Please sir, why don't we get on?

The relationship between teacher and pupil is a complicated one, and can sometimes be hard to handle - but understanding how it all works can make a big difference.
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The Independent Online
Manor Primary School belies its name. There is nothing palatial or rural about this large Victorian monolith, that cannot help but impose its authoritarian presence over the small terraced houses that sit a mere stone's throw from the railed-off, grim, grey playground in Stratford, East London.

Inside the school, however, it couldn't be more different. Empty of children for the day, the staff are taking time out to look, not for the first time, at various issues surrounding children's behaviour. The particular focus is "Conflict and Change", led by a Newham-based training organisation of the same name.

The first session focuses on anger management: not the children's but the teachers' own. What makes them angry? How do they usually react, with children and adults? Participants analyse a role play of a typical classroom altercation to inspect their hidden fears and needs when they get into arguments with pupils. They then identify their natural style of handling conflict, and classify it as either "Attack, Avoid or Assert".

Participants look at how and why children disrupt lessons, then share experiences of effective strategies for managing both their own behaviour and that of troublesome children. The headteacher, Terri Moore, chose the Conflict and Change team specifically to help staff to develop greater self-awareness while extending their repertoire of strategies to manage conflict in the classroom.

Unusual things are also happening 120 miles away in a Birmingham suburb. Ninestiles School, a secondary school of 1,220 pupils, has recently won plaudits from school inspectors and Government ministers for its growing academic success story and falling exclusions in a less than prosperous catchment area.

Ninestiles operates what, at first sight, seems like a traditional behaviour policy that puts the students' actions centre stage. Class teachers have available a set scale of "consequences" appropriate to first, second, third and so-on reprimands that they can apply throughout a lesson, quickly and uncontroversially, to help keep the class focused on learning.

All students know about the scale, which is applied consistently throughout the school. Known as Discipline for Learning, it is the same programme that was applied with such disastrous results at the now infamous Ridings School in Yorkshire before it was bailed out. What matters, then, is not the existence of a behaviour policy as such, but the understanding, ethos and context within which any policy is implemented.

Many features set Ninestiles apart, but there are two of immediate relevance. First, the school has a computerised recording system for reportable consequences that enables the senior pastoral staff led, by Garry Llewellyn, to see patterns over time, not only in the behaviour of particular students, but also in the tendency of individual teachers to impose "consequences" and on whom - all information being available at the push of a button.

Second, and more important, its implementation system mirrors the school's ethos of trust and openness by delaying the imposition of higher level "consequences" to allow the student's side of the story to be heard; it is the pastoral head, not the subject teacher, who takes the final decision. If any student believes she is being "picked on" unfairly, or if a teacher wants to review his own classroom practice, the computer will conveniently provide valuable evidence.

What links these two schools is an open awareness that conflict between teacher and pupil is often subtle and complicated. It cannot be explained away by simple notions of impossible children or incompetent teachers, that are the ready excuses of many who exclaim on the subject in the public press.

These schools acknowledge a variety of contributory factors. There are at least four other causes of classroom conflict. First, there are straightforward personality clashes, where the two parties seem to rub each other up the wrong way and sparks fly: it happens between adults, so of course it is possible between teacher and pupil.

Children are particularly attuned to this. There can't be a parent in the country that hasn't heard the accusation: "He's got it in for me. I'm always being picked on." Or: "With Mrs Y, it's always my fault." And their child just could be right.

While it can be hard to verify, unless you attend Ninestiles School, most serious head teachers know it can happen. George Varvana, a past president of the National Association of Head Teachers, which is currently producing a document Towards a Non-Violent Society: Checkpoints for Schools, acknowledges that he has sometimes moved a pupil to another class, but only after several attempts to resolve matters.

"One case started as a small dispute over the marking of a test. The pupil felt aggrieved, and the teacher refused to budge. They then both took a personal stand against the other and there were further incidents, despite discussions. Moving the child ended the matter."

Second, there can be a mismatch between the teacher's preferred teaching style and the student's natural learning style, leading to frustration and boredom which so often fuel trouble.

"In any one class, on average, up to 25 per cent of pupils will be particularly well-matched with a teacher's style, while 25 per cent will be missed by a mile," says Bryan Stoten, of Public Management Associates, who has used a particular personality inventory, called the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), with teachers to increase their awareness of their own and their pupils' styles and interactions.

There is a similar scheme for children. This approach, along with the increasingly popular "seven intelligences" - different approaches to learning, developed by Howard Gardner, the Harvard-based world expert on learning - offers a new way of looking at an old problem, but one that hasn't always been recognised.

Dexter Hutt, the head of Ninestiles School, acknowledges that some good teachers will meet all learning styles implicitly. Nonetheless, his school now ensures that this awareness is being planned into all schemes of work, using a pro forma grid headed: Matching Teaching Styles to Learning Styles.

