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When Teaching is a Daily Trek Into The Wild

Jungle

Jungle

 

Today, I taught Year 2.

It was like going into the wild.

What astonishes me – but, more importantly, concerns me – is that far too many children I meet lack the essential skills to manage themselves, to manage their responses to situations, to manage their relationships with each other, to manage their learning.

And here many of us are, in classrooms up and down the country, trying to teach children who don’t want to be taught.

It really is like going into the wild – every day.

As a deputy headteacher, I taught a Year 5 class who were, when I went in, out of control. About 75% of my time was taken up with behaviour management and behaviour modification – we just about managed to learn something in the other 25%.

Every day, I drove to school wondering what I was going to come up against that day: it wasn’t a pleasant feeling because, like most teachers, I like to have my day planned and to see outcomes. But, in this instance, planning was often an academic exercise: the job was more like running on one of those large exercise balls and hoping to stay upright – or running inside a hamster wheel and hoping not to get thrown off. Planning somehow seemed secondary to meeting the real needs of the kids.

It was like going into the wild – I really had no idea what to expect.

But what keeps teachers in places like this staying in places like this is the reason why they do it.

At the end of today, I met up with a small group of teachers congregating outside a classroom. It’s Friday and one of them is holding a bottle of wine. They are reflecting on their day and the challenges they have faced and what they are going to that evening and over the weekend to ‘recover’. We start to talk about the children and what challenges THEY face and why they need us to believe in them – because, for some of them, no one outside of school believes in them. Having the opportunity to change children’s lives for the better is why they do what they do. For some of them – many of them – home is chaotic, unpredictable and even unsafe.

It’s like going back into the wild after a day in school – a place of relative security – their only safe haven. Their harbour before they launch out into the stormy sea of home-life again.

I have often felt on the edge of losing control with children but I worry most that the children have already lost control – have been out of control for so long that to bring them back is going to take more than securing a Level 4 in SATs.

I told the children today that they had to make a choice – and, if they wanted to be proud of themselves, it had to be a good choice. We defined that ‘good choice’ but, for some of those children, making a good choice is so far from their normal experience, they don’t really have the wherewithal to make that choice. Like I said, they’re out of control.

So we have to help them make good choices. That takes time. It takes effort. It takes explaining in a multitude of different ways at different times and in different places. It means taking them out of the wild and into a clearing where they can sit in a place where there’s no fear.

Not many weeks after taking over the Year 5 class I mentioned earlier, I started doing Circle Time with them – straight after morning break every day. For three weeks, they couldn’t even sit quietly in a circle and listen so, after twenty minutes of trying, we would abandon Circle Time and get on with the rest of the day. Eventually, we managed to attempt some semblance of a Circle Time. They loved it. They became good at it. And, because they experienced little successes in Circle Time – and liked the feeling that came with that success – they wanted more of it.

I took the same class into Year 6 and we continued Circle Time. I’m not saying everything turned out honky dory for hose kids but, by believing in them and continuously telling them what I believed about them, they eventually started believing in themselves – and each other. This was transformational: and it had a massive impact on their learning and their achievement.

Needless to say, the end of Year 6 was very emotional: the class had come through a lot together and had come a long way – and they recognised the difference and liked it.

It was no longer a daily trek into the wild.

As those teachers reflected today, I, too, reflected on why we as teachers keep going ‘into the wild’: we can see what the children cannot see. We can see what they can be. And we cannot afford to lose the opportunity to make that happen.

Teachers see children not for what they are but for what they can be. Places like this need people like you.

But, oftentimes, it takes going into the wild to find out what that ‘can be’ looks like.

It takes going into the wild to find out what’s there and how to tame it.

You don’t try to make a wild child come to you – you go to where they are and carry them to safety.

 

 

The Behaviour Iceberg (ignore at your peril)

Smileys
Smileys

Smileys / via clker.com

JUST MANAGING IS NEVER ENOUGH

Having composed a previous post which focused on leadership, I mused on my classroom experiences with children exhibiting emotional and behavioural difficulties (sometimes abbreviated to EBD).

Typically, a child may exhibit irrational or anti-social behaviour in a classroom which is, it has to be said, sometimes intolerable. There will invariably be systems to manage such behaviour but managing it is never enough.

Dealing with what we observe at face value is rarely enough. The real problem is that what we see or hear is often not nearly as devastating as what lies beneath – like the proverbial iceberg, the problems beneath the surface are often massive compared to what we see on the surface.

 

LIFE-CHALLENGING

As a deputy head at an inner city school some time ago, I was called in to the Year 6 classroom to ‘deal with’ a non-complaint child who was disrupting the lesson. I managed to coax the child out of the classroom and sit him down in the corridor. He was clearly in an emotional state but, once he’d calmed down, he explained to me that his dad’s girlfriend had walked out that morning.

You know how sometimes you realize that what you thought was a problem for you is actually a far greater problem for someone else? Well, here was just such a case but that someone else was a child. Not someone with the emotional resilience to cope with a major life-changing – and life-challenging – event, and a traumatic one at that.

 

COMPASSION

How can we expect to deal with a problem when we look only at what is visible on the surface? I learnt pretty soon as a teacher that helping children who manifested emotional and behavioural difficulties required a lot more understanding, patience – and compassion. That’s not to say I excused or made allowances for the behaviour; I just looked beyond the behaviour to the person and to what they must be going through to behave in such a way. No one in their right mind chooses to get themselves into trouble – but we’re not dealing with children in their right mind in cases such as this.

