The ‘making it up as you go along’ behaviour policy

Something stuck in my throat on a personal level after reading the excellent post that Tom Sherrington wrote yesterday, describing his observations of teaching and learning at HGS. In that post, he says this:

Where behaviour is problematic, often it’s because too many low level issues are tolerated before the system kicks in: tolerance of being late, missing equipment, calling out, undercurrent of chat etc.

That hit home because, for all the good progress that I am seeing with my Year 8 class, that is a fair description of what every single lesson with them is like. From observing colleagues, I’m certainly not alone in that, and I wouldn’t say entirely to blame either; however, I’d like to explore what I and the school are doing to see if we could improve it at all.

I work in a new-ish school and the behaviour policy is regularly revised; it has been through four different incarnations in the past two years. When I arrived there was no formal system of consequences – if students were causing trouble then teachers set detentions as they judged it, and if someone was especially difficult then there was the option for a senior team call-out. There was no isolation, no student support unit, no faculty or HOD or after-school detentions.

This caused chaos. Students would be called back for detentions and they would claim that they had detentions elsewhere, and there was no way to follow it up swiftly enough, and no consequences if they did lie to you. After six months or so, the school moved to holding faculty detentions on set days of the week, run by middle leaders. This worked a lot better, but was limited by the fact that detentions were once-weekly, and persistent offenders got the same sanction as one-time offenders.

Then the school started with W1, W2 and a ‘parking’ system where students were sent out of lessons, which seemed logical enough but which was hampered by the fact that we couldn’t do anything with students who were persistently disruptive (mostly in a low-level fashion). They would be referred to middle leaders, middle leaders would refer to SLT, SLT would claim that these issues weren’t serious enough to do anything about and so not act on them, and then these persistently disruptive students would get away scot-free. So they would continue.  Many teachers naturally gave up on the parking system and used their own methods instead, aware that parking wasn’t working. This was logical, but over time SLT got increasingly frustrated with teachers who were using the parking system and started criticising them for doing so, seeing other teachers who didn’t use it (or very rarely used it) being much more effective with their classes. Which leads us to now…

Recently we have done away with the language of W1, W2 and ‘parking’, because the formality of this structure was seen to be a straitjacket for teachers. There is still the option of having a student removed from your lessons because they are rendering it ‘unteachable’, a very serious sanction, but this is only to be used as a last resort in order to make sure teachers have done everything they possibly can to keep students in lessons. Detentions are again run at teachers’ discretion, and staff have been briefed about making sure that sanctions truly hit home for each of our students – which will be different depending on the individual.

There are both positives and negatives to this approach.

The positives:

  • It’s empowering to the individual teacher. It gives you the freedom to make sure you’re doing something that will actually impact your student.
  • It’s expressly designed to encourage teachers to use every tool in their arsenal to get students back into the lesson before they get sent out – definitely a good thing.
  • It’s built, for the most part, around trusting that teachers are able to do it right.

The negatives:

  • It’s hard for students to know where they stand. A W1 has a definite status; now students are all at sea in knowing how well or badly they’re doing during a lesson (this is designed to improve self-esteem by taking away the sense of failure/self-judgement.).
  • It’s prone to one of the problems we started with – teachers unable to follow up on detentions because they’re not centralised.
  • It’s also prone to inconsistency. There’s very little way to tell that all teachers are enforcing similar levels of behaviour across the board; who knows if what you do in English is the same as in Maths?
  • It’s basically managing by charisma. If you’re somebody who finds classroom control difficult, then SLT have basically taken away a major weapon in your arsenal; now you have to get them on your side some other way. For NQTs joining next year, it sounds like a nightmare.
  • If SLT start monitoring removals from the classroom, then in all likelihood people will simply stop using it for fear that it makes them look like they can’t manage behaviour.

