A ‘Culture of Kindness’ Fails our Pupils

As educators, we are trapped between forever jostling rhetorics: a new wave of idealism that supposes all children can achieve great things, no matter their social background, versus a stream of accusatory headlines claiming again and again that pupils from specific ethnic groups or classes spectacularly under-achieve compared to their more privileged counterparts. But why this disparity? Why the gargantuan gulf between intention and reality? Why do we, the well-meaning teachers, consistently fail to practise what we preach?

The answer ‘low expectations’ is nothing new. Countless education professionals have written and spoken on the subject. Some of my colleagues have written much more eloquently on the matter. Here, our Head of English Jo Facer writes on low expectations with regards to behaviour management and here, Deputy Head Katie Ashford writes on the detrimental effect of ‘giving kids a break.’ I would like to discuss a particular experience that convinced me that a ‘culture of kindness’ damages children’s chances.

Last term, I had the opportunity to visit an inner-London secondary and shadow pupils as they navigated their boisterous school terrain. As I observed, I was struck by two pervading themes: hard-working teachers ripe with good intentions and all-singing, all-dancing lesson plans and, in every class, a portion of pupils who were seemingly disengaged.

In a history lesson, the teacher asked all pupils to complete a written task. Many acquiesced, intermittently writing sentences punctured with laughter and chatter. Some diligently refused. One boy put his head down on the table and doodled over his book. ‘Sit up,’ I asked of him. ‘Let’s have a look at the first question.’ I considered his lack of compliance to be down to lack of understanding. No sooner had he sat up and picked up his pen, the teacher interjected: ‘Leave him. He never does his work.’ Then, in a troubled whisper, ‘he has a LOT of issues. I always leave him to it, poor thing.’

This ostensibly insignificant moment characterised so much of what I have read and heard about our British education system: differing expectations for pupils labeled with ‘issues’, an admission of defeat, of letting pupils off, a culture of perceived ‘kindness’ that, too often, kills pupils’ potential before they’ve even had a chance to try.

I watched as he returned his head to the table nonchalantly and resumed his hour of utter, uninterrupted boredom. In that lesson, this year nine pupil missed out on integral knowledge that would have no doubt helped him in future exams but, perhaps more importantly, in the cultural fabric of his future life. This is not acceptable.

I don’t have all the answers. I am a new teacher. I do not have the benefit of countless formative experiences and proven expertise. But that moment, in a hectic inner-London classroom, taught me an invaluable lesson that I’ll harness throughout my career: being ‘kind’ is not always kindest in the long-term.

At my school, Michaela, we insist that every child works hard and perseveres, especially when it’s hard. Every teacher is of the same, unwavering opinion that sky-high expectations of all children are crucial. There really are no exceptions. Even for children with ‘issues.’ The result? Pupils sit up straight, take pride in their written work and engage in class discussion with enthusiasm. But this doesn’t happen by magic; it’s a truly difficult thing to practise. Human instinct tells us to be kind, to let someone off if they’re going through a tough time. But it’s imperative to get past that and focus on what is best for their futures. Allowing a child to give up at every hurdle dictates their future sense of motivation, ambition and self-worth. And no one needs this less than our most disadvantaged children.

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People Who Eat Together, Stay Together

The success of ‘eating together’ has long been documented. Countless studies claim that children who eat with their families are more likely to have healthy relationships, achieve academically and maintain psychological stability and wellbeing.

Coined ‘family lunch’, at Michaela we do lunchtime differently. Gone are the long lines of children counting pennies for a burger. Gone are teenage clans claiming plots in the lunch hall.

We seat pupils in sixes, randomly shuffled, with a teacher or member of support staff at the head of each table. All six have individual roles (serving the food, clearing up, fetching dessert and so on) creating a joyous demonstration of working together to reap the benefits of a cooked meal.

Pupils are given vegetarian fare so that any cultural group can sit together and enjoy the same food. We have a topic of conversation every day that, led by the head of the table, is discussed over lunch. Not only do these topics provide a platform to explain why we do the things we do (see my post on narrating the why), but it often gives us English teachers an excellent opportunity to speak about the joys of reading.

The last minutes of ‘family lunch’ are set aside for appreciations, during which pupils and teachers will volunteer themselves to show gratitude to someone. We hear anything from, ‘I would like to give an appreciation to Mrs X for helping me to become more confident when reading aloud’ to, ‘I’d like to thank my mum for teaching me how to iron my shirts.’ All we ask is that appreciations are specific and that they have something to be grateful for every day.

In this ‘Whatsapp age’, it’s hard to monitor how much time our young people spend communicating without distractions outside of school. Having daily time set aside to talk, eat and be grateful together is precious. It strengthens our relationships and allows us to have meaningful dialogues with pupils outside of the classroom. It’s a sight to behold and, without a doubt, the very best part of our day.

The Art of Narration

Why narrating the ‘why’ has helped me to feel more confident with behaviour management.

 

As Doug Lemov notes in Teach Like a Champion 2.0, reminding your pupil that ‘you want [him or] her to be successful and that you believe in and trust her intentions’ when responding to unconstructive behaviour will help your interventions to be ‘far more effective.’ This, he states, is because the interventions are ‘framed’ positively. The pupil knows exactly why you are reproaching their actions, and, crucially, that you’re only doing so to help them succeed.
 
While I have only been in the classroom for a few months and have much to learn, I have been lucky enough to observe this effective approach in action since September. What is perhaps best described as the ‘art of narration’ is engrained in Michaela Community School’s ethos and employed by every staff member. It is Lemov’s ‘positive framing’ but more. It is giving every pupil the opportunity to understand exactly why we do everything that we do: why we listen to teachers in lessons, advocate kindness, speak in full sentences, follow the page when peers are reading and so on.
 
We seize every opportunity to do this. Teachers will narrate the ‘why’ in assembly, during individual conversations with a child whose standards are gradually slipping, during lunchtime conversations (I’ll write on our unique ‘family lunch’ set-up another time) or by promptly explaining why they gave a pupil a detention immediately after handing it out.
 
Upon noticing that a pupil is distracted during a lesson, for example, a teacher might say something along these lines:
“It’s really important that we’re all following so that no one misses something vital and falls behind. I want all of you to succeed together, not just some of you.”
 
Trying to make these kinds of comments part of my teaching style has not only helped with classroom management (encouraging all pupils to be on task) but provides endless opportunities to demonstrate to my pupils that I really do care about them.

In the lead up to starting at Michaela Community School, the thought of managing pupil behaviour en masse seemed the most daunting aspect of my new venture. But this ‘narration’ method – coupled with consistent, school-wide behaviour systems which I’ll expand on in another post – has made it all the simpler. Our pupils are much more reasonable than I once imagined. This is because they know that we do things with their best interests at heart. We tell them this again and again.