Monday, September 11, 2017

GUEST POST The importance of respectful relationships between teachers and pupils

Sean Warren and Stephen Bigger, authors of Living contradiction: A teacher’s examination of tension and disruption in schools, in classrooms and in self, argue that positive relationships should be the basis of teaching.

The teacher in the title is Sean. English and American schools have for three decades been dominated by behaviourism, discipline and control by rewards and punishments, sanctions or consequences). The paraphernalia of punishments include suites for detention and the construction of booths for internal isolation and exclusion.

Sean held a position which organised and oversaw these facilities until he came to understand that the role contradicted his basic values. We suggest a different emphasis in which positive relationships are the basis of pedagogy, and emotional and behaviour issues are tackled without reverting, by default, to punishment, sarcasm, belittling and anger.

We ask that teachers do not inadvertently become the source of the disruption, setting up a form of resistance by independently minded pupils. Of course, this cannot mean ignoring and tolerating bad behaviour, for that way lies chaos.

It is hard for pupils to thrive in hostile authoritarian classrooms. Some becoming dependent, compliant and uncritical, needing to be told rather than to think independently, and others becoming anti-authoritarian rebels.

For the latter, if they select not to directly challenge the strict teachers, they often take advantage of other staff who are perceived to be weaker – fair game. In these situations an adverse ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude evolves as a significant minority of pupils exert a disproportionate influence on peers and the classroom climate.

Sean moved from his former authoritarian model, which he was good at, to one which encourages self-discipline in all pupils, even those who were deliberately resistant, through harnessing respectful relationships and motivated learning. In his own words he relinquished dominating control and became more reasonable.

Our book charts Sean’s transition over three school years, noting the risks and how different pupils responded, how he strived to win rebels over without compromising standards. This is not a move away from authority, because school behaviour has to be safe and fair. It is seeking a middle position where authority does not tip over into authoritarianism.

From this we argue for the importance of respectful relationships between teachers and pupils, seeking to guide pupils towards greater independence and help pupils to make major contributions to their communities.  Pupils who look back at their school years with affection and thanks were likely to have received effective and sympathetic schooling, whilst painful school memories leading to resentment suggest that relationships were poor and opportunities had been missed.

Low level classroom disruption is currently demonised in the press and by politicians as preventing the whole class making progress; but its context needs to be examined to ensure consistent and reasonable responses. Generating a climate of cooperation and collaboration between teacher and pupils is not achieved by berating, belittling and punishing.

Teachers themselves may be the disruptive element in some situations, and it may be hard to replace old habits of a life-time  ̶̶  but it is important to do so. This over time replaces imposed discipline with pupil self-discipline, within a climate of respect and fairness. A teacher’s smile or scowl at a class brings different consequences. An emotionally relaxed teacher is more likely to help a class than an up-tight one.

Much of the above sounds idealistic, at least with all pupils all the time. The challenge, in the short term especially, is how to cope with disruptive pupil behaviour without confrontation. There were testing incidents, and pupils bringing unhelpful moods from their previous class. There are pupils with attitude, sometimes with difficult home circumstances, who can be helped by patient intervention – as early as possible, even from infancy.

When these children experience only confrontation, they learn to survive through confrontation. If this happens at school as well as home, there is little chance of transformation. If the vicious cycle is not broken, the confrontational child will become a confrontational adult.

Education has a moral purpose, considering for example how people treat each other, how we interact with the environment and how science is used for the common good. Underlying this are questions of how we (pupils and adults) help to make the world a better place.

The improvement of ourselves as individuals, our communities and our world needs to be a top explicit agenda, taught by staff who enthusiastically believe in it. If schooling is not moral, it is either amoral or immoral, and a defence of that position might be tricky. Schooling can help pupils to become serious contributors to the community rather than mere consumers.

Can these thoughts change classroom practice? We have to recognize the sheer dominance of the ʻpunishment first̓ message supported by government, tabloid press, inspectorate and school managers. If there is beneficial change, it will stem from the bottom-up concern for the moral argument we have made for good adult relationships between teachers and pupils, basing school learning with hope and deep respect.

Respect of pupils for teachers, which stems from respect by teachers for pupils, and respect of managers for all school stake-holders young and old. Do that from nursery class through to university and motivation for deep learning will be transformed. Schools will have become democratic places where respectful views are welcomed and openly discussed without rancour. The pupils will have become democratically literate and interested in the political process.

If such a vision enthuses tired classroom teachers struggling with the latest jargon, we hope they begin to see their class relationships differently. And we hope these pupils will remember their schooldays fondly.

You can buy Living contradiction: A teacher’s examination of tension and disruption in schools, in classrooms and in self and follow Sean Warren and Stephen Bigger on Twitter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My but you all have become weird. And schools as 'democratic places'??

how ever did learning take place in schools past , the military and universities.
Yet people learned the three Rs, learned to drive tanks, learned to become professionals.
A miracle.