Truthfully, from where I’m standing it feels a little bit like a behaviour policy based on ‘making it up as we go along’. My biggest problem here is inconsistency; we supposedly have the highest expectations of students, but what happens is that I end up applying a different rule to 8X3 than I would to my 9Z1, my top-set Year 9 class. My line manager tells me that’s because kids are human beings and we can’t be so ruthless with them, but I think I disagree with him; I think anything less is selling them short. I get that the school has made a choice – some of our kids have low self-esteem and if they get in trouble in class it might put them off learning. However, I’m tempted to argue that what we’ve got here is just going to lower self-esteem further, as sanctions may well end up seeming personal.

What I love about HGS is how consistent their policy is, how well-reasoned and thought-through each stage has been. Teachers know what C1, C2, C3 are given out for, as do students, and those have been followed through on (very publically). Our policy, so far, suggests that for some of our kids the behaviour rules are just too hard – and what that translates to is saying that “oh, kids from that estate just can’t behave”. Which is nonsense, of course, but it’s the kind of nonsense that also means you end up with low-level disruption in your middle-sets until your dying day.

Or maybe I’m being too cynical. How does this compare to your schools’ policies?

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The ‘making it up as you go along’ behaviour policy

8X3 – this term’s topic

This term, 8X3 are set to be studying a unit on newspaper writing. None of them read newspapers, of course, but we’ve attempted to make it more appealing to them by focussing it on ‘celebrities’ in the hope that they’ll want to write about them.

Well, I say ‘we’. I mean the department, as frankly this isn’t my ideal Unit – give me something with some texts to study – but I do understand why we have to do it, given the demands of the English Language paper at GCSE. The final outcome is a tabloid or broadsheet front page, a combined English and ICT task that generally results in not a great deal of writing. It was a nightmare when I taught it with my Year 8 middle set last year, and it looks set to be the same this year. It’s a piecemeal Unit with only a very loose theme and no real ‘hook’.

As a result, I’m doing what any good teacher does in this situation – inventing one.

I figure that what they need is a story to believe in. Something that they care even slightly about. So  we’re going to start off by inventing a celebrity together – a male actor, model and millionaire. We’ll write some tabloid articles about his exploits, and the lurid nights out in Hollywood. We’ll mock up a front page showing a photograph of him being arrested. We’ll put together some broadsheet columns, hand-wringing about how he’s setting a bad example.

Then we’re going to kill him.

We’ll write about the discovery of his body, about his rival who might have done it and what they think happened to him, then maybe even an obituary commemorating him. Tasteless? Maybe, but tasteless seems to be what gets them enthused.

The whole idea has actually got me quite excited. I’ll write about RAG123 marking and a few other pedagogical initiatives later this week, but for the meantime, wish me luck…

8X3 – this term’s topic

Trade-offs

Bloom’s taxonomy states that the highest-level skills are evaluation and synthesis, something that I’ve not always agreed with, but something that I’m increasingly finding to be true when it comes to teaching itself. Life seems to be one long series of trade-offs, a consistent evaluation and re-evaluation of what is truly important and what you have to compromise on. They are certainly the skills that require the most energy and thought at the moment, as I find myself asking questions like:

Do I use the scheme of work written by our 2i/c, even though their lesson objectives generally read along the lines of “to be able to write a newspaper article”, and free up more time for marking, or do I dedicate the time to planning, thus reaping a better outcome – but also one I may not have the time to mark? Do I invest in behaviour management and spend hours in pastoral and parental meetings, mentoring students on their self-esteem, and plan less thoroughly in the hope that my lessons will become easier to teach? What if a member of SLT walks in on an unscheduled learning walk?

And then the more personal. Is it more of a crime to leave my Year 10s essays unmarked, perhaps compromising their GCSE grades, than it is to sacrifice time with my wife?  Should I invest more heavily in my planning so that when I come home I am less exhausted, more able to be fully present, or should I leave teaching at the door at 7pm, and try and reclaim what time belongs to me? Should I take up hobbies for my own sanity and well-being, or should I conserve my energy for school? Is it worth going to the pub for an hour and a half after work on Fridays to build relationships with colleagues, even though I know that will mean I spend my entire Sunday marking and planning if I do?

