Which students should I care about less?

I read and resonate with Dr Linda Graham’s post ‘Educational researchers are right: schools should dump naughty corners and time-out strategies’ and I can see how it can be a red rag to thousands of my teaching colleagues, parents and pundits. Naughty corners, time outs, behaviour peg ladders, smiley faces/sad faces for behaviour, various points systems etc ‘in breach on International Convention on the Rights of Children’? “Come on, you are joking, right?” I read and hear the calls: “Where are the rights of the teachers? Kids who do the right thing?”

No, I really do hear them. In every class of teens I teach, there are those whose presence is a persistent disruption. Unlike violence and aggression in some other places I had taught, this is mostly low-level disruptive and disengaged behaviour, identified in another, related piece of research as ‘the main problem in our classrooms‘. But what should I do? What do I do?

‘Engage all students with well-designed learning activities’ goes the de rigeur, ‘teaching standards’ answer. Sounds nice doesn’t it. It IS nice and it happens sometimes, expectedly and unexpectedly. But in a microcosm of personalities, experiences, abilities, learning preferences, teaching preferences, curriculum demands that exists in every lesson, this is a rare educational nirvana I aim for and strike sometimes. For most of the time, it simply ain’t that way. Some students will and do resist, disengage, disrupt, sabotage and more. The question remains: What should I do?

The ‘standard’ responses, wrapped in nice sounding pseudo-Skinnerian speak (‘Positive Behaviour Support’ anyone?), Dr Graham points out are as standard as they are useless beyond perhaps the immediate triage. And triage is what you do when you have limited resources, need an immediate response under less then ideal circumstances. You treat the immediate symptoms, hardly ever the underlying cause. We devote considerable resources to build entire systems of tracking and improving these triage efforts (apparently our school needs a better, expensive computer tracking system to reduce the rate of kids wagging [Australian term for ‘skipping school’, absenteeism]). These systems generate terrific amounts of data that admin get to analyse and devise solutions for the busy teachers. Results? Well, the rates of disruptive behaviour and disengagement haven’t exactly dropped have they. So, ‘better triage’ doesn’t seem to be a great answer to my question: What should I do?

Here is a little of what I do …

In a particularly challenging Year 8 class, there is chasm between ‘achievers’ and ‘strugglers’ (I hate labels…). I try to use activities that involve all and include as much as possible. However, a chair flying across the class, two kids disrupting class next door (let alone ours!) by shouting and kicking, an erupting argument over a stolen phone, withdrawn kid or two who refuse to do anything etc all at the SAME TIME calls for a wiser moves than simply the triage send off or two. The send offs might preserve a bit of peace and sanity and allow at least ten other kids who, at the SAME TIME, want to get on with the lesson and engage in the learning activity I had planned, spent my time creating too.

Very soon after realising what sort of group this is, I said to all of them: “Amongst you there are students who want to get on with it and those who don’t. I understand that. The question I ask you: Which students should I care less about, spend less time and effort with?”

Let’s just say we had an interesting conversation. Now, we are slowly building an understanding that I or rather we simply won’t ignore or exclude people in here but the price of that may be that sometimes the achievers, sometimes the strugglers will not have all their needs met. Like many teachers I try to listen, find a little bit about the kid, provide alternatives, conduct one-to-one, eye-to-eye meetings followed by hands shakes (very powerful with boys!) and making ‘deals’ rooted in trust and not breaking promises. Some of these strategies push the boundaries of the school behaviour code, some colleagues may feel undermined as I am ‘the soft that allows them to have what they don’t allow’ (we’re talking minor stuff here). Many of these strategies don’t work straight away, many never do. It is bloody frustrating, exhausting, emotionally draining work.

Yet…many colleagues are coming up to me saying ‘you are doing great work with these kids, what do you do?’ Well, I give them time, ear and trust. That’s all. Again, don’t get rosy eyed – this is hard graft. I get let down, disappointed many times by teens, get unkind looks by my colleagues. Burnout material and a way to an earl(ier) ‘teaching grave’. I know it. But if my underlying message is one of trust, responsibility and care I am happy to absorb the blows until the student(s) realise it. There is no database to store that one either.

Now, we, teachers, do triage not because we don’t give a damn about the kid. However, the systemic memories and barriers of the past and present are simply too great sometimes for us do each students’ needs justice or at least give them a hearing: “Sorry kiddo, I gotta run, get through this, attend to that, need help with…here is detention!” Hearing, understanding even the needs of a particular student but being unable to cater for them with the limited resources is THE frustrating part. It is also part of the ire teachers so often direct at researchers or anyone else not directly immersed (bruised, battered, frustrated by…) in the daily realities of classroom teaching. ‘Walk in our shoes’ teachers say ‘then judge!’ Or as Dr Sullivan ends:

So teachers, next time you wonder what on earth caused that child in Year 5 or 6 to tell you to get stuffed and run out of the room or the child in Year 8 to throw a chair, spare a thought about their earlier school experiences and the strategies used to manage their behaviour. I will lay a bet this child began as a Hayden.

Sure, but a similar question begs: What did the teacher began as? Non-caring, ego tripping control freak who loves the behaviour charts or someone who wants to awaken, inspire, challenge, create, ‘make a difference’? My work with hundreds of preservice teachers strongly suggests the latter. Why this massive dis-connect between the wishes and lived realities?

‘Sparing a thought about students’ earlier experiences’ is surely better than no thought or insight. However, it is incredibly corrosive where there is little you can do about to hear those out fully, resources to adjust things to allow the kid to blossom. It is this sense of powerlessness that teachers so often complain about that ultimately boils over in the staffrooms, comment sections, kitchen tables and elsewhere.

“If I can’t care for all equally, which students should I care about less?” The answer to that lies in the answer to the broader question: “What is education for?” And it is this seemingly naive but powerful question we don’t ask nowhere near enough.

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