Paper planes


I don’t know a lot about the increasingly popular ‘no excuses’ rhetoric that is pervading the edu-landscape at the moment. I am sure it doesn’t mean that we just expect children to behave impeccably – no matter what – just because they happen to be on our side of the school gates. I’m sure it doesn’t mean that, should a child behave poorly, they are immediately disciplined with the underlying message being that they should simply understand how to behave better especially now they’ve just been caught out. I’m also sure it doesn’t mean that the longer a teacher has their high expectations in place, the less they feel they must work at ensuring their pupils reach that standard.

I’m sure a ‘no excuses’ culture does not mean any of that, when it’s done properly. I can’t help feeling though, that some people think that’s what it means. I can’t help feeling that there may be some teachers who perceive themselves to be great teachers simply because they have high standards of behaviour. As if having high standards is a silver bullet that shoots out perfectly formed and well behaved children without the teacher having to do anything.

In my experience this has always been the folly of student teachers or NQTs. They get very agitated talking about the children that ‘just won’t’ behave. I’m sure we’ve all had that awkward conversation with students or inexperienced teachers where we’ve had to remind them that they’re the teacher and getting children to behave is, kind of, their job.

I personally have very high standards of behaviour. I did when I was a teacher too. It was exhausting! Sometimes I used to wish that my expectations were lower just so I wouldn’t have to work so hard. I was always slightly envious of those colleagues (and I’ve only met a few) who would moan about the behaviour in their class but who never seemed concerned enough to do anything about it. They must have had it so easy! Instead, there I was, anticipating when, in my next lesson, certain children would find a way to misbehave and trying to work out how I could make sure they didn’t.

As a Head, I have never used the expression ‘no excuses’ to describe an approach to behaviour management. It sounds too ripe for accountability avoidance for my liking. I like high standards. I’m happy to support, and back up, staff when a child has misbehaved. But I must fundamentally believe that they did everything they could to prevent the misbehaviour from happening to do so. I am very sceptical of teachers bringing me a child who has misbehaved ‘repeatedly’ during a lesson or who has completed ‘next to no work at all. I want to ask them: ‘At what point did you step in and try to change it?’ I don’t want to find out that the teacher’s solution to the poor behaviour is simply telling the child to buck up their ideas. I want to hear about how the teacher put something in place to help the child improve?

I want to hear about paper planes.

Paper planes are things I expect every teacher to put in place every day. They should underpin every activity, lesson, visit, event that occurs in the classroom. It’s very simple:

  • Plan
  • Anticipate
  • Provide
  • Evaluate
  • Repeat

In summary, whatever it is you have planned, anticipate who, in your class, you would put money on struggling with it (behaviour wise) and put in place something that will enable them to get through it without falling foul of a telling off. Afterwards, decide if you could realistically put that in place next time and if you think that you could, do so.

This isn’t about lowering your standards for key pupils. This approach isn’t about mollycoddling naughty kids. It allows them to meet your expectations. And, when you think about it, that’s the whole point of the teacher. We think nothing of differentiating work before a lesson, so, why shouldn’t we differentiate for behaviour. I always think about how I used to take my class swimming. I knew which children to sit next to on the coach, who to send into the changing rooms first, which children needed to get out the pool five minutes before everyone else, and of course, the golden rule to ensure we never missed the coach home: no talking until your socks are on. With all this in place, every child – even the boy who got banned from the swimming pool the year previously – could go swimming every week without earning a detention in the process.

Planning Little Actions Normalize Expectations.

A good teacher builds these paper planes to make sure children behave. A lesser teacher sits back and allows children to fall below the required standard, believing themselves to have been carrying out their job description just through having an expectation that they wanted to be met. An effective teacher builds equity into their behaviour management and has, in storage, different paper planes for different situations. Less effective teachers believe that if a child can behave during quiet reading, they will automatically be able to behave during DT. They are outraged that glue guns, saws and screwdrivers often prompts behaviour that requires a little more effort on their part to keep things moving along without incident, fuss or conflict. A decent teacher understands that behaviour management is a part of the job that never stops. A poorer teacher believes that children should just know how to behave, all of the time, and if they don’t it’s their fault rather than their own.

I don’t know about ‘no excuses’. All I know is that, in my experiences, the best teachers develop a 360° awareness of their class’s needs and are therefore able to manage them effectively. Over time, fewer paper planes are needed because the children, not only know what is expected of them, but also know what these expectations feel like. In the end, there is no need for excuses. Not because your pupils are perfect but because teachers and children are both working hard to make the expectations a reality.

