I’m not being told what to do by an 11 year old!

I’m on a roll people! I’m sure, in next to know time at all, I’ll look back at these first few blogs and say: “Shut up Barry! You’re deeply irritating!” But, in the mean, time I’ll just drip feed you my pearls of wisdom. Such pearls!

Behaviour – that’s pretty much the number 1 topic of conversation amongst teachers I’d say. I guess it depends upon schools, to an extent, but the teachers I meet, their questions, even if ostensibly about teaching, usually come back to behaviour in some shape or form.

In fact, I’d say so much of what we think of as “innovative pedagogy”, is often about behaviour too. These wonderful new ideas that come along in a blaze of glory, invariably don’t work, and fizzle out like a damp squib, they’re usually about “motivating” or “engaging” kids. Which, I suspect, is code for, “They won’t shut up. They won’t do any work. Can I bribe them somehow?” Some of you will throw up your arms in horror at that. You can stop reading if you like.

I meet lots of frazzled teachers, very tired teachers. It’s not fatigue through marking or planning necessarily. A lot of the time it’s the constant interruptions from kids, the rudeness, the necessity to repeat the most simple of instruction over and over again. That’ll be “low level disruption”, right?

Well, actually, no. It’s not “low level”, it’s not trivial, it’s not a minor inconvenience. It’s bloody knackering! It’s a constant drip, drip, drip, war of attrition. Maybe 300 kids on your timetable, maybe more, all picking away at you, the teacher, the supposed adult authority figure. Why do teachers leave the job? It’s well paid and the holidays are cracking.  Very often, it’s behaviour.

So often we’re encouraged to plan lessons that are “fun”. If kids are happy, smiley, enjoying the lesson, it’s automatically a great lesson, right? Well, I’m not so sure.

I think planning lessons with “How can I make this fun?” as the central premise is a bit  daft really. I think, with that approach, we end up in a situation where we try to sneak in a little bit of learning, on the sly. I’ve heard teachers congratulate themselves so many times, “The kids really loved it! They didn’t even know they were learning!”

Bugger that! Didn’t even know they were learning? You what? I don’t want that! I want kids leaving the lesson, scratching their heads and going, “You never stop in that lesson. My head’s spinning. You can’t get away with anything. There’s not a single minute wasted. You learn loads with him. I’m really good at French!”

My angle is this, once they start feeling accomplished they stop asking, “What’s the point of French/English/Maths/Science etc?” So I’m going to say – let’s plan lessons so they feel really, really accomplished, really, really quickly. That’s never about dumbing down. That’s always about aiming very high and planning asking yourself: How can I maximise learning return on time invested? Good teaching, inspirational teaching, teaching where kids learn loads and loads every lesson – it’s about time management. That’s my take on it. You might disagree. That’s okay. We don’t have to agree.

I firmly believe, that if we get routines right, we can pre-empt so much of the potential off-task behaviour. See, I think kids are really quite predictable. You know they’re going to arrive late, not have equipment, try to sit next to their mates, try to generally avoid work as much as possible. Not all kids, but lots of kids, lots of the time, devote a lot of their energy to avoiding work.

When I first started teaching, in my 2nd PGCE placement, I was in a very “challenging” boys’ school. The lads would regularly beat a rhythm out on the desks, in unison,  whilst chanting at the top of their voices: “French is sh*t, f*ck*ng sh*t, f*ck*ng sh*t.” Big up to the Music Dept. – those kids had rhythm!

When this happened I thought, “This is an interesting way to make a living.” and then I thought, “Wait a minute! I’m not having this! I’m not being bullied by 11 year olds!” I think, in many ways, that’s been the basis of all my teaching since – I’m an adult. I automatically have, or should have, authority over kids.

Some of you hate that concept, I imagine. Sorry if it offends. But I’m not going to lie to you. We’re grown-ups, they’re kids. It’s not a democracy, I am a dictator, a benevolent dictator, but it’s my job to protect kids from their worst excesses. It’s my job to lead that lesson. As I see it.

Respect is a two way street, it’s also a bit of a strange concept. I talk to kids in a way I would want someone to talk to a kid of my own. I expect kids to talk to me in the same way I would want a kid of my own to talk to a teacher. Does that help clarify things? I’m very respectful to kids, I expect them to be the same, to me and to their colleagues. It’s not child cruelty. It’s learning right and wrong.