Teachers are choosing to team teach with another to aid professional development. "We have developed a culture in which they observe each other regularly without feeling threatened," says Dexter Hutt. "Conflict can be exaggerated or minimised by the ethos of a school, and teaching styles are similarly influenced."

Gone are the days when teachers read out the identical lesson year after year, though George Varvana points out that current government initiatives contain a paradox: he fears that the obsession with standards is creating a standardisation that cannot take into account the diversity of learners.

"It is in the nature of schooling to gather people together to deliver the same information; however, individuality is the dynamic which makes it so exciting, and more likely to be successful. We have been diverted from the fundamental truth of education - the quality of the relationship between child and adult," he says.

A third factor that can explain classroom clashes is, of course, stress. Most teachers know from experience that family trauma can make children act up in school, though spotting the cause of the trouble without prior knowledge can be tricky. Not many schools assemble the whole staff first thing every morning to share any fresh information about the welfare of the pupils to increase awareness, as does Ninestiles.

But trouble at home affects teachers too. Even the most competent professional can become vulnerable, rising inappropriately to challenges or seeing insults where none were intended, especially if they are coping with divorce, bereavement, difficulties with their own children, or even an Ofsted inspection.

Anita Higham, principal of Banbury School, Oxfordshire, has an insight gained from 20 years of headship. She watches for signs of teacher stress, such as a noisy classroom, a sudden clutch of detentions or referrals to year heads. She will then approach the teacher, and may suggest some time out or professional support.

She also knows that even personality clashes can have deeper roots, that reach into the teacher's childhood. With more children entering school with emotional and behavioural problems, she feels teachers need greater insight about children and more self-awareness than ever, especially when working with adolescents.

Cathy Oliver, a primary school teacher in Stockport, agrees. Fairly new to teaching and finding her current class a handful, she is reluctant to blame it all on them. "Individually, I like them. I'm generally a calm person, but four pupils in particular can get me so worked up. Some days are good, some bad, and often I haven't a clue why." She's keen to develop her self-understanding, style and tactics.

One possible explanation for her problems in the classroom could be group dynamics, a fourth cause of conflict. Some classes seem to go all out to punish a weak teacher for poor learning. Others almost demand conflict for identity and survival. That's their only way of working, or working with particular teachers. If they can't cope with self-management, they wind the teacher up until firm or even aggressive discipline is imposed. Only then do they feel safe, especially if this is the situation that they're used to at home. This discipline may "work", but it's not a useful learning process, and teachers should beware of collusion.

As Anita Higham says, conflict isn't always bad. It can be creative and growth enhancing. Sometimes, you have to battle to break through. Dominic Regan, a primary teacher in London's tough East End, sees the positive from a slightly different angle. "Conflict can be symptomatic of other problems. If we shut it off, we'd never know."

Quality teaching is, then, an intimate, two-way process, that requires self-knowledge as well as an awareness of others as human beings. If neither the dynamics nor the complexities of conflict are appreciated, both teachers and children will ultimately lose out.

For further information: Conflict and Change, 0181 552 2050; Public Management Associates, 01608 664422

`Effective Teaching, Effective Learning: Making the Personality Connection in Your Classroom', by A and L Fairhurst. Available from Oxford Psychologists Press, promoters of Myers Briggs Type Indicator and the adaptation for children, MMTIC, 01685 510203

`Towards a Non-Violent Society: Checkpoints for Schools', available from Forum on Children and Violence, National Children's Bureau, 0171 843 6000, from March

Personality Flashpoints

THE MYERS Briggs Type Indicator identifies four different pairs of psychological preferences giving, potentially, 16 different types in combination.

What it helps teachers to do is to identify their strengths and see how to get through to children who have other styles. The labels describe preferences with which people feel most comfortable, but everyone can learn new ways. It is easy to see how a teacher and child who have both contrasting personalities and learning styles can have difficulty getting along in the classroom.

PERSONALITY CHILD TEACHER TYPE

Extroversion Introversion

Spontaneous, friendly, and likes

discussion

Likes ideas, small groups, observing

Likes activity-based learning

Tends to emphasise task, not process

Judging Perceiving

Needs predictability, work then play

Last-minute, flexible, fun, enjoy process

Clear lesson plan, dislikes diversions Likes generalities, lets students lead

Sensing

Intuitive

Likes facts, certainty clear directions and a steady worker

Likes possibilities, originality, and enjoys learning new things

Keeps an orderly class, and teaches through the use of questions

Focuses on patterns and relationships

Thinking

Feeling

Objective and logical, likes ideas, principles, and questions why

Subjective, considers values, thinks well of people and likes to please

On top of their subject and expects high standards

Shares decisions and uses an individual focus

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