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6,000 teachers, 3 continents, 1 problem

news | Published in TES magazine on 18 July, 2014

When we decided to survey educators around the world about behaviour, we expected a mixed response. But it seems that whether you’re in the UK, the US or Australia, the challenges are the same. Here, teachers give us their perspective on a growing problem

Behaviour is perhaps the most important factor in any classroom. The ability – and the strategy – to keep it under control can often be the difference between a teacher enjoying a long and fulfilling career and quitting the profession after just a handful of years.

Every teacher knows what behaviour is like in their school. But what is it like in classrooms across the world? Are students in the UK better or worse behaved than their counterparts in the US and Australia? Do American teachers, working across a vast spectrum of wealth and poverty, see more misbehaviour and poor discipline than their cousins across the pond? Has the newfound wealth of Australia turned students down under into little darlings or insufferable brats? And is there a promised land for teachers where behaviour isn’t an issue? Or is a war against disorder being waged across the globe?

TES decided to find out by asking more than 6,000 teachers in the UK, the US and Australia what student behaviour is like in their schools, whether it has worsened in recent years and if they feel capable of dealing with it.

The responses paint a strikingly similar picture regardless of the country. Thirty-six per cent of teachers in the UK say the standard of behaviour in their school is unacceptable, as do 39 per cent of US teachers. A smaller proportion (28 per cent) of Australians agree. Startlingly, nearly half (49 per cent) of American teachers say that behaviour in their school has deteriorated in the past five years, compared with 44 per cent of teachers in the UK and 35 per cent in Australia.

Most worrying of all, however, is the fact that in all three countries, approximately half the teachers we surveyed have been physically threatened by a student during their career, and similar numbers have been reduced to tears by poor behaviour. Such figures are impossible to ignore. They project an image of the teacher as somewhere between a benevolent guide and a prison guard.

So, in order to hear the stories behind these numbers, TES asked three teachers from the polled countries for their views. What is it about the neighbourhoods their schools serve, the students they teach and the parents they encounter that places teachers on the front line of the global behaviour battle?

Richard Vaughan

Ellie Ward, Australia

My high school is next to sandy beaches and calm, turquoise waters. Holidaymakers flock here in the summer and the town’s growth has been boosted by Western Australia’s mining industry. It is hard to spot deprivation and disadvantage in among neat holiday units and newly built homes.

The town has a laid-back attitude and employment is mainly in construction and retail. My school has 9 per cent Aboriginal students and the rest are white Australians. All this contributes to a certain culture, which at its best is relaxed and friendly but at its worst gives rise to some stereotypical attitudes.

The geographical isolation and lack of multiculturalism, combined with traditional gender roles, can result in pockets of racism, sexism and homophobia. Political correctness has not yet set its roots down here, so it’s not uncommon to hear troubling comments and slurs.

Most of the time students are friendly, engaged and hard-working. Low-level disruption persists, however, with students taking a long time to settle in class, talking over the teacher and calling out. There tends to be more of this behaviour in the lower school, when children are between the ages of 12 and 15, reaching its peak with the 14-year-olds. It varies according to subject and teacher, and the academic levels of students.

About seven years ago there was a sudden drop in students’ socio-economic status; we now score below average on the socio-economic index. Social housing increased and a new high school was built on the wealthier side of town. Enrolments at the three local private schools went up, while our numbers almost halved. As a result, some academic subjects were dropped from the curriculum at my school and members of staff were dismissed.

Slowly, greater behavioural challenges arose: verbal abuse, walking off school grounds for a smoke, refusing to follow any instructions at all and visits from the police. The school’s leadership struggled and teachers felt unsupported and unable to cope. As a result, staff morale plummeted and so did the school’s reputation in the community.

Disadvantage is bound up with high stress and low literacy levels. Many students are from single-parent families that have to cope with financial worries, difficult jobs and demanding children. There are also problems with drugs, alcohol, crime and abuse. For students, concepts such as “appropriate behaviour” and “expectations” are problematic when you have been given no parental boundaries. And when you are under constant pressure at home, anything could trigger an angry outburst.

A troubled background often results in difficulties with reading and writing. At high school, needing extra help carries a stigma and often these students have already developed a huge array of avoidance tactics. It is better to constantly get in trouble than to bear the shame of being “dumb”.

Our biggest challenge is to support disengaged and struggling students in the lower school by continuing to develop an enjoyable and relevant curriculum that equips them with the skills they need. Our vocational and university-bound courses in the upper school provide the older students with a clear goal and structure for their learning, and we need to offer that to the younger ones.

My school has worked hard over the past year to improve behaviour and a recent parent survey reveals an improved community perception. I would put our success down to new leadership, an effective behaviour policy, a better school environment and greater parental involvement.

A new, enthusiastic principal has given the school a clear vision and ensured that staff have more of a voice. Our positive behaviour policy makes expectations explicit and consistently provides rewards and consequences. Our grounds and buildings look smart and attractive, so everyone feels a sense of pride. A concerted effort is being made to encourage parental involvement and contact with home has increased. Feedback is welcomed.

For students who come from low socio-economic backgrounds, the values of home and school invariably clash, and that is why it is so important to make those values clear and meaningful. Students need to know that they are respected and supported, and that their teachers care enough to stop them when they head in the wrong direction.

Ellie Ward is an English teacher in Western Australia

Seth Robey, US

I teach in one of Chicago’s more affluent areas, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier. In wealthier suburbs, most students are not directly exposed to poverty, gangs, violence or other problems common to inner-city life. But family issues and pressure from peers, parents and school can weigh heavily on them.

