The best piece of teaching advice I ever received was from a grizzled old veteran who I met on my first placement during my PGCE. The man had been a teacher since the beginning of time and was rarely seen around the school due to him acting as a behaviour consultant to the local cohort. This was 10 or so years ago and unfortunately I’ve forgotten who it was and, to an extent, what he looked like. However, in my mind’s eye, I always picture him as Quint from Jaws (only Welsh):
So me and the other snot-nosed start-ups were called into this legend’s office for a tutorial on behaviour management. The fact that this was happening at all was something of a surprise as up until that point, it was a subject that had not really been touched upon in my training. On the rare occasions that it had it was always in reference to ‘engagement’. He sat us all down, offered us some chewing tobacco and some rum (which we all politely refused) and then said this:
‘Listen, I don’t care what they tell you, if you’re training a bear, you don’t let it go back into the woods at night.’
It was so far and away from the theory pushed by my course tutors that, to start with, I didn’t know how to process it. Where was the reverence for our students that bordered on fetishism? How could he make reference to the outside world like it might have an effect on the students? Is it racist to call them bears? What if he means polar bears? He called them bears! HE COMPARED STUDENTS TO ANIMALS! WE ARE ALL GOING TO GET INTO SO MUCH TROUBLE!!!
(This panicked thinking was fairly indicative of my first couple of years teaching by the way.)
Looking back on it now, what made that short, gruff uttering so revelatory to me in the years to come was that it encompassed a number of things that, at the time, were almost taboo in teacher training. Theory wise, children had been placed on a pedestal that was almost akin to idolatry. They were presented as being inherently Buddha-like and malleable and any problem, ANY PROBLEM, could be traced back directly to your lack of skill as a teacher:
Their lack of engagement? You’re not singing and dancing enough. Go and put these clown shoes on and start again. Idiot.
Too distracted? You’re obviously going too fast. Quit all that clowning business. Idiot.
He pulled a knife on you? Why on earth didn’t you do a full pat-down whilst you were saying hello at the door? You mean to say you haven’t taken close-combat training in your own time? What’s the matter with you? What did you do? What did YOU do? Idiot.
It’s a pervasive attitude that, unfortunately, still exists today. I don’t like it. It treats students as clockwork mice and not as the wonderfully willful and complex beings that they are. It is also akin to victim-blaming as those who are insulted, assaulted and bullied are asked what it was that made the perpetrator do those things to them. Lastly, it doesn’t account for the big thing that no-one seems to talk about; that at the end of the day, these children go home. And sometimes home is a pretty dark place to be.
Sometimes they can drag that darkness around with them and they won’t let go of it. No matter what you do.
I think that’s what ole’ Quint was saying and it’s been a comfort to me in my own dark times. It’s helped me to forgive myself and it’s helped me to forgive them and move on to try to become better. Some might call it defeatist and I’ve even been accused of being ‘warped’ for holding to the idea and challenging the ‘all behavior problems can be overcome by engagement’ nonsense that some still hold dear which seems designed purely to sap NQTs of any precious remaining life-force they may still be clutching to.
So I share Welsh Quint’s wise words with you in the hope that they might offer a life-raft when you feel adrift on choppy waters.
Happy hunting, boyo.