Nolite bastardes carborundum; or, Survival

“Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument, but greatly to quarrel at a straw when honour’s at the stake.” – Hamlet

It has been disturbing and saddening to read recent posts and articles recounting some awful stories about the state of teachers’ mental health, for example this post by Andrew Old, and this article in The Guardian. And I am not unfamiliar with the pressures, myself having experienced something of a waking nightmare for my last year at a former school. But, as one who has survived more than one wave of education ‘reform’, I would like to offer this New Year gift of a Survival Guide to anyone who might need it. If you know someone you think this might help, please pass it on.

This is the first of three posts; it focuses on How To Survive Difficult Students and Difficult Managers. I’ve posted the “rules” in a list first, then elaborated further below. That way you can skip through if you want.  There is no particular order to these – the priorities will be determined by the situation.

Rule 1: Forget what they told you in training.

Rule 2: It’s all about percentages.

Rule 3: It’s not personal, it’s business.

Rule 4: Deal with behaviour according to what your lesson needs.

Rule 5: Learning is NOT more important than behaviour.

Rule 6: Self respect. Always.

Rule 7: Know the rules better than them.

Rule 8: Record everything and be good at it.

Rule 9: Anticipate and prepare.

Rule 10: Handle things yourself as far as you possibly can.

Rule 1: Forget what they told you in training.

Here’s why: it was the stuff that your tutors found helpful after they’d got some experience under their belt. That’s when the theories and methods become helpful – as tools to help us analyse our approach, our techniques, and our impact. But until you have gained that experience, they are generally unhelpful, because they misdirect teacher energy.

It is incredibly difficult for any teacher to meet the ideals and expectations presented in training, and attempting to do so is often counter-productive. By all means jump through their hoops to get qualified, but don’t judge yourself –  I repeat, don’t judge yourself – by their ideals. Too many teachers become distressed, guilty and even depressed because they feel that they can never measure up. It’s not about measuring up to ideals. It’s about having an impact on the students. These are different things. You will not have any impact on learning until you have established behaviour.

Rule 2: It’s all about percentages.

Not percentages of A* – C, but percentages of students on board and making progress. A solid base is 80% of the class on-task for 80% of the time:  you can build from there. It does not matter if the current figure is 50% for 50% of the time – the idea is to keep improving the balance, keep ratcheting up expectations, keep winning students over. Increments are essential as you learn your craft and find your feet. This applies whether it’s a new career or a new school – you will still have to establish yourself like this.

(I realise there may be a few individuals who can say truthfully that their charisma, organisation and resources had the students eating out of their hands straight away. This post is not for them. It’s for mortals.)

In particular, ensure that the behaviour of a few students does not cloud your perceptions of the whole class. Three rude but clever children can make you feel that you’re a failure and that the rest of the class thinks so too. But be diligent: prepare, teach as well as you can, go through their books, add comments, smiley faces, give credits and merits (and tell them publicly), praise those who make progress, and little by little you will win more and more of them over. This does not mean lowering your standards, it means maintaining them. We will deal with the saboteurs in more detail later – for now, try to keep seeing the big picture and don’t let the ‘outliers’ distort your perceptions – of your lessons, or of yourself. Know your percentages.

Rule 3: It’s not personal, it’s business.

In The Godfather I seem to remember this line preceded a number of assassinations. I do not recommend this as a strategy. I would, however, recommend a certain level of detachment. At first this seems to fly in the face of our desire to ‘engage with students’ worlds’ and ‘overcome social inequalities through transforming students’ life chances’ but it is quite the reverse. We are no use if we cannot evaluate our own and our students’  performances, and that can’t happen unless we can develop a habitual professional detachment.

This also applies to how we deal with behaviour. While students will often try to needle us with comments that seem personal, the fact is that they don’t really know us. “You’re a useless teacher” is a comment frequently thrown at new teachers (as in, new to the student). In general it’s good to ignore this sort of thing and prove it wrong by what you do. You can also discuss it with the individual, one-to-one, outside of the lesson, when it’s chewing up their own time. This tends to shorten the discussion considerably. But it wastes time reacting to such comments in the lesson, and makes the teacher look defensive.

