Doing More than Expected

This week saw the resumption of full online learning for my children.

At the end of the weekend, the usual drill of the evening is to prepare for school: make the lunches, prepare books and ensure there’s a clean uniform to be worn. But over the last year and some odd months, the ritual of preparing for school has somewhat been turned on its head. This led to something quite remarkable happening in my house this weekend.

My eldest daughter took her school uniform and asked for it to be ironed. What was out of the ordinary in this usually routine action was that it wasn’t needed at all since the move to online learning has negated all need for any uniform. We often have the perception that students see uniform as restrictive, stifling even and would happily see it smoulder in conflagration. Well, so one might think. My daughter’s actions proved the contrary. Even though her school didn’t require students to wear their uniforms for online learning, this was important to her. It mattered.

Standing in the door frame beaming proudly she said, “I’m going to turn up in full school uniform!” and she did. Because there’s something hugely powerful in turning up.

Going beyond minimum expectations sends a very clear message. Both to ourselves and the world. To ourselves we are saying we expect the best and desire more. To the world we are saying we are showing up.

How will you show up tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that?

It All Starts at the Gate

And that’s because gates are thresholds and thresholds symbolise beginnings. I’m reminded of the Chronicles of Narnia stories where the protagonists stand at the entrance of a portal that leads to another world. This is somewhat like the start of school where students leave one world; home and the outside, and then enter the world of the school. And because of this very true fact, school gates all across the world are critically important as they very much set the tone for ethos and culture of the school environment!

Picture schools as being like a machine. The machine has various component parts that help it to function. Sometimes parts of the machine are broken and need fixing, and other times all parts are running smoothly- just like a well-oiled machine! So when I recently had the opportunity to share with the entire secondary school team about the importance of pastoral care, like a mechanic deconstructing an engine into its component parts to identify the function and significance of each mechanism, I felt the need to break down and compartmentalise the various ‘sites’ where pastoral care takes place. The most obvious are classrooms, playgrounds, small group sessions (including form time), but then I considered the gate- the threshold. The place where it all starts. Students filter in one by one, each with their own narrative, their unique start to the day. The thing is, some have better starts then others. Some are waved off with kisses and warm, tender cuddles. They leave their homes girded with the security that they are loved beyond measure. For others, this is not how their opening chapter begins. Let’s turn our attention to these children and we can clearly understand why pastoral care starts at the gate.

Here you are safe…

When we greet students with a warm smile and a cheery “good morning” or “how are you?” we are letting them know that here they will be protected.

I see you…

When we deliberately attempt to make eye contact with our students, we are saying “you are visible, you matter.”

I value you…

When we ask simple questions, “how are you this morning?” even the rhetorical ones such as “Ready for the day?” we are saying your story matters. Your life and opinions are valued.

And yes, invariably some kids will ignore you, just as some adults will. That’s not the point. The point is, as an adult you are demonstrating to a young person that you care and much can be said for that. You are putting pastoral care first. And that’s why it all starts at the gate…

Click here for a list of questions and prompts you can use to ask at the gate to build connections with students.

Behaviour Cultivation Pt3

This is the last in a trilogy of posts on cultivating good behaviour. While the previous posts explored strategies for nurturing good behaviour before, and as incidents occur, the following covers what can be done after events of poor conduct have occured.

Every teacher has to deal with difficult students in their career. After all, that’s what makes the job exciting, right? Young people wouldn’t be young people if they didn’t react in unexpected ways. In fact, scientists have long ago revealed that the adolescent brain is markedly different from that of adults. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for guiding our actions is not yet fully formed in adolescents. So when your Y9 decides to lamp his friend because of some unsavoury words exchanged in Google chat, part of him is unable to control his response towards a more desirable outcome. Here I share 8 courses of action you might take after poor behaviour has occurred. 

1-Aim to heal damaged relationships. 

As an NQT, I taught a student who was repeatedly aggressive and confrontational towards me. I could have attempted to punish it out if her, but that would have been futile. We only learned mutual respect through dialogue, sometimes involving a mediator. Never underestimate the power of a restorative conversation. Sometimes when you speak to a student on a 1-1 basis, away from the crowd and off the ‘stage’, these can be some of the most constructive conversations.

2- Dig deeper

My friend Suzan who is an experienced School Counsellor reminds me that “behaviour is a symptom”. I think she’s right in many ways. A child’s openly negative behaviour could be an expression of a deeper root cause. Perhaps the response requires a more therapeutic solution, seeing the School Counsellor, or having someone teach them anger management techniques.

3- Look for trends in behaviour data and then change policy where needed. 

If you find that the main infractions for Y7 are talking in class, perhaps introduce appropriate talking and listening expectations. Some schools have adopted a One Voice policy. This states that there should only ever be one voice heard at any given time during a lesson. 

4-Follow through but don’t be afraid to adjust a punishment. 

Don’t be wrong and strong. If the flicking of an eraser didn’t really warrant an hour after school, but that’s the sanction you issued in your blind fury, perhaps out of frustration, tiredness, stress, or all three! don’t be afraid to adjust the punishment. We are all human and make mistakes.

5-Give students the tools to manage certain emotions and self-regulate. 

This is no easy feat. It’s extremely hard to change anyone’s behaviour, but one of the great things about being young is the immense capacity for learning new things. This is why it’s critical to equip children with such skills as early as possible. I’ve seen 3 year olds practice techniques such as ‘belly breathe’, a breath control technique to support the controlling of their emotions.

6-Give the young person an opportunity to make amends. 