And that is not to say that diversity is insubstantial in schools such as mine. Income, race, family make-up, levels of parental involvement and student achievement are all over the spectrum. Although this variety is exactly what attracts many families to live in our town, it brings a diverse set of student requirements. One of students’ most powerful needs is a sense of belonging; a lack of this seems to be behind much of the bad behaviour I see in class.

Many students have little to no peer interaction outside school. Young people in my area have access to various group activities, but I have noticed that in recent years they seem to spend much more time at home, probably in their own rooms. Whereas 10 years ago, students would be visible all over the downtown area, especially during the summer, numbers have decreased noticeably.

Much of this is because students are spending more and more time online, where they maintain virtual social lives. But this is never a substitute for face-to-face interaction, and many children misbehave to get attention. If students have impulse-control issues, hyperactivity or poor social skills, the problem is exacerbated.

The survey reveals that between a third and half of teachers in the US, the UK and Australia think behaviour has deteriorated over the past five years. What would cause this? I believe the internet is playing a significant role, because of an increase in anxiety about cyberbullying along with other factors such as school violence, economic issues and a reduction in consequences. In my area, most students have the newest smartphones and the latest clothes, but many have very little understanding of accountability for their behaviour and performance.

Parents often play a part in this. As the survey shows, the vast majority of teachers believe that parents should take responsibility for their children’s behaviour at school. But in my experience, although some do hold their children accountable, other parents act more like defence attorneys, assigning responsibility to everyone, even themselves, but never to their children.

Some students do next to nothing for the entire year, and when graduation comes and their names are not on the list, their parents eventually get involved. In the final weeks parents negotiate, plead and even threaten in order to make sure their child passes. This pressure forces schools to provide unnecessary special accommodations to students, inflating grades and watering down expectations.

As a result, there is a trend to eliminate any type of consequence for all but the most serious incidents. Suspensions, detentions, expulsions and fail grades all show up as statistics that can tarnish a school’s glossy image. Reducing them improves the school’s reputation in the eyes of the community and the school board, and lessens conflict with assertive parents.

This sends the message that following rules is optional. Students who are not held responsible for their actions continue to behave this way into adulthood, when the consequences suddenly become very real.

Factors like social media, rises in school violence and economic problems may be out of our control, but the behaviour of our students doesn’t have to be.

Seth Robey is a science teacher in Chicago, US

Tom Bennett, UK

I work in Tower Hamlets in East London, one of the poorest boroughs in the UK, with concomitant levels of unemployment, free school meals and students who speak English as an additional language. Many children here have limited understanding of tertiary education and few have a family member to act as an academic or professional role model.

These are the young people who don’t have connections, who can’t get work experience in magazines and laboratories because the networks don’t exist. Like all children they are brimming with potential, and any teacher worth their rum ration treats their education as a privilege and an enormous responsibility.

A lot of the survey results chime with the kind of schools I work with and with my own school, too. Optimists will be heartened by the fact that many teachers responding to the survey report that behaviour is pretty good in their schools and that they have been adequately trained to handle it. But there is also a dark side to these numbers: 36 per cent of UK respondents believe behaviour isn’t acceptable in their school; 44 per cent think it has worsened in the past five years; and nearly a third (29 per cent) don’t feel suitably trained to deal with the problem.

This reflects my experience as behaviour adviser for TES and makes for pretty harrowing reading. One in three schools is not making the grade for behaviour, according to respondents. Is it any wonder teachers feel so beleaguered? No teacher should walk into a classroom without feeling ready for what they will encounter, but many do, because behaviour training is stapled on to most teacher education as an afterthought.

Beyond this, 89 per cent of UK teachers believe that parents should play a vital role in children’s behaviour, while 24 per cent report that parents have told them how to manage their child’s behaviour, which could be a help or a hindrance. At schools like mine, almost all parents are supportive of the need to educate their children, with the genuinely uninterested comprising a tiny fraction of the cohort. But how parents express that support can often vary: from default deference to the school’s authority, to line-by-line scrutiny of its decisions.

Every teacher knows that children do not spring into being at the school gates: there is always a family, a history. And, sadly, 26 per cent of teachers have had parents demanding that their child be exempt from school rules. Every parent thinks their child is exceptional and few would believe half of what their little angels get up to in school – or, more likely, they wouldn’t want to believe. Parents in working-class areas, such as the one I teach in, often have a strong commitment to the concept of family loyalty, and that can manifest itself in a conflict of interest.

Most teachers happily agree that corporal punishment has no place in their behaviour repertoire, thankfully. I’ve yet to meet a teacher who thinks otherwise – at least openly. I have met many older teachers who fall into the “it didn’t do me any harm” camp, however. So perhaps that explains the worrying 14 per cent of UK teachers who report being ambivalent towards or even supportive of corporal punishment.

And then that last, terrifying statistic: just under half of UK teachers (47 per cent) have been physically threatened by a student. The big-ticket headlines on this are rare, but the infrequency of serious attacks masks a darker truth. Violence from children is a threat that many teachers will face during their careers. This should give pause for thought to teacher trainers, school managers and those who argue for endless, pointless appeasement. Rarely does a teacher who has experienced physical violence at school treat this issue lightly.

Tom Bennett is a religious education and philosophy teacher at Raine’s Foundation School in London and TES behaviour expert. Read more from Tom on his TES Connect blog


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