Maintain professional boundaries with students. Knowledge is power. Failure to manage boundaries has resulted in  some of the more unpleasant experiences I have seen new teachers undergo – Facebook stalking, circulation of personal images, sexual harassment. As a teacher you must manage your social media carefully. Consider your privacy settings for Facebook, Twitter and any other network you belong to. Think about the comments and images you post. Do not pass on your personal contact details. Divulge as little personal information as possible – what you share can be passed on. You are not, and never will be, the students’ friend.  They already have friends. What they they need are teachers, role models, examples – people who are stable, mature adults. Remember that there is a child protection element to all this and treat it with appropriate gravity.

Rule 4: Deal with behaviour according to what your lesson needs.

There is sometimes a balance to be struck between absolute fairness and consistency on the one hand, and getting a decent lesson taught on the other. You do not have to react in exactly the same way to each minor misdemeanour – although for more serious breaches it is more important to do so.

A concrete example: I see a student enter my lesson chewing. I publicly require them to put it in the bin, check that they’ve done it and I make a note according to the school system for recording such things. This is a useful signal of my expectations to other students. However, later in the lesson, I am running a fast question and answer sequence and students are visibly intrigued and thinking hard about where this is going. I notice a student chewing. Am I going to wreck that sequence by stopping and getting indignant? No, I’m not. This is a precious learning moment! I finish the q & a, set the class the next task, walk over to the student and quietly ask her to put the gum in the bin; then I record it as usual. Nobody else needed to be involved, and the lesson kept moving towards its objectives with minimal disruption.

A different example: I’m running a q & a session and a student deliberately says something irrelevant to gain attention. I could stop the lesson, admonish him and impose consequences. But usually I don’t. Sometimes I might pause, raise an eyebrow in disdain, and then carry on. Or I might say something like: ‘Does someone have a relevant contribution to make?’ Or I might ignore it altogether. I am saying to my students that the lesson is about them learning, not about the attention-seeking student. On the other hand, if it’s a repeated offence, I might say to the student that if they interrupt again, there will be a specific sanction. If it does happen again, I implement the sanction.

Most misbehaviour, whether motivated by a desire for peer attention or a struggle for control, is about slowing down the lesson. If you can pre-empt that (more in the next post) you are at least halfway to winning.

Rule 5: Learning is NOT more important than behaviour.

Firstly and most obviously, you cannot have a learning environment when students are not behaving respectfully towards each other or to you. You cannot run a lesson if students do not follow your instructions. Therefore, ensure that expectations, routines, and procedures are explicitly taught and mastered. Saying it isn’t enough. You have to ensure it is happening. Give specific, non-emotive feedback about the extent to which students are meeting the standards you expect. For example, I will tell my students exactly how long it took to get settled: ‘I’m afraid that it took you two minutes and thirty seconds to come in, sit down, have your books out and be ready to start work. My classes normally do this in one minute, and much more quietly. This needs to improve or we will have to practise.’ Or: ‘Well done. You moved into the correct places in one minute. Remember that’s the expectation for starting group work.’

Learning to behave appropriately in your lesson is part of learning. Therefore, we should teach students what is expected and help them to achieve it through feedback and consequences. Many behaviour problems persist because we do not explicitly teach (or model) the behaviours we want. Doing so helps with shifting the percentages (see Rule 2).

On another level, courtesy and respect are essential pre-requisites for human interaction. Why should you have to accept less than the normal level of courtesy and respect? Which brings us to Rule 6.

Rule 6: Self respect. Always.