Imagine this scenario. Pupil A has just stolen another child’s lunch and is consequently issued a detention. And then what? Similar to the restorative approach in technique 1, students who have hurt or wronged someone else should be given the opportunity to restore the relationship and have a level of accountability towards the person they have harmed. I admire the brilliant educator Barbara Coloroso’s approach of the three Rs: restoration, restitution and reparation. Create opportunities for healing and forgiveness. Yes, it takes effort to broker these conversations, but the return is well worth the investment.

7-Slow it down. 

After the incident has occured, don’t feel that you need to weigh in with an answer straight away. You may need to let the situation sit for 24 hours so you can deliberate. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that places value on leaders making swift decisions. This is grossly erroneous. Our best decisions are often slow, methodical and well measured. Read about the work of Daniel Kahneman in, ‘Thinking; fast and slow’ to learn about how we can slow things down to arrive at better decisions.

8-Leverage incidents of poor behaviour to become teachable moments.

Imagine a child has left a mean comment online, which is particularly pertinent at this time of remote learning. This is a great opportunity to have a conversation about digital citizenship and etiquette. Signpost them in the direction of useful videos about digital footprints and the consequences of irresponsible online activity.

End note

If you’d like to read the previous posts in this series, you can find them here and here

The terms good and bad behaviour jar me slightly. It’s limited binary positioning does not quite capture the nuances and subtleties of human beings. It’s a bit like sadness and happiness. The two coexist and are not as far apart as we often like to think. I’m still searching for some better terms and hope to continue this conversation with many of you. 

Exclusive!

This is just for you- my subscribers who have supported me in some way or another since I first invited people to follow my blog or connect on LinkedIn. I’m sharing with you the entire remote teaching course I produced last summer.

Some of it may be a little less relevant as I’m aware that things may have moved on since we started distance learning one month short of a a year ago. But I’m almost certain that there is something of significant value here. In many ways, much has stayed the same- perhaps that’s a topic for a future blog post!

So, from me to you, the complete course. I hope you enjoy it.

And please hit reply and get in touch with me if you want to give me some feedback or share ideas. We are stronger together.

Bye for now!

Behaviour Cultivation Pt2

This blog is the second in a trilogy and looks into how we can cultivate good behaviour when things don’t go as planned and pupils misbehave. The first one can be found here.

Some students will inevitably misbehave in class and infractions can range from minor to major incidents. The strategies suggested are for dealing with typical behaviour incidents, largely disruption and defiance. As with my last blog, I want to make this super practical with strategies you could implement tomorrow.

Use of the behaviour policy

This must be followed to ensure consistency is achieved. It also demonstrates fairness. If you give half an hour’s detention for talking when the school’s policy is a first warning, you risk damaging your relationship with a pupil as they begin to see you as unfair and too harsh. It always strikes me just how much young people have a keen sense of injustice. When a young person feels the level of punishment is incommensurate to the offence, resentment and animosity quickly ensue. These two emotions do incalculable damage to any human relationship. The 19th Century writer Samuel Smiles said “If the life of a child be embittered, the result is shyness and aversion”. We want our classrooms to be full of acceptance, mutual respect and interconnectedness.


It’s also worth noting that the school’s behaviour policy can serve as a support if a disgruntled parent happens to take you to task about your actions.

Non verbal cues

Non verbal cues can range from the typical teacher glare to a raised hand or pointing towards a behaviour poster on display in the classroom. The effectiveness of this approach is multidunal: you preserve your voice (one of your biggest assets); it allows the flow of learning to continue, or for students who constantly need to be reminded of the expectations, it can provide an alternative to raising your voice and running the risk of showing your frustration.

Appeal to higher ideals

Remind students of your high expectations. By and large, most human beings want to live up to the high expectations of others. I think this is a basic quality of the human family- our desire to render a good service. In order to shift the negative behaviour to the positive, remind students that they can do better. Behaviour expert, Paul Dix advises on using phrases such as “you’re better than that.” when a student misbehaves. These four simple yet powerful words speak volumes. Which human being wouldn’t want to try a little harder when told that!? 

The delayed reprimand

Sometimes a student acts out in a class because they want to be noticed! If you stop the entire lesson to address them, you are giving them exactly what they want- centre stage for all of their peers to stop and stare! Instead, try continuing with the lesson and then coming back to them at a later stage in a more private way. The outcome is win-win: you address the behaviour without disrupting the learning of others.

Call for support

This is never a sign of weakness, provided it’s used in the right way. This should always be an option for teachers where safety has been compromised or a teacher has exhausted all known strategies and a pupil has become a severe disruption to the learning of others. Although a last resort, it’s unfair on the rest of students to have their learning stopped because of one or two extremely defiant or unsafe pupils. If you are new to a school, find out about the school’s ‘on call’ policy and how you can get support when needed. There’s nothing worse than feeling alone when you are dealing with a very difficult pupil.


As well as effective practical strategies that you can employ, I also think it’s important to caution against poor practice when behaviour incidents occur during lessons. Here are just a few don’ts:

  • Never make a public example of a child. Their chastisement is not for the benefit or gaze of onlookers. Deal with that child and that child only.
  • Avoid sarcasm at all costs. It’s uncalled for and can come across as extremely patronising and belittling. In fact, this can often make the situation worse with particular individuals who may be known for being confrontational.
  • Avoid acting out of anger and frustration. Yes, we are all human and I’d be lying if I said I had never reacted in this way, but learn to spot the triggers. I’ve noticed that when my voice creeps higher and higher, that’s a cue for me to reign in my emotions and get a sense of calm. It’s taken years to do this, so don’t expect results overnight!

Behaviour management skills are honed over time. New settings and contexts provide fresh challenges, which you should relish and approach as a learner. What works in one setting may be completely impractical for another. The key is to approach each novel experience with fresh eyes whilst leaning on tried and tested techniques. 

Look out for the third and final post in a few weeks’ time.