When the Adults Change Everything Changes: A Discussion

Pupil behaviour and how to manage it has been a persistently contentious issue in education for as long as I can remember. From educators who feel it necessary to issue harsh sanctions for the most minor of infringements, to educators who consider the concept of punishment to be an inherently immoral one and everyone in between, it seems the debate is not going to be resolved any time soon. 

I firmly believe that almost nothing in education is an exact science: It is seemingly impossible to isolate and explore the effects of any single variable whilst simultaneously controlling others. In addition to this, in my own teaching life, I’ve seen things being hailed as good practice one year only to be discarded- or even condemned as bad practice- the next: VAK learning was sworn by when I did my PGCE and was rubbished but a few years later. Charismatic teachers’ lessons were once criticised for being ‘too teacher led,’ and now schools praise those same teachers for their classroom management and questioning. Triple marking was once raved about as something that ensures rapid progress, but now researchers argue that the hours-to-impact ratio is unjustifiable.

Healthy debate is therefore not only advisable but necessary. Otherwise it’s dogma.

Given the increasing popularity of a ‘restorative approach’ to behaviour, I’d like to give my thoughts on the ideas expressed in When the Adults Change Everything Changes by Paul Dix. I am a full-time secondary science teacher of almost 14 years, over 4 schools, all in inner-city Birmingham. It’s also worth noting – lest you get the wrong impression – that I am not – and have never been – a senior leader. In terms of my writing, I comment and advise on anything that directly affects teachers- particularly new teachers. Hence my public opinions on this book and not on books concerning pedagogy, etc.

when the adults change

Handshakes at the door

No doubt, at some point online you would have seen a teacher (most probably an American kindergarten teacher) shaking hands with their pupils upon entry into the classroom. The enthusiastic teacher waits at the door while their pupils line up to receive their very own, teacher initiated, personalised handshake. After all kinds of twists, turns and high-fives, the uplifted pupils enter the classroom one by one. I must admit, it does make for some entertaining viewing!

While Dix doesn’t advocate personalised novel handshakes- in fact, teachers are advised not to fist bump- Dix suggests that teachers put their hand out in order to allow pupils to shake hands with them before entering the classroom. Dix does however acknowledge that pupils should not be made to shake the teacher’s hand.

Viral entertaining videos aside, I take issue with this as a suggestion. I agree with us meeting and greeting our pupils, but anything beyond a verbal greeting – to me at least – is initiating unnecessary contact with a child. Throughout my career I’ve been told that even a shoulder parry should be avoided unless absolutely necessary, so putting one’s hand out seems a bit . . .  well . . . too much. (Please note that I am speaking within the context of secondary schools. I don’t know enough about primary to comment. Dix, however, does not draw a distinction when suggesting the handshake).

I can see how the idea would appeal -those videos can be pretty heart-warming- but I think the advice exists for a reason and it’s probably in the best interests of both parties if a teacher does not put their hand out with the expectation that it will be shook by a child. Just last week I asked my pupils how they would feel if all us teachers decided to do this. The feeling was unanimous: weird. Having said this, when a child initiates a fist-bump or a handshake with me I’m happy to reciprocate, but I believe there is a distinct difference between this and when the teacher is the initiator.

Please note that I am not saying that doing what Dix suggests is violating some teacher standard. Rather, I’m merely arguing that it goes against what is commonly told to teachers and not for the better.

The main reason I took issue with this suggestion, however, was actually not the suggestion itself. It was more because I was right in my prediction that some not-so-good SLTs, particularly at struggling schools, will clutch to this and other ideas potentially to the detriment of their teachers. I know of a secondary school in Birmingham which has made ‘handshakes period 1’ a . . . wait for it . . . ‘non-negotiable.’ It would be an insult to the reader -as you’re probably a fellow educator- for me to list all the reasons why this is entirely unacceptable, so I won’t bother. While Dix does not advocate the former, I do believe that it is in the profession’s best interest for such suggestions to be expressed as exactly that: suggestions or ideas. Not saving graces.

teacher handshake

‘The Punishment Brigade’

This phrase is used on the first page and throughout the book the reader will likely infer that the author is not in favour of common sanctions i.e. detentions etc. Terms such as ‘castigate’ and ‘berate’ are used often, but the word ‘reprimand’ is never used once, implying- again, to me at least- that teachers who punish are somehow out for revenge and desperately want children who cross them to suffer. Dix states: ‘And the world is turning: children are less tolerant of nasty adults and parents demand more than just detention, meetings and exclusion.’ Nasty adults being who? The ones who set detentions? That doesn’t make you nasty in my books!

Multiple examples of teacher incompetence and outright unprofessionalism are given, but Dix makes no mention of the majority of teachers who issue sanctions calmly, justly and effectively. There is also the odd use of what may be interpreted as deliberate hyperbole (but I don’t think it is): ‘In another 20 years will we look back at isolation booths, detentions, and exclusions with the same horror that we look back at beating children with canes?’ Personally, I think even putting these in the same category is ludicrous.

Your behaviour policy sucks’

In chapter 10, and also throughout the book, Dix criticises the behaviour policies practiced at many schools. In essence, he argues that as well as being ineffective, teachers are ‘run ragged trying to chase and impose detentions.’ This is particularly referring to what is commonly referred to as the consequence system i.e. C1 warning, C2 warning, C3 30 minute detention, C4 isolation, and other similar versions. Dix is adamantly against the use of internal exclusion rooms and alludes to them being similar to prison cells.  

