Teachers, like me, are getting out if they can. In November 2017 there were 5,000 fewer teachers than there were in 2016. Yet, student numbers are rising.
The last thing an overworked teacher needs is a pupil who constantly disrupts the lesson with their phone, rudeness or sleeping. Teachers must follow their school’s discipline policy. But, in my experience, punishment doesn’t usually work unless someone also talks to the student: acknowledges them as a thinking feeling human, even a little.
Any parent knows that children become more difficult when they are unhappy. Any teacher knows that many of the children lined up in front of them are not having a wonderful time outside of school. The tragedy is that the unhappiest children are often the ones who get punished, excluded from class and, potentially, excluded from school. Exclusion is only the beginning of their suffering. We should be focusing on why many children don’t co-operate at school, rather than ramping up the punishment.
As a teacher I was aware that there was always a reason why a child did not co-operate. Non-cooperation was common among those who felt that the system had nothing to offer them. Teaching bottom set GCSE, for example, to students predicted E’s, forcing them to read Dickens when they had no idea what a quarter of the words meant, punishing them for not co-operating, was worse than futile.
Punishing those students only proved to them that school was against them, that the GCSE was an impossible struggle and (possibly) that they themselves were deficient. It would have been more useful to find a way to study with which the students wanted to cooperate: to read something they could understand; to talk about the relevance of English to application forms or constructing arguments in real life. Instead I had to slog through termly assessments toward the GCSE and to enforce the school’s discipline policy when students did not behave. Two or three individuals became increasingly cynical.
Another flaw with taking a “tough stance” is that children live mainly in the present. Threat of punishment - and ultimate threat of exclusion - may not deter a child from rudeness, violence, constant texting or bullying as they pass through each stage of their school’s discipline policy. A child will not realise what exclusion could mean for their future. A girl I taught (famous for her rudeness to teachers) told me she was hoping to get a place at the local pupil referral unit because they ‘let you smoke’.
Teachers are struggling desperately and of course they need to deal with students who make it hard to get through a lesson: for the sake of the rest of the class and their own mental health. But is a “tough stance” really the best way to deal with difficult kids? Difficult students are also people, probably unhappy people: people whose lives could be severely affected if they are treated as a failure or a problem. If they end up excluded, their lives could be completely ruined - even over.