Here is the slideshow and script from my session at this year’s UKFEchat. Thanks to everyone who attended – it was great to sit down with folk and have a blather.
Afternoon everyone thanks for coming
My first public speaking bit was at the last UKFEchat conference a few years ago and this one is going to be my last – I’m an interloper here having jumped ship from FE to HE so I wouldn’t feel right being all ‘do this do that’ to you good folk when I’m no longer in the sector. But I heard that this one was going to have a really good buffet so I thought I’d make it my swansong.
Just to put people’s minds at ease (or disappoint you greatly dependent on where you’re coming from) I’ll not be teaching you the best way to punch students in the back of the head while rolling them up in a four-figure leg lock. (Don’t give me that, I know you’ve thought about it)
The self-defence part is meant in the widest way possible. The defence of the self as it were. In teaching, when it comes to those actually doing the teaching, that bit is often overlooked (in FE teaching perhaps even more so). I’ve chosen to concentrate on the effects rather than y’know STOPPING undesirable behaviour because sometimes, I don’t think you can (whatever the consultants say).
There’s a tendency to see undesirable behaviour in the classroom as a deficit of the teacher. It’s a comforting narrative because it places the emphasis on the individual, rather than systemic issues that are FAR more likely to be the cause (but more difficult to tackle). In my opinion, this approach also dehumanises students. They are people. And people are not perfect.
So in this session, I’ll be looking at the detrimental effect undesirable behaviour can have without any value judgement on the teacher – because that is preachy nonsense that I can’t be doing with on a Saturday.
A little about my history as I could be anyone really. I’ve worked in rough schools, different sectors, AP, PRUs
What I’m trying to get at here is that I’ve been around a fair bit. I garnered a reputation of being ‘good with behaviour’ so that’s what my career centred on. 15 odd years and I in no way consider myself an expert on behaviour of any sort. But I’ve a fair bit of experience.
It’s important that you keep that in mind given a bit of info that’s coming up soon.
So let’s define our terms as I think it’s important that we’re all on the same page. Erasmus University in Rotterdam has a fantastic and, incidentally, very easy to cut-and-paste definition of undesirable behaviour on its website that suits our needs I think.
Now I’ve seen plenty of thinking around this in regards to students, but not so much in regards to staff. References to behaviour and how it affects educators. When it comes to UB (I’m referring to it like that from now on as I mention it about two dozen times and I’m lazy as) it’s almost as if these issues have been made purposely invisible. Anyway – let’s get back to it.
So when we apply this to an FE setting these are some of the likely effects?
We’ll deal with extremities because that’s the reality that some professionals face.
Not a hugely positive list for sure. However, there’s still a certain abstraction when talking about the effects of behaviour – a certain distance when viewing these things from afar. Talking about the negative effects in the abstract can dissipate the power and harm that can be faced so for this session I’d like to move away from the abstract and look at real examples of what can happen if a staff member is exposed to prolonged periods of UB.
Also, as I’m a massive egotist, that person is me. NOW you get that bit about value judgement, right?
These are some of the things that I’ve experienced that have been a direct result of undesirable behaviour by students. Now when I talk about judgement, I’m not judging students either. I went into this job with my eyes completely open and understood the difficulties, but for me, it was a cumulative effect of working in environments that meant that I was faced with UB a fair percentage of the time.
By the way, this is not an attempt to demonise students. These things happened to me. This is my story. The story of a member of staff within an educational institution. For some reason, people seem threatened when the focus is shifted away from those we teach, but if I can’t talk primarily about staff on a day like today, and move students into the background (at least for a little while) when am I ever going to get the chance?
Now, mine is an extreme case because I’ve worked with extreme students but what I’m trying to illustrate is the pernicious effect of UB, if left unchecked, can affect ANYONE. Even grizzled old veterans like myself.
Moving from the abstract to the personal is one of the ways in which we can highlight the visceral pain that these things can cause. We move away from the academic study of these things (when you can find them) to the immediate experience of both physical and mental PAAAAAAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIN!
Just as an aside, I wanted to share this as it’s funny and probably one of the most accurate descriptions of what anxiety feels like – I worry sometimes that when people hear anxiety, they mean ‘a tiny bit stressed’ but still.