While I can see Dix’s point, in my experience his criticism of behaviour policies is only really applicable to policies which are not backed by senior leaders, i.e. poor behaviour policies. The problem of ‘chasing and imposing’ is only really a problem when a teacher is setting multiple detentions that pupils are not attending and are receiving no further immediate consequence from a senior leader for not doing so. If we take lateness to lessons for example, in my experience the best solution to this is when members of SLT do corridor sweeps shortly after the bell and impose a sanction on stragglers. By the same token, when pupils know they will serve a detention on the same day it is set -because a text gets sent home that very day- they do show improved behaviour the following day. In short, not every behaviour policy is long winded and ineffective. Many schools have got this right.

But in any case, one may conclude that Dix would be against any behaviour policy involving sanctions, irrespective of whether or not it is effective as he seemingly considers all common sanctions inherently immoral. This is something I fundamentally disagree with.

I agree with Dix in that relationship building is a teacher’s strongest behaviour management tool (for 10 of my nearly 14 years of teaching I ran a boxing club and had positive relationships with some of the most difficult pupils) but I disagree that punishment in the form of detentions etc. should not exist at all. If the aim of school is to prepare young people for real life, then it makes sense for school to resemble real life- at least to some extent. I agree with Dix that teachers should show kindness and what he refers to as ‘botheredness,’ (teachers showing they care) but we would be doing our pupils a disservice if we never punished them. It doesn’t make us ego-driven, revenge seeking psychopaths. While I believe Dix is correct in encouraging teachers to praise pupils for good behaviours via recognition boards, pupils also have to know that were they ever to tell their boss to ‘fuck off’ they will not be at work the next day, irrespective of their individual circumstances. Actions have consequences.  I guess this makes me part of the ‘punishment brigade.’

Punishment

Scripted responses

Instead of sanctions then, the book advocates 2 main solutions: Scripted responses and restorative conversations. Scripted responses are rehearsed responses to specific misbehaviours. For it to be effective Dix insists on consistency i.e. all staff must respond in the exact same way, with the exact same emotionally void words to the exact same misbehaviours.  Dix acknowledges that this approach is not ‘magic dust’ and will take patience and persistence. He gives examples of where this has worked in schools hes has been called into. 

In my opinion, the idea of a scripted response is good as a fall-back. When I was a hot-tempered NQT once upon a time, I think it would have been useful to have something to fall back on lest I lost control. I think new teachers would probably benefit from some training in scripted responses.

Restorative conversations

Restorative conversations aim to rebuild the relationship between the teacher and pupil following a misbehaviour incident. Dix provides a list of possible questions to ask the pupil, (What happened? What were you thinking at the time? and others) ultimately to get them to consider the effect of their actions on others and behave appropriately in future. Dix also suggests the teacher give the pupil a glass of water during the conversation. Again, he gives a couple of examples of restorative conversations having been effective at schools he has been called into. 

I don’t think any teacher would have an issue with restorative conversations as a concept. Teachers who understand the importance of relationship building have them all the time, albeit unconsciously. In the absence of sanctions, however, I cannot help but agree with Chris Keates’- the NASUWT general secretary’s- comments.

“What members are telling us is that in some schools, all that is happening is that the restorative conversation is seen as the sanction in itself,” Ms Keates told The Daily Telegraph. “And then pupils are thinking, ‘Well, there aren’t any sanctions here for what I do, all I’ve got to do is sit down and have a conversation with the teacher’. And so it isn’t a deterrent.”

And Dix speaks negatively about deterrents too.

Teachers often complain about not being supported by SLT with behaviour issues, and to add insult to injury, teachers are often blamed for the poor behaviour itself. I’ve been teaching long enough (and been a union rep long enough) to know that if there was a school that relied purely on scripted responses and restorative conversations and behaviour was still poor, you can bet your hidden stash of glue sticks that SLT will blame the teachers. She’s aggressive, they’ll say. He’s too negative, they’ll say. Dix adamantly states otherwise, but I think a no-sanction approach enables teacher blaming.

 

In conclusion

Many of the ideas in this book are clearly good practice e.g. the focus on positive relationship building, the suggestions for how to build such relationships, the concept of ‘botheredness’ and the use of recognition boards.

On the other hand, much of what is advocated or suggested requires ‘buying into’. The title of the final chapter: ‘30 day magic: The behaviour you really want is 30 days away’ is testimony to this. Again, to me at least.

I think the reason that I oppose the key ideas is because my approach to teaching (and writing about teaching) is rooted in pragmatism, whereas I feel Dix’s work is rooted in ideology. For example, Dix criticises the high rate of incarceration in the UK, whereas I don’t view this as something I, (as part of my role as a teacher) am obliged to be concerned with. Nor do I feel it necessary to compare school sanctions to prison sanctions, however similar they may be, as Dix points out!

Essentially, I believe any school that adapts a no-sanction and entirely restorative approach is taking a massive risk to staff and pupil wellbeing alike. 

Omar Akbar- Teacher; Author: The Unofficial Teacher’s Manual: What they don’t teach you in training and Bad School Leadership (and what to do about it)

 

 

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