Yesterday I made two girls cry.
I found it reassuring.
Of course I didn’t make them cry by shouting at them or bullying them, and I when I went into each situation I had no idea that they would cry, but seeing the tears suddenly spill down their cheek was a tremendous relief. If students cry when you challenge them about their behaviour then there’s a chance they actually care, and might change. You have to worry when there are no tears. There often aren’t.
Sometimes as a dean you can still work with the “no more tears” student by developing a good relationship with that student or through a parent. The death knell for any attempt to save a naughty student in school is when the parents or caregivers don’t care. If the kid doesn’t care and the parents don’t care then the school is on its last legs. The only hope then – and it’s a mighty slim hope – is that you can get on with these students and coax/bribe them along the path towards pulling their head in a little bit and getting on with putting up with school.
This relationship thing with the naughty kid is a hard line to walk; you have to give a little but not too much.
At the moment I am trying to get two girls who are all over the place with their attendance to come to me in the morning during form spell, and stay in class all day. It’s going pretty well. They’ve had a pretty good week. Meanwhile I keep getting it in the ear from other teachers who quite reasonably point out that these two often don’t have their ties, or their shoes or jackets are wrong. I suppose from the outside this looks slack on my part. I suppose I should be dealing with the other stuff too, but at the moment I just want them to come on time and stay all day. I think that this is more important. Never mind, I know how it looks from the outside. I get angry though when after all my coaxing and bribery these girls get chucked out of class in one minute flat for not having a tie. Of course they should have their ties, and we can’t have double standards, but it’s not about that usually – it’s about teachers getting fed up with kids and not giving them a chance (after all, they’ve had 1001 already).
Sitting in a meeting yesterday with a DP and social worker going through our list of problem kids one of us always knows a background story for each child which makes you shudder or feel sad. We are routinely told that we can’t do anything about what is outside school and have to deal with the kid when they are at school. This is true, but also simplistic nonsense. Poverty, or violence, or mental illness, might be outside school but they come into school too and hang around in those kids like a nagging curse taunting at the kid’s ear: “…you don’t belong here, this place isn’t for you, you can’t succeed in a place like this…” By the time a kid is 14 or 15 that nagging voice might be right. Senior school and grown up society isn’t very tolerant of drifting, diffident 15 year olds who struggle to read. What do I tell these kids to do? Go to class. Surely the answer in their head must be: “why?”
Let’s face it, school is a battlefield for some families. One of the two girls I am working with at the moment is the third sibling through our school. School went spectacularly badly for the first two, and the parents are sort of supportive and sort of horrendous all mixed in together. They must be sick of us. We keep on calling about the girl’s shoes which she never had, then we bought her a pair and then another girl threw them in the creek, and so it goes. In all of this back and forth it is never about the shoes of course. It’s about poverty, or its about trying to get the girl ready for a life which involves jobs where you have to be a bit stable and show up on time, and wear the right stuff. This girl routinely shocks me. One day she came into my office and told me that one of her brothers had punched her other brother in the face and smashed out all his front teeth. Her delivery is always as if everything is a joke, but this is just a way of disguising it. I think she is an appalled witness in her own life too. Gosh, she’s so funny, and quick, and hides everything with the puff and bluster of a master comedian. Somehow bribing her to just come to school and prove her teachers wrong with good class work (for a frickin change) doesn’t seem like enough.
Then again, we often don’t do the students any favours at our school. What a school needs is stability, consistency and continuity. I talked to a boy who was in my form class in Year 9. He had a different form teacher in Year 10, and he has had three form teachers this year alone. He said that no one goes to form class anymore: “maybe five people.” One of our Year 10 classes had a relief teacher for Social Studies for over two terms. A very good maths teacher left today and has not been replaced. I can only assume that her very tricky Year 10 Maths class will now be handled by a variety of relief teachers. The boys in this class will go off the wall (they don’t like change), and then I will be fielding complaints. My co-dean is going on leave in two weeks and I think I will be on my own until the end of the year. At the moment I spend my time picking up wagging Year 10 students, and calling parents, and arranging detentions, and trying to figure out ways to handle certain hard core characters better.
This has been a lame duck year; lacking in drive and follow through. The hardest thing in our current situation is to maintain your own personal standards. When kids are naughty you talk to them as if they know what the rule is they’ve broken, and they do – even if they never follow the rule they know what it is. Teachers are the same. Take something simple like duty around the school at lunch. It would be easy to stop doing duty. Very few people do it, and then there are those people who always do it. ALWAYS. I stood out at the gate at lunchtime and chatted with students and convinced a few not to go across the road to the dairy. It felt a bit pointless, and a bit lonely, but I know there were probably a few other teachers out there doing duty too. We should feel like a team, but at the moment it feels a bit like being stranded up on the ridge on Chunik Bair. I know people grumble about duty, but I think that the main purpose is not to break up fights, but to make the 95% of good kids feel that there is a friendly eye keeping everything safe and calm.
I can’t imagine this will be a popular thing to say, but I wish we – the teachers – were held to account a bit more. I’d like to be a better teacher, a better dean, but nobody holds me to account for anything. We get blanket announcements about failing to go on duty or incorrect attendance registers or badly written reports but blanket announcements are utterly useless as management and offend the diligent and hardworking. Difficult, challenging, one-to-one conversations need to be had so that people can get better. I’m not saying I want someone watching me like a hawk and bollocking me – but the idea that there is some kind of simple system to check every now and then that I am actually doing my job properly would be reassuring. I’d like to know that the twenty phone calls home I made today were being backed up by twenty phonecalls in total from the eight form teachers in my year level. But things are pretty loose. There are outstanding individual form teachers who put in a lot of work, and others who, well… not so much. Then again, as was pointed out to me recently: what training do form teachers get? None. What training, for that matter, does a DP get? Wouldn’t it be nice for our form teachers for example to have a clear school wide plan to follow, to receive training, to get support in the initial rough patch, and then have a couple of check ups through the year followed by a bit more help or perhaps even some praise. I imagine that would be quite uniting and effective.
Having no plan, and no training, and haphazard support and no real follow up breeds disunity, and inconsistent practice.
I get the feeling, for example, through talking to Mr. Bastard and reading his blog that he often finds that teachers don’t supply work for relief, or print off a roll, or go where they are supposed to. This is a fairly depressing thought. Today I had a fight with a Year 10 Social Studies class that I was assigned to cover because they wanted to play basketball instead of do Social Studies. Turns out they have one lesson a week with a non-Social Studies teacher and that this teacher takes them to the gym. No work or roll was supplied to me for this spell. I got some off the regular teacher and we booked the library for them. They were not happy. I was not happy. When I was handed a one off, split class, Year 9 Maths class with another non-Maths teacher a few years ago I was under the delusion that I should attempt to babysit them through some Maths. So I did. It wasn’t the best, but we got there.
Perhaps what we need then is a consistent school-wide plan on relief, and some training, and… oh, nevermind, I said it before, a bit further up about something else.
We need a leader with a plan, and follow through. That’s what I’m saying. At the moment we are about as directionless as this post. With direction and follow through we could begin to feel like we were heading somewhere and that we were accountable to something. At the moment the gaps in our practice our widening, and we are not doing as well as we should be. As we should be for the students. Especially for the ones who are the hardest to deal with and need all that coaxing and management, so that we don’t hand them a lifelong legacy of misery and frustration that they will in turn pass on to their children. I think our school has the potential to be great. I honestly believe we could be one of the top schools in the region, and one of the best in the country for our decile. Everything is there except a leader who has the same belief, and the capability to make it happen by taking us with them.