The sinner who repents

Every now and then, something pops into my mind through a wormhole from my past. Several times recently, it has been something that we were ‘taught’ during P.G.C.E. (1986-7). I am afraid Quirky Teacher is right, at least in relation to my experience. (My impression is that these courses since tightened up their act, and produced people who have actually been equipped –at least in part – for the classroom).

In my case, hindsight makes it all too clear the extent to which P.G.C.E. was simply progressive brainwashing, but I remember at the time just being puzzled at why I seemed to have fallen from grace with the course tutor. I think it was the fact that as the recipient of a traditional education, it became more and more visible to all concerned that my understanding and experience was utterly out of kilter with the approved thinking of the course. All the more so when it became known that I was a grammar school boy.

I was not the only one to be disapproved of, but it explains the fact that I spent that year growing increasingly disenchanted with the course, and more and more of it dissenting from what we were being taught. I suppose alarm bells should have rung on the day some of us asked for more guidance with ‘A’ Level teaching, only to be told, “Able children educate themselves. If you can deal with social exclusion then ‘A’ Level will look after itself”. And that was it – for the entire year. And the approach to discipline was, unsurprisingly, that if there was a problem, it was due to something the teacher was doing wrong. It is all the more worrying that the tutor was, at the time, a high profile figure in the teaching of the subject, with several books (including classroom text books) to his name. If I recall correctly, his own classroom career had lasted all of two years…

The particular flashback that happened this week was due to a class who are not only my current worst, but in behaviour terms possibly one of my worst ever. The word ‘feral’ comes to mind, though that is probably overdoing it and I’m sure they come much worse in less civilised schools. It’s reassuring to know that my colleagues find exactly the same, though as I’m in my second year with the class, I already have twelve months’ baggage to contend with.

I think it is fair to say that many of those children have simply never been taught how to behave or what the expectations in a classroom are.

I recalled the advice of that P.G.C.E. tutor: “Always give each child a clean slate every lesson. Never let their bad behaviour in a previous lesson prejudice their new start”.

Well, I admit this is not straightforward. Children make many mistakes, for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it genuinely is not their ‘fault’. I suspect many of the class mentioned above simply come from homes that can’t cope or don’t care. Perhaps, as QT often shows, they received little effective training during their primary phase. And now they are struggling to cope, mid-way through their secondary education.

I would also agree entirely that adults should set a good and compassionate example. I am not suggesting that teachers should hold grudges or conduct vendettas against poorly behaved pupils; retaliation should not be part of our vocabulary. We should welcome genuine improvements, and the idea of catching children being good does have traction. Such progress as I have made with that class has been as much about building relationships and showing humanity as wielding the rod.

But allowing children to come to class knowing that their misdemeanours will be instantly forgotten now strikes me as naive and unhelpful. It gives those children carte blanche to do exactly the same again and again, safe in the knowledge that their latest crimes, too, will be forgotten in a day or two. This not only guarantees to perpetuate difficulties for the teacher, but it also does not teach children who need it the life-lesson that one cannot continue throwing one’s weight around without expecting some kind of cumulative response from others, which will also condition the relationship in future. In the real world, people don’t always forget, even if they do forgive.

We have sanctions with which to signal our displeasure to pupils, from which they can supposedly learn – and I am not suggesting that we should never forgive pupils who genuinely reform. Neither should we conduct our lessons with (visible!) pre-loaded bias against some pupils. But to give children the impression that people will simply forget everything they ever do, and that this will not affect future dealings, is simply one of the worst bits of professional ‘advice’ I was ever given – all the more so as it came from someone who clearly did not practise what he preached.

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4 thoughts on “The sinner who repents

  1. I try to remind students (and my own children) that they build a reputation for themselves. The adult in this case cannot be blamed for sometimes predicting incorrectly. Someone with a bad reputation (student in this case) needs to work hard to change their reputation.

    • Thanks for your comment. I quite agree – people build their own reputation. One approach I have used with some success is to tell my pupils (especially in classes such as the one mentioned) that I “start from the view that all my pupils are polite, organised, hard-working and well behaved – and that if I no longer seem to think that, then it is because they changed it”.

      More than once that has caused one of those lovely moments of silence when you can tell a penny is dropping…

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