In pursuit of our ideals, or in pursuit of collegial approval, or in the hope of eventual career advancement, teachers often accept less courtesy and respect than we should. At the end of the day, I should be able to go home with a clear conscience, knowing that I did a good day’s work and that I conducted myself with professional courtesy toward colleagues and students. I should also be able to go home knowing that I received the same standard of courtesy back. I can always control the former; inevitably, there will be days when students – or colleagues – do not observe the latter.

We all need to know what our lines are that cannot be crossed, and we need to have a basic plan rehearsed. With students, it can be: ‘I’m not happy with the way this conversation is going. I am going to see you at  . . . time tomorrow when you have had a chance to think about it. If at that point I’m still not happy, then I will refer this matter to . . .’ What I never do is engage in self-justification. I will certainly invite students to explain their point of view, and I will listen to them. But I do not accept accusations, name-calling, insults, baseless allegations or sulks.

With colleagues, the game is a little different. A peer can be dealt with by calmly saying, ‘Look, this has taken me a bit by surprise. I need to have a think about this and get back to you.’ Or, ‘I’m not really comfortable with this conversation. Can we take some time out?’ It’s a bit trickier with a manager. Here are three suggestions for dealing with someone above you who is difficult to work with:

  1. Avoid them as much as possible, but make sure that you have all the basic elements in your job description covered – especially marking students’ books. (There are lots of good posts on other blogs regarding marking efficiently and constructively  – see for example, Joe Kirby, Alex Quigley and David Didau).
  2. In discussion, listen politely and use positive body language. Even if you’re not that confident, bluff a little. Sit back, smile, make eye contact, nod in agreement – where you can.
  3. Where there is an issue that infringes personal boundaries – rudeness, aggression, implied or overt threat, you have options:
      • Make notes as you go and make this apparent.
      • Stay calm at all times. As with badly behaved students, detachment is required when dealing with badly behaved managers.
      • Ask questions – this slows bullies down and helps you to share control of the conversation. Bullies love to be in control.
      • Ask for thinking time when you need it. (With a smile – ‘I haven’t heard anything about this until now – I think I just need a minute or two to digest that.’) If they won’t give you time, say that you still need it and ask to conclude the discussion at another time (soon, though – don’t drag it out, which might make it look like you’re avoiding the issue and could be used against you).
      • Ask for written confirmation of actions required, along with the reasons, and any time you think there is a potential issue, write a clear summary of the conversation. You might well send a copy to the other person inviting them to check it for accuracy. Keep it factual. Avoid every temptation to use emotive language. It will work against you.

Just knowing that someone is taking a careful, thoughtful approach to managing an issue will encourage any sensible manager to proceed with caution. If they don’t, you have your notes and your questions.

Rule 7: Know the rules better than them.

Again, this can apply to both colleagues and students. Be clear on your school’s behaviour policy – its values, intentions, principles – and also on its procedures – the what, the when, the how, the who. Know it really well and if you’re not sure, ask several people: a colleague whom you respect, your head of department or line manager, and the most senior member of staff overseeing behaviour, e.g. the relevant VP.  Triangulate what they’ve told you to make sure it’s consistent, and if there are anomalies, get them cleared up. You want this information in writing so you can refer to it when making decisions: if they don’t send you something in document form, write down what you think is expected and send it in an email to check you’ve got it right. This is useful for Rule 8.

This knowledge is important to have at your fingertips because in the heat of a lesson and possibly a series of disruptions, you have to make decisions quickly. You save a lot of time and heartache later if you have followed the systems – and by doing so, others have clearer grounds for supporting you. The inverse, of course, is that you have removed a major excuse for not supporting you.

Rule 8: Be really good at recording things concisely, accurately and professionally.

For colleagues, we have dealt with some of this in Rule 6 above. For students, you will be much more able to win support and defend yourself if the quality of your written records is thorough and reliable. Even before you write an incident report, jot down any phrases that students used or that you used. Try to put events in chronological order. Other things will come back as you start writing, so review what you write at least twice before sending it off.

