Scenes from the Battleground responds

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OldAndrew, blogger of Scenes from the Battleground, took the trouble to comment on my earlier post (his comment is here, my original blog post is here). Thank you, OldAndrew.

I’ve been reading more of his blog posts. At first,  it was horrified fascination that kept me reading his stuff, kinda like rubbernecking a traffic accident. I kept asking myself how I would react in this or that situation; could I handle it? How?

Our situations are so different, it’s presumptuous of me to comment. I obviously have no idea what it’s like, and what works for me in my situation (with docile, well-behaved young adults for the most part, in a culture that avoids confrontation) would clearly not work in his.

Andrew wrote,

in many cultures young people in at least part of this range would be considered to be adults, so we should be very careful about excuses based on the idea that they are too young to behave.

I was not suggesting that children’s bad behaviour should be excused simply because they are young, nor that, because they are young, they are therefore likely to misbehave. I wrote that, the teacher is the (oldest) adult in the room, the master of ceremonies, and a representative of the institution (he belongs there more than the students do, at least), and therefore it seems more reasonable to expect the teacher to modify his behaviour if students are not cooperating or whatever. Modifying his behaviour does not mean capitulating; it means, “stop doing what isn’t working, or leading to escalation, and try something else.”

If you’re the adult in the room, the responsibility is on you; you are more likely than the students to act responsibly; you are the one who should act responsibly. That doesn’t let the students off the hook for irresponsible, rude, violent or whatever inappropriate behaviour, of course, but someone’s got to make the first move, take the initiative.

Stories about my successes would soon become stories about people who tried to stop me, or what I had to do to avoid being stopped. (Similarly, for the successes of other people I know.)… With regard to the claim of focussing on the negatives, I would suggest that this is how you change things. I am interested in improvement, and the biggest single obstacle to this in most schools is the attitude that it is “negative” to identify what isn’t working.

Well, is he changing things? Is focussing on the negatives working as a strategy? I agree that not looking squarely at what’s wrong is a huge hindrance to solving a problem.

I’m reminded of chapters in John Taylor Gatto’s book, in which he recounts, blow by blow, the mind-numbing stupidity, red-tape and petty-mindedness of administrators and bureaucrats that he came up against in 30 years of teaching in New York, at the end of which he quit:

An accumulation of disgust and frustration which grew too heavy to be borne finally did me in.

I read the Scenes from the Battleground blog for different reasons than OldAndrew writes it: I read it to learn, to put myself by proxy in new situations and try them on for size. When I read an article like the F… off Factor, for instance, I want to read OldAndrews wise words of advice on how to effectively deal with such a situation. Instead, I get a long-assed transcript of some such exchanges that he or a colleague experienced, followed by all the things the school didn’t do to penalize the student. OK. We got the picture. Bad behaviour where OldAndrew is, is often either unpunished or not punished effectively enough.

When I was a schoolboy, a large, rugby-playing tough-guy pupil, in the corridor waiting to go into class and with his back to the door, started an imitation of the teacher to amuse his friends. The teacher himself suddenly came out and stood right by Rugby Player, who, noticing everyone had gone quiet, turned around. The teacher promptly slapped his face, and while Rugby Player stood there, in shock or pondering which wrestling move to use on this teacher, the teacher snapped, “Well don’t just stand there or I’ll do it again!”

Now that’s a success story: an example of bad behaviour promptly and sucessfully quelled (leaving aside the question of whether the punishment fit the “crime”). It also worked well as a deterrent because there were about 30 students watching. That’s what I want to read.

OldAndrew does a great job of giving an alternative point of view to the dominant socialist one. His blog is up there on my “every teacher should read this” list, along withMelanie Phillips’  All Must Have Prizes, Gatto’s Underground History of American Education and E.D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need (and why we don’t have them).

Only OldAndrew can tell what will work and what won’t in his situation. Looking at his situation from my armchair, thousands of miles away, my considered opinion is that, it’s hopeless. I see no way out left by OldAndrew’s stated views except increased coercion in some form or other. Maybe that will work. I’m not holding my breath.

OMG, one of Zemanta’s “related articles” below is to a Guardian article about infant drop-outs. It’s a strain to read this after Scenes from the Battleground. Have your paper bag ready in case you feel unwell:

With about 1,000 primary-age pupils now permanently excluded from schools each year, the programme aims to use early intervention to nip behavioural problems in the bud. The scheme, based in a vocational education centre for older pupils in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, was launched this autumn at the request of a group of local schools. Each week, 12 pupils will spend a day here, learning a range of vocational skills including construction, hairdressing and catering… “We left this blank,” explains the regional support manager for the project, Sandra Ladapo, “so the children could make this their ‘feelings wall’.”… The thinking is that if children are unable to settle at school and are badly behaved or can’t communicate with classmates, there are probably deeper issues that need resolving. One of the jobs of the staff here is to give the children space to express themselves. “From our side, it’s giving these little ones self-esteem, self-confidence, to start engaging them so they can begin to read and write,” Ladapo says.  … Away from the melee, she produces some of the notes she’s received about her new charges: “Challenging – needs constant reminders about tasks and accepted behaviour; poor social skills; little respect for females both in class and at break; fights and chews his T-shirt; doesn’t feel the need to be in school.”.. the children will do real practical tasks. The construction students will make toys for them to paint and take home; cakes will be prepared to be baked in the centre’s main kitchen, and the tutors who supervise the older boys will teach them to make little brick walls…. Claire has settled down with Brad, five, Sam, six, and Neil, seven, to make a “happy chart”. The idea is to set out how they feel they should behave while they’re here

The scheme, based in a vocational education centre for older pupils in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, was launched this autumn at the request of a group of local schools. Translation: Please take them off our hands, please!

their ‘feelings wall’ This just sounds manipulative: what child would feel a need for or an interest in his or her own “feelings wall”? Or are we talking PTSD here?

doesn’t feel the need to be in school.” What child does? Gimme a break!

