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It's Behaviour, Dummy

27 April 2013

I had just finished a school visit on Tuesday afternoon when I was picked up by a Sheffield taxi driver at the main entrance.

I asked for the Station and we set off in to town. He asked me where I was headed and I told him I was going back to London. Figuring that I had something to do with education, he ventured 'are you an inspector?' I told him that I was just visiting some colleagues and tried not to get in to much more of a conversation, wanting just to sit in quiet for the 20 or so minutes it would take to make it through Sheffield rush hour traffic.

But this chap wasn't giving up. He continued to chat about schooling and the state of education. But it was quickly clear that this wasn't just your usual taxi driver rant. The guy knew what he was talking about.

He looked at me in his rear view mirror, his eyes full of sadness and told me, 'I'm a teacher. History.'

He left that in the air for a while until I asked him the obvious question, 'why are you driving a cab?'

And the discussion that followed echoed hundreds of conversations I have had with teachers over the years. Simply put, and this will come as no surprise, I'm sure: the behaviour of children at his last school had driven him to give up. More than that though. He could have handled the children being badly behaved if other colleagues, and especially managers, had taken his side.

Instead he found that sending a child out resulted in him being berated by the head of department; calling for SMT support resulted in an 'off the record' talk about the quality of his teaching and how he might best 'engage' the children; a phone call to a parent to tell them about their child's poor behaviour inevitably meant a visit from the head of year to ask him not to do that because the parents had complained.

So he quit. And now he drives a cab around Sheffield, happy but for those calls that ask him to pick up at schools, which remind him of how belittled, humiliated and betrayed be felt at the hands of children, parents and low quality school leaders.

Before I get in to the main purpose of this blog, let me just make this clear: if you are a headteacher and an adult comes to you for support, no matter what the circumstances, no matter if you think they are the worst teacher in the world, no matter what you hear from students or parents, your job is to support them. To trust them. To treat them like a human being. If you can't do that, then you have no right whatsoever holding the position of head.

This taxi journey discussion played more heavy on my mind than it might usually – after all, this is something that I hear very often. His story is so typical and behaviour is the single issue that really matters to most teachers. It is the key reason for leaving the profession. It is at the heart of working conditions and is the one thing that teachers value above all else (most teachers I know see good behaviour as far more important than a pay rise).

I woke up the next morning still thinking about the taxi driver. The history teacher.

And then I made a mistake that I often make when bleary eyed and stumbling around the house at the crack of dawn, I switched on the wireless and it was tuned to the BBC. I really don't know why I do it to myself. I should have learned a long time ago that the Beeb just drives me insane.

The news story being discussed as my ancient radio came to life was the launch of a report from the Children's Commissioner, Dr Maggie Atkinson. In yet another vicious attack on the profession, Dr Atkinson berated headteachers for sending children home without completing all of the paperwork.

I switched the wireless off, cursed a bit, did some angry Tweeting and then thought again of the cab journey the previous evening.

Firstly, if you have never been a headteacher, shut the hell up. You have no idea, absolutely no idea, how hard the job is and how much bureaucratic crap one has to deal with.

Secondly, and more to the point, when did it become acceptable that a single child is allowed to rob 30 other children of the chance to be successful? When did the bleeding hearts, the vocal minority, the wets, make it so ingrained in Britain that the child is always right and the teacher is always wrong?

Not on my watch. And not on the watch of any good headteacher.

If a child is ruining the education of others and the best course of action is to send them home, then trust headteachers with the responsibility they have been given (to provide the best education for all) to get on with their jobs.

Dr Atkinson's remarks are unhelpful and insulting.

I absolutely despair when those who have no idea what it is like to be in schools, no idea what it is like to see on a grown man's face the shame of being bullied by children, think they have the right to make such sweeping remarks.

I don't know who these idiots are that have made 'inclusion' such a perverted scenario, but I do know that parents I meet and talk with all agree: if my child was in a class with a disruptive child, then I would want (and support) the headteacher to remove that disruptive child so that my child can learn. That is fairness.

I have written before about inclusion, so won't go in to this more now.

I could tell a hundred stories about nightmarish behaviour in schools, about adults driven to distraction, about little bastards who get away with it because some headteachers have bought in to the 'needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many' bullshit.