Anyway, one day, following a particularly awful lesson, I followed these same little cherubs up the stairs, from my classroom to the history department. It was fourteen steps away. But the transformation from the French room to the history room was astonishing.

Seconds earlier these kids had been wild, howling at the moon, beating out their favourite refrain on the desks  – and then they arrived in the history department. They lined up, they faced the front, they were pleasant, smiling, they tucked their shirts in without being asked, they entered the room calmly, went to their designated spot in the seating plan, interacted with the teacher, put their hands up, willingly joined in, really made a good stab at answering questions. They were lovely!

Do you ever have a lesson and get kind of goose bumpy? Shocked at just how thoroughly lovely and biddable and compliant kids can be? (I chose those words very deliberately. I like kids doing what they’re told.) Well, it was like that. This history lesson was like one of those “Hey, become a teacher! It’s great! kids love learning stuff!” adverts. Only it was true!!

They were just gorgeous, smiley, lovely, enthusiastic, compliant kids who did exactly what they were told and, consequently, learnt at a rapid rate of knots. The kids were happy. They knew they were learning stuff. They remembered stuff. They had stuff to tell their mams and dads when they went home. They knew enough to correct one another. They were confident enough and interested enough to ask some cracking questions. They felt safe.

And the teacher? Relaxed. He knew his subject. He knew how to ensure not a minute was wasted with fluff or filler or activities intended to distract kids from proper learning. It was pretty much bumper to bumper focused teaching & learning; peppered with a bit of banter. Some of you might think that sounds like child torture. I loved it. They loved it. He loved it. The kids got their best results in history every year.

I think the lesson worked because the teacher believed in his right to talk, to engage, to enthuse, to direct and to dictate. (Yep! I’m choosing those verbs deliberately.) He was the boss. That wasn’t questioned by anybody. It didn’t cross their minds to play up. Or, if it did, they soon thought better of it.

These kids felt good about themselves, they knew they were doing well in history.  They knew that, if they stuck with that teacher, they were going to experience that “high” of feeling clever, lesson after lesson.

He wasn’t about to be told what to do by an 11 year old. He planned lessons so there was no wiggle room, no opportunity to mess about, from the orderly and very welcoming line up to the orderly and congratulatory exit routine, the kids were safe and learning. And they knew they were.

Some of you will say they weren’t really learning. It wasn’t “deep” learning. You’ll say, perhaps, that they only listened and then asked questions and practised in silence and wrote at length and read with focus and remembered with ease. That’s not learning. You’ll say, perhaps, that they might have been happy and smiling and proud of themselves; they might have felt challenged in a safe environment where they felt good about themselves because they’d been deliberately and actively taught that  sustained effort and delayed gratification are their own rewards – but that’s not interactive, too 19th Century.

You’re probably right. What do I know? Happy kids, getting great results. It’s not like the whole education system is based upon kids getting the best possible results so they can go off and have a life with choices.

I met a girl the other day. A girl I used to teach. She recognised me. I last saw her around 12 years ago. I’d strongly recommend Oil of Olay. She said I “made lessons fun”. I was a bit p*ss*d off to be honest. I was hoping she’d say something like, “We learnt loads with you! I still remember…” But she didn’t.

A friend told me that some kids had been talking about me. This friend still works at a school I used to work in. A kid said to his mate, “Can you remember Mr Smith? He was a really good teacher…if you wanted to learn.”

Truth is, a lot of them didn’t necessarily want to learn. But that wasn’t going to stop me. Some resented being made to work. But I made them work. I didn’t make them do fluffy, faddy, fun things. I made them do challenging, high value stuff. I tried to pre-empt the common errors, to keep learning moving forward with precision teaching. But I wasn’t prepared to fill their hours with fluff. I wasn’t prepared to be told what to do by an 11 year old. I think I made them feel accomplished. I like that thought.

That’s enough for now. You made it this far? I’m impressed. So, my advice, for what it’s worth, be a teacher, be an adult, be an authority figure, protect kids from themselves. You do know best. Never be afraid to teach with passion and self-belief.

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