David (not his real name) was slumped forward on his desk. To all intents and purposes, he looked like he’d fallen asleep or, worse, passed out.
“Are you alright, David?” I asked.
“Yes”, he mumbled.
As I started to give the class some more instructions, he suddenly erupted out of his seat.
“You teachers are all the same”, he bellowed. “You think I’m on drugs, don’t you?”
When such incidents occur, it is worth considering that they may be a consequence of things that are going on outside of school, and over which you have no control. This is not in order to provide an excuse for insolence or disruptive behaviour in the classroom, but in order to help you understand why it’s happening. You never know: you may even be able to help without realising it.
The event that I related a moment ago was, I think you’ll agree, somewhat dramatic. Other kinds of incident include arriving late, not quietly but with the door flying open and then slamming behind them. Or the pupil could be off school for no apparent reason.
On the other hand, there may be little outward sign at all. Sometimes, for instance, a pupil who is quiet in every lesson may be quiet because of anxiety, not because they’re hanging on to your every word.
Teachers aren’t psychologists, and nor should they be. If anything dreadful is going on at home, there’s a good chance you won’t be told about it anyway, because of confidentiality considerations. What you can and should do is provide a safe classroom by being consistent in your behaviour, approachable, and being as good as you can at your job.
That last point may surprise you. My job, you might say, is to teach Science. How is that going to help any pupil? But think of it from the child’s point of view. If his home life is disruptive, unstable or unsafe, the last thing he will want is to be reminded of it when he’s at school. If lessons are well-planned, interesting, and purposeful, the classroom environment will no doubt feel much more safe and nurturing than his home one.
So, what sort of disruption can occur in children’s lives? Sometimes, it might be economic. For example, the parents may be on zero hour contracts, meaning that they may or may not be home when the child comes home from school.
It may be that the family is living in short term accommodation, and perhaps just moved in from another borough, or has been given a month to move out and find somewhere else to live.
The family may have been given accommodation on the other side of the borough from the school, resulting in long travel times that affect the child’s ability to enjoy a healthy social life with other pupils from the school, or to find time to do their homework. (There are areas in the USA where school buses have been equipped with wi-fi so that the kids can do their homework on the long commute home.)
Or it could be that mum is ill, and the pupil is her carer, or the carer for younger siblings. Or maybe dad frequently comes home drunk.
What pupils need in such situations is what the Tavistock Institute in London calls ‘emotional holding’. This refers to the ability of a mother, and by extension institutions like school, to help contain the child’s emotional experiences. School, through its systems, frameworks and procedures, can help to provide a level of stability that is not present in the child’s home life. Looking at the longer term, it can provide a ‘way out’, a route by which the pupils can escape from their current situation and avoid repeating it with their own kids.
For an individual teacher, this means not only being consistent in behaviour, but also being willing to listen to a pupil if he or she starts talking to you about life outside school. It also means being willing to pass on information when necessary, ie when a child makes a disclosure of some kind.
For the school as a whole, it also means making full use of utilities like Xpressions, Emerge and Messenger. For instance, if the family are about to move out of the area, causing the pupil to have to change schools, it would be helpful to pass the pupil’s data on to the next school as soon as possible, and in a usable form. Or, to take the example of parents working on zero hour contracts, Messenger can be vital in letting them know how their child is getting on, or even that they have arrived at school safely.
You may never know if children are leading disruptive lives, and even if you do know, you may not be able to do anything about it, at least not directly. But by providing rules of conduct, and through using technology appropriately, schools and teachers can provide both stability and practical support.