I will include here, by means of example, an excerpt from a chapter of a book I wrote some time back:

I have witnessed many shocking incidents in my time as a teacher. Once as we returned from a school trip, a meathead of a parent attacked a colleague as he stepped from the bus. I have been involved in calming down a child while he held another at knifepoint. There was the boy who walked in to my sixth form lesson and struck one of my students across the head with a metal table leg because he thought his girlfriend was cheating on him. I have seen a teenage girl punched to the ground by her own father at a summer ball. There was an occasion in Northampton when a gang of expelled students had come on to site and spray-painted extremely offence material on to the cars of the staff. But none of this has shocked me as much as what happened while working at Pope John School in Corby. Several Advanced Skills Teachers, Consultants and Advisors from across the county had been drafted in to the school in order to try to help raise standards from the most dire of states. The school was suffering badly and was earmarked for closure. I was posted in the school one day per week to work with the mathematics department. I spent many days during the summer holiday working with the newly appointed Head of Mathematics in creating schemes of work and resources so that the teachers could have a better chance of success come September. Within three weeks of the school term starting, the new Head of Maths had resigned and left the school. There was a staff shortage and the teachers working at the school were fighting against the most difficult of circumstances. A young teacher had taken on the role of leading the department and was doing all that she could to keep things moving along. I worked with some fantastic students at the school, giving extra time after hours to hold revision lessons and spending far more time on the assignment than I really had. Many areas of the school had descended in to chaos. Students were out of control and some staff simply hid themselves away.

One Monday afternoon, I was due to work with a young female teacher with a Year 11 class. She was a beautiful young woman, always smiling and delightful to talk to. She had arrived from Ghana, a successful teacher, only a matter of weeks before the start of the school year. She put such effort in to her lessons and had a real desire to help the students. Her lesson was already underway when I entered the class via a rear door from an adjoining classroom. She was at the board trying to explain some mathematical concept, but no-one was listening. Some students had headphones on, some were doodling, others chatting to each other. I had never seen this perspective of her daily grind before, usually I would enter the classroom with her and the students would sense that they needed to behave because there was a stranger in the room. But now, here I was sat secretly at the back of the room. In front of me a row students were chatting away, still wearing their coats, bags on the desk and completely oblivious to the teacher. One student, a scrawny, horrid little shit, started to make monkey noises at the teacher. I could barely believe it and was thoroughly ashamed to think that this poor girl's working days were typified by this sort of experience, I had a deep despair at the thought of her going home each evening to her own family and having to put on a brave face. I was about to collar the lad when he decided to take it even further and began chanting over and over again: "Nigger. Nigger. Nigger. Nigger"

The teacher caught my eyes and I could see that she was gently weeping.

I stood up sharply, throwing my seat back against the wall. The boys turned around.

"Get up!" I barked at him.

He stood and tried to have some swagger about him, but it was clear that he was terrified.

"Follow me!" I marched out of the room and the boy followed. He tried to catch up with me and say some words but I ignored him completely.

We reached the school reception. I stopped and turned to him. "Name!" I ordered and he told me. I am not terribly proud of what happened next, but I also find it hard to regret since I later found out that this is what this boy did every single lesson.

I asked the school receptionist to get the child's father on the phone, even though I know that this was not the procedure that should have been followed. She tried the home number, no response. Tried his mobile, no response. Finally she handed me the receiver as someone at the man's workplace answered the phone. I asked for the father by name and was told that he could not come to the phone in work hours. I explained that there was a "situation" at his son's school. A few moments later, he came on the line asking if everything was okay. I shoved the phone into the boy's hand and roared at him "Tell your father what you did!"

He stood there shaking for long moments, not willing to speak. "Tell him!" I yelled again. Finally in a broken voice he said, "I called my teacher a nigger"

In a factory on the other side of town, his father went ballistic. The boy was crying now and he handed me the phone. "Come and remove this boy from these premises." I told the parent simply.

Fifteen minutes later the reception doors swung open and the father charged in, grabbed his son by the arm and marched back out again.

Our support in the school continued for many months, but in spite of this and the efforts of many, many good people, Pope John School never did recover from its downward spiral. There were protests and campaigns in the local newspaper to try and save the school. But I will say here now, I am glad that it was eventually closed and that those children were given better hope by being sent to a stronger school.

For weeks afterwards I couldn't stop thinking about the pretty, young teacher going home knowing that the humiliation would all begin again tomorrow.

I know that this can happen to teachers regardless of race, colour or creed, but I believe that it is simply a fact that Overseas Trained Teachers get a much harder time from students.

(from Chapter 34 'More On Being a Teacher', Mark McCourt)


Working in schools is the greatest job in the world.  But it should not be underestimated how much of a decline there has been in the last 15 years in terms of both pupil behaviour and the attitudes of parents.  If Dr Atkinson wishes to peddle such crap, my personal opinion is that she should first have to endure the humiliation that some teachers face on a daily basis.  She should have to lie awake at night with palpatations, unable to rest, with tears in her eyes.  She should have to lose her appetite and have family life destroyed.  At that point, then feel free to come back to headteachers and make recommendations about how they should deal with the tiny minority of children who cause this distress.

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