So this one is pretty simple.
I’m going to assume that you’ve changed things up in your classroom, tried different approaches and all that palaver.
It’s about things you can do try to affect in your establishment and thereby affect your situation. This is completely contextual and whether you think you’re strong enough to do it.
Asking for support is essential – there can’t be change if no one knows there is a problem. Talking about this can be incredibly difficult as there’s a mixture of emotions including (but not limited to) shame, a feeling of helplessness, anger. A whole stew pot of feels. Both in regard to ‘managing’ behaviour and in regard to how you are feeling. Thankfully, a great many FE institutions will offer fantastic support through difficult periods but to get this ball rolling you’ve got to let them know.
However, and unfortunate as it may be, with a fantastic day looking at fantastic positive work that FE does, what if that support is not forthcoming? It happens. It’s not pretty, but it does.
The second point isn’t about rearranging chairs or putting up motivational posters, the change of environment is in reference to you getting the hell out and going somewhere else. If you work for an institution that can not, or will not support you through these kinds of difficulties, then it’s time to find a new institution. No job, not even one as ordinarily satisfying as FE is worth your health.
This is easier said than done of course, but if you’re at critical mass and your place refuses to help then you have to remove yourself from the situation. Quickly. And with no regrets.
In my opinion, trying to affect change on yourself is the bigger challenge of the two.
The acceptance that you are in trouble can be difficult for a number of reasons. For me it was one of identification. The issues I was facing were my normal. The way I was feeling had been going on for so long, it was my normal. So it took some realisation that what was happening WASN’T normal. You don’t know what you don’t know, right? The admission to one’s self that things are not right can also be a massive wrench as I believe teaching is a very much a job where your sense of self goes hand in hand with what you do. If it’s not going well it’s not about the job, it’s about YOU. Also, there are pride issues.
The next one is pretty self-explanatory. This is different for everyone. We all have different people in our lives but allowing people to support you is important. I’m lucky I had family and friends, but to be honest, it wasn’t until I found myself sobbing on my GPs desk that I thought “Hmmm…maybe there is a problem here.” That’s why I think outside support is important too.
After this acceptance action is next. I won’t talk too much about that as I think what that action looks like is an extremely personal thing so instead let’s
go back to the personal from the abstract!
Here’s what I did (and in some cases are still doing).
I take a pill a day to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. It has helped me immensely. It took a while to find the right dosage and there have been some side effects but since starting medication the change in my outlook, mood and attitude has been noticeable. My eldest refers to them as my ‘brain pills’ and asks if I have taken them when I tell him off.
I supplement this with exercise. Running, jumping, trying to look vaguely like I know what I’m doing at the gym. It helps clear my mind and the endorphin release is also fun. (Although my knees are now beginning to think that it’s less fun).
This is probably the hardest one. I’m acutely aware that I put my family through a lot. So I now appreciate the time I have with them, am present, and try and be the person I should have been all along. Bless them, they’ve put up with a lot.
Although it might not look it, this for me is a positive story. I eventually took action. And I am in a much better situation now then I was a year ago. But it’s also a cautionary tale. When I worked I was, within my institution at least, an authority on behaviour. I’ve written about it in national publications and it still got me.
I don’t harbour any resentment or anger towards the students. If anything I just feel sad that due to a number of circumstances, I couldn’t brush it off anymore. I don’t blame my previous place of work – the departments I’ve been in were doing the best that they could with the resources they had. Blame is something I can’t carry because I’d also have to blame myself for letting it all go on too long, and letting those that I love shoulder the unnecessary burden of the person who I became (OK, I still blame my self a little bit).
I did a Google search about the adverse effect of UB on staff and it was 6 pages in that I found something that even touched on the matter. It’s not something that’s openly discussed in the literature. I hope today goes a little way to change that. With that in mind, my contact details are here on the first slide if you ever need a chat. Hopefully, you’re not going through something like it yourself, but I pretty much guarantee you work with someone who may be feeling something similar. Just keep an eye out, help where you can, try to make it all a little less invisible.
Thank you so much for coming – shall we sit down and have a chat?
MOVES ON TO QUESTIONS AND GROUP DISCUSSION.
END OF SESSION.