Hint: counting is very useful for detailed incident reports and helps to keep things objective. I don’t mean counting to 10 for patience’s sake, although that can be advisable at times. Count the number of times the behaviour occurred. Count how many times you repeated the instruction. Count how many times the student answered you back without compliance. Keep track of timings.

Consider the difference:

Report A: Kevin wouldn’t do as he was told after several minutes of not starting work. I reminded him, but he ignored me. After a few minutes I went to him again and asked him to start work. This went on for some time until I referred him to Mr Inglis, at which point he shouted at me that I was a useless teacher and that I wouldn’t get a job anywhere else.

Report B: Kevin did not start work with other students after the starter activity. I checked that he understood the instructions and he said he did. At 2.10 and 2.13, I reminded him twice more of my expectations. Kevin did not reply on either of these occasions, although he looked at me when I spoke. At 2.17 I stood by his desk and asked him to tell me what he was supposed to do. He told me that he knew, but said ‘I can’t be bovvered, and anyway what are you going to do about it.’ I told Kevin that he would need to start work within one minute or he would be sent to Mr Inglis. I returned a minute later. Kevin had not started work. I handed him his referral slip and told him to go to Mr Inglis. Kevin refused. I calmly told him to go Mr Inglis five times. After the fifth time he snatched the slip, picked up his bag and went to the door, where he shouted: ‘You’re a useless teacher. You’re not good enough to get a job anywhere else!’ Kevin left at 2.24 and the remainder of the class worked well until the bell.

Imagine you’re a manager. Which teacher would you prefer to support? Why? The second teacher has given me much more precise information that can be checked and with which Kevin can be challenged. It took me about twice as long to write the second statement (about seven minutes, perhaps), but if that makes it more likely that the next time Kevin comes to class he is courteous and attempts his work, then it is time very well spent.

The other reason to keep good records is for self-protection. For example, a parent complains to the head of year that her child is being discriminated against. You now need to demonstrate the following:

  • regular book marking and specific written feedback;
  • accurate records of homework set, checked and marked;
  • all behaviour incidents logged on the appropriate system including detentions set and whether attended;
  • incident reports for any serious misdemeanours.

If you are able to present all this information promptly, you are in a much better position to not only defend yourself, but to turn the tables and actually use this situation to highlight that the student is the one not meeting expectations.

Rule 9: Anticipate and prepare.

Part of preparing your lessons is anticipating potential problems that may arise. In terms of learning, these could be student misconceptions, misinterpretation of data, or conflating apparently similar rules or concepts. In terms of behaviour, you will be aware of which students are the most likely to misbehave, and what their misbehaviours are liable to be. Instead of dreading these moments, plan ahead.  We are older and smarter than the students – we should be able to outthink them.

Doing so can be very satisfying. I remember picking up a class who had pretty much destroyed their former teacher. Their plan when I took over was clearly to do the same to me. After several lessons of defiance and insult, I surprised one student, Greg, by sending him out very quickly from the lesson. He was so taken aback that he left with only a sulk and the slamming of the door. I considered the next lesson. If I was Greg, I reasoned, I would feel that I had lost face in front of the other students. Next lesson, I would misbehave in order to get sent out, but then refuse point blank to leave. It ran exactly as I had anticipated. As soon as Greg refused to leave, I took out the portable phone I had brought from my office, called the deputy head and asked him to collect Greg. He was there in minutes and Greg left the class to the great amusement of his fellow students. I’m not sure that in the two terms I taught him, Greg ever made good progress – but the class was much more manageable after that point.

Some suggested ways to prepare:

  • Regularly tweak your seating plan.
  • Have alternative work to hand so that you can quickly change the task for the class or an individual. This should be at the right level, but easy for you to supervise and check.
  • Discuss with your HOD or a senior colleague that you might need to send a student to them to work in their classroom in a particular lesson.
  • Have a desk set aside in your classroom to which you can move a student if the need arises.
  • Have any paperwork required for sending students elsewhere partially filled in. Hopefully you won’t have to use it, but if you do, it will take less time out of the lesson. (But don’t make this obvious – the student may feel you were ‘out to get them’ if a piece of paper already has their name on it).
  • Know when you can see the student afterwards to impose a consequence and/or to talk through the incident. This means you can inform them straight away: ‘I will see you back here at 11 o’clock so we can follow this up and get you back into class next lesson.’