I am currently finishing off teaching a comparative scheme of work for Macbeth and fifteen unseen poems. It is a monster unit of work, and we have taught it in seven weeks, which is simply not long enough with the students we have. Every lesson is a compromise. If I teach this, I can’t teach that. What do they most need to know? What will most help them with this task? There is no real way to win, only a way to manage the losses, and every lesson I and my colleagues write take a long time for us to plan.

It seems that way with teaching generally. It is no wonder that increasing numbers of teachers are suffering from anxiety and depression – as I have, in fact, myself, although not whilst teaching – because the level of thought required to ‘manage those losses’ is exhausting. I became anxious a few years ago because of a job where I had too little structured responsibility, and so I started trying to solve all the problems I could to justify my paycheck, answering emails at all times, never resting, never giving myself a day off (admittedly, it didn’t help that I owned a Blackberry, and had forgotten the password to disable my email, either). When was I allowed to take time off? When was I allowed to take space for me? What was there left of me that was not my job? It didn’t help that my manager shrugged his shoulders when I asked him those questions.

I recognise those same issues with teaching in a different form – the managers who shrug their shoulders, the endless demands and requirements to compromise, and the all-consuming workload. It is endemic in the profession now, and it suggests that ours is a profession structured and built upon a foundation of anxiety and instability. It is impossible to do this job properly, and so in the least negative way possible, all is compromise. I would tentatively suggest that it might be good, perhaps, if any future education secretaries were to narrow the list of requirements rather than asking teachers to do it all for themselves?

Trade-offs

Reclaiming poetry

When I started out as a teacher, I used to read poetry in my spare time. I loved reading poems, because poetry takes your head to a different space – it requires you to focus on the language and as a result, you can’t do it fast. As an English teacher, I speed read out of habit and it takes a real effort to slow down to read a novel; which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy reading novels, but I don’t exactly ‘dwell’ in them. Poetry was a good tonic – to enjoy it, you had to slow down, and so on off-days I’d sit with a cup of coffee and I’d read poems.

I haven’t done that for a while, and that’s mostly because I’m too busy. I’ve replaced my reading of poems with reading teaching blogs, in between binge-watching episodes of The Walking Dead. I’m early on in my career and I figured that it makes sense to get as much of a handle on pedagogy as I can, to ensure that when I go back to school in a week I can teach at my very best. Surely nobody could argue with that.

And yet… teaching blogs, whilst useful, are hardly great literature. Realistically, nobody should read thirty or forty of them a day. And nobody can exist on a diet of information indefinitely – you’d end up getting stressed, or overwhelmed, or never managing to switch off. It would actually, over time, make you a less good teacher, wouldn’t it? As when you saw your kids again you wouldn’t be alive to the possibilities of language and great writing, you’d be thinking about how to best implement your new ideas on marking. Useful, yes; inspiring, not so much.

There’s no use complaining that what I’ve ended up doing “isn’t why I got into teaching” – no job ever really works out exactly the way that you expect it to once you’re doing it, and I was hopelessly naïve when I started anyway. Pedagogy is important, but there comes a point where the marginal gains you’re making after reading yet another blog are so marginal that they’re almost not worth it. And I know by now that I’m at my best with my classes when I’m doing close language analysis on a piece of writing that makes them feel excited, or moved, or challenged, and I’m no use to them as a teacher if I’m not reading things that make me feel that way.

Maybe you think this is idealistic nonsense, but pedagogy isn’t all that there is. For my own sanity and for the wider goal of making my students people who enjoy literature and embrace new and challenging texts and experiences, I need to keep reading – even if that means reading just the top five blogs of the day. After all, what good is it to gain an ‘Outstanding’ OFSTED grade but lose your soul in the process?

Reclaiming poetry