“From our side, it’s giving these little ones self-esteem, self-confidence, Is it possible to give someone self-esteem?

children will do real practical tasks. The construction students will make toys for them to paint and take home; cakes will be prepared to be baked in the centre’s main kitchen, and the tutors who supervise the older boys will teach them to make little brick walls. Didn’t Montessori figure all this out about 100 years ago?

Claire has settled down with Brad, five, Sam, six, and Neil, seven, to make a “happy chart”. The idea is to set out how they feel they should behave while they’re here What’s a “happy chart”? And what’s it got to do with clarifying to these tots how they should behave?

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Comments 2

  1. oldandrew wrote:

    “I want to read OldAndrews wise words of advice on how to effectively deal with such a situation.”

    The point is that there isn’t a way to effectively deal with that situation and still teach. The whole basis of the situation is that the students will not tolerate the teacher having power in the classroom. That’s the point of that blog entry: that if students object to the very idea of the teacher being in charge, then there is nothing the teacher can do and still teach. You can make all the points you like about how the teacher is “responsible”, the point is that in that situation the teacher has responsibility without power.

    Incidentally, if the teacher were to slap anyone’s face the teacher would be suspended, fired and probably prosecuted. By the way, the change in the law prohibiting this and all forms of corporal punishment in state schools was passed by Mrs Thatcher’s government, so I’m not sure where the “dominant socialist” thing came from. Ideologues of both right and left are responsible for this situation. The left by increasing the rights of students, the right by decreasing the authority of teachers.

    Posted 29 Dec 2009 at 2:59 am
  2. Marc Sheffner wrote:

    if students object to the very idea of the teacher being in charge, then there is nothing the teacher can do and still teach. You can make all the points you like about how the teacher is “responsible”, the point is that in that situation the teacher has responsibility without power.
    Quite right. The situation is worse than I thought and I have edited my comment here from my original, flippant response. Obviously, little learning or teaching can take place in chaos.

    You’re caught between a rock and hard place: you are denied the power (or authority) to act responsibly, and yet blamed for not acting responsibly or authoritatively. It seems a Catch-22 situation. The problem seems to be largely a legal and political one, yet also an ideological one in that a few teachers are not enough to make a difference, and if the school as a whole from the Head downwards is not backing up a serious attempt to impose order in the chaos (e.g. by recognizing, as OldAndrew says, that appeasement does not lead to increased order but the reverse; that some of the dearly held beliefs about children, their nature, and human behaviour may well be not only wrong but contributing to the problem), then most attempts will fail and the efforts of OldAndrew and his ilk will be limited. (I’m thinking of the example of Marie Stubbs, who was headmistress and managed to either bring around most of the staff to her way of thinking or hire her own replacements.)

    I have found OldAndrew’s blog to be a fascinating source of information about British secondary school education. I especially recommend his Guide to Scenes from the Battleground

    I recall reading about an incident earlier in 2009 in a British school, when a teacher was fired for forcibly removing an obstreporous student from a classroom: he physically grabbed by the collar and the seat of his pants and pushe him out of the classroom. The police were called, and I don’t know what happened to the young man (15 or16, I can’t recall exactly), but the teacher had the book thrown at him: defrocked, disrobed, you name it. The poor guy was approaching retirement age, but I doubt if this is the way he had imagined leaving the profession. (I wish I could find the link).

    (I’m reminded of the entrepreneurs and industrialists in Atlas Shrugged, forced to somehow continue inventing and producing despite a plethora of laws and regulations that effectively demotivate and prevent them from making a profit.)

    “if the teacher were to slap anyone’s face the teacher would be suspended, fired and probably prosecuted.” I realize that times have changed since I went to school.

    “the change in the law prohibiting this and all forms of corporal punishment in state schools was passed by Mrs Thatcher’s government, so I’m not sure where the “dominant socialist” thing came from.”
    I interpreted the push for group work and mixed ability classes as coming from an ideology that said elitism is bad, ranking and streaming students is bad, hence (by implication) achievement is bad (or at least should be downplayed), in other words egalitarianism or socialism. I don’t equate socialism only with the left wing, or the Labour party (Hitler’s party was the National Socialists). I had not realized Thatcher’s specific responsibility, but it does not surprise me.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Posted 29 Dec 2009 at 9:18 pm

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  1. From “The students will not tolerate the teacher having power in the classroom” on 30 Dec 2009 at 3:33 pm

    [...] is a reply to a comment kindly left by OldAndrew of Scenes from the Battleground [...]