The caption accompanying this image has become an important part of my school’s ethos over the past two years. It appears in assemblies, on the website, and is a consistent message given to students. What I like most about the message is that it forces students to think about their autonomy – that they are responsible for their actions and all of their actions have consequences which influence others. It has, I believe, contributed to a cohort of students whose behaviour towards each other is more considered and respectful than in previous years.
Whenever I see this message however, I find myself reflecting on the influence that adults working in schools can have on their students. At times, the potential scope of this influence is completely mind-boggling. What if every single interaction with a child holds an opportunity for positive influence? A smile in the corridor, a stern word in the playground, a conversation with student ‘x’ who prefers to spend their break-times in your classroom, rather than in the company of their peers – each interaction could help shape a young person’s behaviour, and ultimately, their future.
And so, I come to my pledge. Three small ways I can at least attempt to exert my influence in a positive way. I’ve been considering what influence I’m having over my students for a while, but my compulsion to write this post stems from overhearing a conversation between an adult and a student at school.
1. “All you need to do is stay in the classroom” (Student involved in this conversation had been sent out of class)
I can understand why this message is occasionally communicated to students. If behaviour is an issue, if they’re disengaged with a particular subject, it might seem on occasion that managing to last a full 50 minutes inside the classroom is an achievement. But, if we make simply ‘being’ in the classroom an achievement, we’re letting down the students in question and giving a dangerously inconsistent message to the rest of the class:
“Yes you, over there, the quiet one who never misbehaves. Make sure you’re working hard. I will try and read your work this lesson, but I might be a bit busy making sure this boy successfully remains in his chair.” (Or something like this)
I’ve definitely been guilty of this myself in the past, congratulating a student for lasting a full double lesson after a pattern of being sent out due to poor behaviour. The particular student I have in mind had a repertoire of silly noises unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and an aptitude for demonstrating these at the most inappropriate moments. I can remember being delighted with him when he managed to stay in the room a whole lesson. My expectations were too low. There were many students worthy of recognition in that class whose efforts I failed to acknowledge.
My first pledge: I’ll try to never make simply staying in the class a minimum expectation.
2. “Don’t worry, I didn’t like Maths either” (Student was being escorted back to a Maths lesson)
I didn’t study Art at GCSE, but I can vividly remember some of the projects I completed in year 9. A collage of shells, firstly sketched out and then painted with a range of pinks and oranges, a painful attempt at capturing the still life before me. I slaved over that painting, and it helped me get a ‘D’ in my year nine report. A pointillist self-portrait, again the product of weeks of graft, which I was genuinely proud of, and still have to this day. Again, it helped achieve a ‘D’. Art wasn’t easy for me, it required effort, but if it was easier, maybe the work I created wouldn’t have been as memorable. Those difficulties were important, and I wouldn’t have wanted them devalued by a well-meaning adult reassuring me that I was simply not very good at Art, or clearly didn’t enjoy the subject.
I’m sure this message was delivered with good intentions, perhaps to reassure the student in question that it’s O.K. not to find all work in Maths easy. But I worry that it reinforces the idea that ‘dislike’ is the appropriate reaction towards something difficult. There could be many reasons why a student claims to dislike a subject – but often, in my limited experience, it’s because they find the subject very difficult, and are not feeling instant gratification by overcoming these difficulties quickly, or easily. But difficulties are important. They provide immense power for success when they are overcome, and from my experience in art, can provide more memorable learning experiences. Presuming that ‘not liking something’ and ‘finding it difficult’ are identical, doesn’t help. I want my students to enjoy challenges. Hopefully, I can influence them enough to look beyond the instant, sometimes shallow enjoyment from doing something easy. And if this is the attitude they take into their Maths lessons, or any lesson for that matter, it can only help me in English.
Also, in this particular instance, the student was being taken back to their lesson after being sent out. To me, as well as undermining the importance of working through difficulties, it is pretty close to excusing poor behaviour on the basis that the student finds it difficult. I’d rather that there was no excuse for poor behaviour.
My second pledge: I will endeavor to celebrate difficulties when they present themselves, and encourage students to work through them, whatever the subject.
3. “It’s alright though, because I got my ‘C’ and that’s all that matters” (Said to a KS3 student)
This last bit of the conversation really agitated me. I would never deny that a ‘C’ grade in a particular subject can be a great achievement, depending on the circumstance. But getting a ‘C’ is not the ceiling, it’s not all that matters, and I wouldn’t want any student to think this was the maximum grade they should be aiming for.
This analogy from Tom Bennett works for me:
“Here’s a thing: what does it even mean to ‘aim for a C, or a B’? Have you ever seen a kid revise, and try to get a B? It’s nonsense. Kids try as hard as they can/ can be bothered, to get the best grade they can. If you set a child to run 100 metres, and they really bash their guts out on it, can you imagine asking them, ‘What speed were you going for?’ No.They just run. They just run.” (full post here)
My final pledge: I will never suggest that a ‘C’ grade is the pinnacle of achievement.
Of course, there are times when I might slip up and forget these messages, the language of my pledge is deliberately tentative, replete with hedges. I’d also be naive to ignore that some students might slip through the net. After all, there are many powerful influences outside of school too. But as long as opportunities for positive influence present themselves, I’ll try my best utilise them.