 

FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE OR FLOCK

Those familiar with brain theory will know that the primitive ‘survival’ brain can effectively shut down the ‘thinking brain’ so that the person experiencing emotional trauma is incapable of rational (thinking) thought. It’s the classic ‘fight, flight, freeze or flock’ response: a child in the midst of an emotional trauma will either:

– fight it  (hence the disruptive behaviour)

– fly from it (which could manifest in withdrawal, evasion, refusal to participate or literally running off)

– simply freeze (effectively no response) OR

– flock (which may or may not be helpful, depending on whom they ‘flock’ with).

For a ‘child-friendly’ exploration of this, browse the The Brainworks Project website, which I’ve found very useful.

In any case, those of us who have a ‘duty of care’ for children need to look way deeper than the surface to make sense of – and effectively manage – the behaviours we invariably come across.

 

IT’S (NEARLY) AS SIMPLE AS ABC

For me, I have learnt the ABC of managing behaviour:

First, I must exercise ACCEPTANCE of children for who they are.

I often walk into classrooms of children I have never met before. I make absolutely no assumptions about their behaviour based on the school’s locality, ethnic mix of its pupils or their social background – I couldn’t possibly. They’re children. Demonstrating acceptance is, for me, the first ans most important step in establishing a relationship with them as quickly with them as possible.

Secondly, I must exercise BELIEF in the children.

I have to work fast on this: I quickly find something to hook in to something positive that any child manifests – be it manners, quick thinking, consideration for others or just ‘getting it’. I verbally recognise  and reward such ‘behaviour’, which sets the standard of  expectation for other children but which also helps the children to see that I believe in them. I have to keep doing this throughout my time with the children – constantly demonstrating belief, even and especially when a child demonstrates non-compliant behaviour: as soon as I have dealt with the behaviour, I find something about the child to believe in – recognition of something positive to detract from the negative and which provides an alternative route for them.

Thirdly, I need to exercise CONFIDENCE in the children.

As soon as I can find something I can tell the children I am confident they can do, I do so. It starts with showing their best but it can be as simple as good listening, speaking up, talking in pairs or working on a task independently. I have to demonstrate confidence by telling them I know they can do it.

Know how that feels when someone does that to (or for) you…?

Fourthly, I have to exercise DISCIPLINE.

This is about setting and maintaining expectations. Right from the start, I make my expectations clear but I need to maintain consistency throughout the lesson so that the children feel secure about boundaries and consequences. If a child crosses a boundary, they know they will be disciplined. We all need that.

Fifthly, I absolutely must exercise EMPATHY.

Pretty much the rest is ineffective if I cannot meet the children where they are: understand their feelings, understand how I make them feel and manage the process. This is especially important when managing a non-compliant child. I have got over shouting for the most part – it rarely works. Reasoning, explaining and empathising is far more effective.

 

For the most part, I have found this to work but I would be delighted to hear from anyone else about what ‘works’ with them: please, by all and any means, leave a comment.

But by no means ignore the underlying causes of worrying behaviour – you do so at your peril…

The way you do anything is the way you do everything

Image: nuttakit / www.FreeDigital Photos.net

Image: nuttakit / www.FreeDigital Photos.net

I was supposed to write this post weeks ago. When I mentioned this to an acquaintance (read: ‘friend’) with a pithy sense of humour, he quipped, ‘Is that because that’s the way you do everything?’ A wry grin and his tongue firmly in cheek.

I often include aspects of leadership in my posts and I can’t get away from it here, either. Because it’s true: the way you do anything as a leader is the way you do everything. And the reason for this, I believe, is deep down within us. It’s about what we believe about ourselves, about our relationships with others and what we believe about their perception of us.

All of us have a values system that we live by. We have deeply-held beliefs about life, about rights and responsibilities, community, fairness and justice, education (my own pet subject) and religion. We also have beliefs about our value – our value as human beings, our value to others and the value of what we have to offer. The fact is that each of us has immense and immeasurable value and what we have to offer to the world is priceless (even though publicists try to put a price on an individual’s worth).

A friend and I were discussing what drives people and why some appear more successful than others at promoting whatever ideology or principle they happen to believe in (and, let’s face it, there are a lot of us at it). We talked about the fact that many of us have a passionate belief in something but that we are often overwhelmed by the fear that others might not ‘buy in’ to that belief. We therefore do not push ourselves forward, even though what we have to offer is clearly of value. Our fear of rejection or failure is greater than our faith in ourselves. What turns the tables is the point at which we see that our message is greater than our fear of how it will be received.

In her book, A Return to Love, Marianne Wilkinson writes these oft-quoted words:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world (emboldening mine). There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

© Marianne Williamson, 1992

Returning to the opening theme, we all must recognise that our identity is what drives our behaviour before we can start changing the way we think – and it is about changing thinking. In an education context, we need to embed this discipline in the minds of our children: their behaviour, whether good, bad or indifferent, is undoubtedly a manifestation of what they think about themselves, which, in turn, is a product of their early experiences of nurturing – or lack of.

I often start my workshops with children by engaging them in a simple game: we stand in a circle and, altogether, recite each other’s name in turn round the circle, finishing with the words, ‘Everyone matters in our class.’ I remind the children that, even if we don’t feel that we matter, we must still believe it: it’s a simple case of ‘mind over matter’.

What we keep repeating often becomes a habit.

The way we do anything is the way we do everything, but it must reflect what we believe – not what we fear.