Sometimes the paper planes crash and the child misbehaves. When that happens, deal with the fallout and, remembering that you’re the teacher, build another one.

Unrequited Love

When I first met you, you were, to put it mildly, difficult to like. Abusive, violent and full of hate. You spent your days under tables or chasing after other children trying to hurt them in any way you could. You didn’t care for your teacher and, as far as you were concerned, I was the big baddie. I knew your name off by heart by the end of the first week. By the second week people had already tired of you.

I read information about you and attended meetings that were about you. It was clear why you were abusive, violent and full of hate. You had no cause to trust a single person and yet your love for a parent who had spent your entire life teetering on the brink of total collapse was, in many ways, incredibly admirable. I knew that you were going to play a big role in my life for years to come.

And so you did.

I saw a lot of you in the beginning. We would, not through either of our choices, spend many of our days together. You, cross that it was deemed necessary for you to be away from others so frequently. Me, trying to understand you; trying to get you to understand the order of the world within the school gates. I never shouted. I never got cross. I even tried to help you to read, write and calculate – when you would permit me.

I put in place as much support as I could for you. But even the professionals would tell me that you weren’t ready for their help. Something I still don’t quite understand. How were you ever going to be ready? I worked with your parent and treated them with the respect many did not.

Gradually I think you and your parent began to trust me. I wasn’t the explicit baddie any more. But I was naïve. I mistook tiny tiptoes forward for indicators of future successes. Over time these giant strides of progress never happened. We just inched on. And there were so many setbacks. So many times when things went wrong. Other parents would meet with me, feigning sympathy for you whilst baying for your blood. I understood their concerns. I shared them. But nobody seemed content with the concept that you were complex and that you couldn’t be fixed.

I remember hearing a story about you. A story that, perhaps, demonstrates how your brain had been programmed from such an early age. You were playing ball in the street with a friend. There was a big container of white paint on the road. You aimed, kicked the ball, and the paint exploded. It went all over someone’s car. Your friend legged it home for safety. You, apparently, stood looking at the scene for a quite a while before walking up to the pool of paint surrounding the car. You stepped into the paint. You walked towards someone else’s door, leaving a trail of white footprints. When you got to the door you slipped your shoes off and ran, barefoot, away from the scene of the crime. That is how you survive.

Luckily for you, and me, the staff understand. They work hard for you. Over time, through a combination of pastoral support, good teaching and bucket loads of patience, you began to enjoy school. You began to make proper friends. You began to learn.

Gradually, I think, you began to like me. It was surprising how important this was for me. Maybe that’s stupid. Maybe that’s wrong. But I took it as a sign that I wasn’t wasting my time. You stopped lying to me. You shared things with me. We even had a laugh. Your armour, occasionally, came off, and it was wonderful to see you as a child.

You still made mistakes. You still upset and hurt people. You still got angry. At school, we could all see this against the context of your progress. Outsiders could not. I had meetings with people who were convinced you were still the same abusive, violent and hateful boy from years gone past. I stood up for you. I never excused you or let you off but I had your back. You will never know the total number of hours I have spent trying to protect you. Sometimes I wish you did. As if that would enable you to change quicker. But I know that’s just me being selfish. You will never know. I will work behind the scenes on your behalf and you will continue to do better and better.

And then events out of my control began to happen. Things happened to you, outside of school, that nobody would be able to cope with. I am in awe of your survival. I cannot begin to imagine getting up and going to work after putting up with what you have had to. And yet you do. You never want to talk about it. You want to put it in box and ignore it. You want to carry on as if nothing has happened.

And yet these experiences seep out of you. You have become more fragile. Not a word many people, who do not know you as well as I do, would use to describe you. But you are. Fragile. Vulnerable. Full of anger.

I can no longer work behind the scenes. I have had to, once again, become a more visible presence in your everyday life. And you hate me for it. I try to explain that if only you embraced the support we are putting around you, you would find it easier to cope at school, but of course, you don’t see it as support. And I understand that.

It is easy for you to hate me. You hate me because I am always there. You hate me because my school and my staff are never letting go. We are persistent and consistent and we will not give up. From where you’re standing we are easy targets. We will absorb all your hate and anger and we will continue to wrap our care around you. I won’t give up and leave a trail of your footprints to someone else’s door. I am not going to change, no matter how much that frustrates you. I will always be your champion because I know, only too well, how much you need one.

It will be hard, but, it won’t be as hard as being you.