Rule 10: Handle things yourself as far as possible.

There are two main reasons for recommending this rule. The first is that the student needs to know that it is the class teacher who has the power to impose consequences. If consequences always come from someone else, they will respect that person, or at least be wary of them, but will see the teacher as powerless. So it is important to do all you can to establish your own authority and expectations.

If you set detentions, make them at times that are easier for you – for example, straight after a lesson so that the student is already in the room, so that they can’t avoid it and you don’t need anyone else’s help to fetch them. By all means call home – but don’t expect it to be the parent’s problem. It isn’t – it’s your classroom, your consequences. The call home is a courtesy to the parent to keep them informed, and to ask them to support what you are already doing. They will be reassured if you have clear targets for the student’s learning, and can give them clear information about progress to date – and will be much more likely to support you if they sense that you are in control of the situation.

Of course, there are times when it is really helpful to have a senior colleague support you in a discussion. At such times, their presence as a witness is often more effective than them running the conversation. Try to set the ground rules in advance so that you lead the discussion, and they chime in later if the student proves difficult.

The second reason is more problematic. In some situations, weak management means that when you hand a situation over to a senior colleague, you have lost the power to deal with it yourself, and the consequences that follow for the student are often non-existent. In one school where I taught, any request for support from SLT was met with a series of questions challenging me on my conduct as a teacher. I only stayed two terms, but I quickly learned to deal with everything myself – I reasoned that if there was no support system, it would be counter-productive to rely on it. As a result my classes steadily realised that I was in charge in my classroom, and after a term they were very much where I wanted them to be. But this inevitably required some level of  compromise. One student was highly disruptive, and wandered the school at will. He was never challenged by senior staff. If he behaved badly enough to be sent out and went off wandering, I simply informed SLT that he had done so and left it to them. He disrupted many other classes this way, but in terms of responsibility I drew a line at my classroom door. What went on in my room was my problem; what went on ‘out there’ was SLT’s problem. As a result the classroom was productive and purposeful, and I was surviving in a somewhat toxic environment.

If you are in such a situation, the comment of my first head teacher may be helpful: go into your classroom, close the door, and teach. In other words, own the responsibilities that are yours, and do not own the responsibilities that are others’.

Concluding thoughts . . . 

If you find some of this advice useful, it may even be that your job becomes a little more pleasant and satisfying. Or it may be that you know your situation is toxic. Sometimes when we are stressed, anxious or depressed, it can seem impossible, but it is entirely practical to look for a better school. Do what you have to do to get qualified, complete your contract, finish your middle leaders’ course, or fulfil whatever obligations are necessary. While you are doing that, update your CV, network, keep up your CPD, and be prepared to make applications, over time, for a better role, career opportunity, or workplace. Just the process of preparation can be good for mental health. However, if you are looking, have a positive reason for moving. Your current school will take it badly, and your prospective school will not be interested, if your reason for applying is to get out of a bad situation.

I have listed some of the most important ‘survival rules’ I can think of here in the hope that they will be of use to colleagues. There are many other things I could mention – discipline your sleep, exercise, diet, alcohol and caffeine intakes, arrive at school in plenty of time, timetable your hours of work as much as possible, be visible before and after school, be good at communication especially responding to emails and deadlines – but the ten points above are, to my mind, amongst the most crucial to survival. I particularly recommend Rule 10 for those in toxic workplaces – don’t hand over control to people who won’t support you, unless you clearly have to.

If you have other suggestions, please do post in the comments section. And if 2013 was your annus horribilis, may 2014 be a turnaround year for you.

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