ahead and that there has never been a better time to engage in professional learning in Scottish education.
I’ll leave you with a few questions:
1. What is needed to ensure every teacher values their own learning just as much as the learning of the young people?
2. How do we ensure effective collaboration to build upon the organic movement already taking place? Do we need organisations like Education Scotland and local authorities to fulfil the role of professional learning or is this up to individuals?
Please feel free to comment underneath the post on twitter.
Our first episode in the John Catt Educational Series.
In Part 1 of our John Catt series we interview Haili Hughes on her new book ‘Preserving Positivity’. This is a wide-ranging discussion all about how best to keep experienced educators in the classroom, as well as looking at the reasons why so many teachers leave the profession. We discuss some of the similarities and differences between Scotland and England to identify the similarities and differences. While dealing with complex and challenging aspects of teaching, the book is pragmatic and optimistic, as was this conversation.
In Episode 23 of EduBlether we discuss Digital Learning. We think about Pedagogy, the SAMR model, equity, access, professional learning and so much more. Let us know your feedback on Twitter @edublether
What is your experience of Digital Learning been? Why do you think we have not made the advancements in Digital Learning that we could have done up until now? What will happen to Digital LEarning when we return to ‘normal’? Let us know what you think.
In this new format podcast, we have stripped it back to focus on our EduBlether and we are delighted to be sharing it with you. We focus on leadership of change and talk about improvement planning, self-evaluation and change leadership. This includes pupils, parents and staff and we hope you find this episode both interesting and informative. As usual, we’d be delighted if you could rate us on your chosen podcast app and send us a tweet and engage in the EduBlether on twitter.com/EduBlether.
In this episode we discuss all things behaviour. An hour is not really time to do this justice, but we hit on some of the big themes and hopefully this will prompt wider discussion amongst our listeners. We also have our usual features with in the news and we recommend. Check out edublether.wordpress.com for more great content and please rate us on iTunes.
On the back of thinking about all the small things that lead to successes in a school, I thought it would be apt to consider the other side of this. One of the seemingly small things that add to a considerable amount of disruption and wasted learning time, in all of the schools I have ever worked in, is the line. I’m going to discuss the various problems I see with this accepted norm, and then I will try to consider some alternatives.
One of the main issues I have with this is the wasted teaching and learning time that could be better spent doing anything else. The time it takes between a bell ringing and children getting into a classroom is huge. Let’s do some quick maths on this. A conservative estimate (based purely on my own experience, with admittedly no scientific rigour applied), would be that it takes at least 5 minutes once the bell has gone to have a class ready to come in at the start of the day, after break and after lunch (at least!). So this is potentially 15 minutes each day, which is about 70 minutes across the week, taking in to account the half-day! That is over 44 hours across the school year.
I don’t want you to think I am ever condoning counting minutes and seconds and making sure every possible part of time is accounted for. This would be dangerous for a large number of reasons. But when there are so many other issues, it begs the question, why are we wasting our time on a bizarre and old fashioned custom that gives nothing back?
Ordinarily, children have been playing in an unstructured and child-led way, then a bell goes (quite abruptly) and they have to stop immediately and form a line, one behind each other. We often scorn them for not being straight enough or for continuing conversations. Quite militaristic when you think about it? But this is quite difficult for a lot of children to do (I think I would struggle to be honest) especially if they have been engaging in high energy play. What are we achieving by standing in line? Efficient management of people cannot be an argument here due to the amount of wasted time. Compliance?
I don’t like the idea of continuing to do something one way just because it is the way we have always done it. I want to know what the alternatives are.
Comment below with any suggestions on alternatives to lining up.
I have been thinking a lot recently about all the small things that I do in my job as a Depute headteacher.￼ Now, there are a lot of high-profile strategic things that I do which are of great importance (I’m a very important person do t you k ow?). Things like having an overview of attainment for example, or working through complex pastoral concerns. Yet for me, this is not what my job is really about.
I would argue that the most important part of my job is a collection of small and seemingly insignificant things.￼ The things that go unnoticed and can’t fit nicely on a spreadsheet. I am talking about things like standing on the school gates in the morning and saying hello to as many people as you can. Or the times I play football with the children who just want to tackle a teacher, but then I somehow managed to avoid their lunging feet and score a wonder goal. Or even something as simple as noticing when a child gets a haircut and giving them a compliment￼. In fact one of the easiest things, yet the thing with such a profound impact￼ is the simple act of smiling. We don’t measure how many smiles we have managed to raise at the end of the school year, or how many times we made a child laugh, but it is exactly these things that are so important to me. I am not for a second saying that I want to start measuring these things, all I am saying is I want to spend time recognizing how important they are.￼
These things are so important to me because they build relationships. It is these daily interactions that build a culture in a school. It is these small moments in time that collectively add up to so much more. So it is for this very reason that I am going to embrace my misspent youth listening to Blink 182 and spend more time celebrating all the small things that I do in my job. I feel that this will allow me to appreciate the tiny successes that happen every day￼.
What are the small things that you do that you would like to shout about?￼￼