Chances aren't helping

So I’ve worked something out. It’s not that I don’t care about teaching. No, it’s not that. It’s just that I can see the fundamental faults of our system that everybody seems to ignore. Maybe not ignore but are powerless to do anything about.

A flaw so big that it will take a long time to come back from, if it’s possible to come back at all. It’s the reason so many teachers are flooding out of the profession, it’s the reason I am feeling so disillusioned with a career that was supposed to sustain me for the rest of my working life.

Consequences. Or the lack thereof.

How many chances are too many? Do those chances ever run out? It seems they only run out for those students that take their choices to the very extreme-violence, aggression, severe anger issues. These kids might be the ones we hear about. Those that get suspended or expelled and are bounced from school to school wreaking havoc in every setting they are placed in. Their Individual Behaviour Plan ticking the paperwork box but not actually achieving anything in the real world.

What if those kids were given consequences well before they reached this point? What if those students (those students that all teachers know from kindergarten are going to be problematic as they progress through primary school) are faced with consequences immediately? As in, even for the smaller offences? Swearing, backchat, attitude, refusing to complete work, refusing to follow instructions, being disrespectful. What if these kids faced consequences for those actions as soon as it happens? Would it still progress further? It goes back to the age old saying- give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. Would things be different if we didn’t give them that inch in the first place? A child is not equipped to understand consequences. This is learnt. A child quickly realises that they can behave a certain way and not receive any consequences so they push further. When they realise even that doesn’t result in a consequence, they keep pushing. The cycle becomes ingrained and their behaviour choices continue to become more extreme as time goes on. In my eyes, we are doing students a disservice teaching them this way. Ultimately, we set them up for failure because we don’t get so many chances in the real world. At the end of the day, students want boundaries, they crave routines, they want to know that they can’t get away with everything. So why do we let them?

The amount of times I have had to give a student an extra chance/chances because they ‘are not ready to make a good choice right now’ is too many times. The same kids the school continues to have problems with. The same kid who never seems to be in the right frame of mind to ‘choose to make a good choice’. I put this line in inverted commas because this is common language spoken throughout schools today. I’ll be the first to admit I have used it myself. But what is this actually saying? It’s purpose is to give the student some extra thinking time in the hope that they use it wisely and make a better choice. In my experience though it’s the same kid who finds it hard to choose to make good choices consistently. Where is the consequence? They’ve had their chances but no consequence. Students are human beings which means they are not dumb. We learn, we do, we create and we behave based on habits. I watch my 16 month old goddaughter avoid the pot plant in the house because she knows she is not allowed to play with this. This is because my friend makes it known that this is not a toy. The few times she has played with the plant she gets a firm tone and a solid NO. Yes, the little one cries and is upset but ultimately she doesn't go back to that pot plant because she recognises there will be a consequence for her actions. The way we think, the way we act, the way we interact is all based on habit. What habit are we creating for these kids? Choose to make a good choice but when you don’t feel like choosing that option, that’s OK because you won’t get into any serious trouble anyway. Setting them up for failure.

I was brought up old school style. It wasn’t a matter of me ‘choosing to make a good choice’. It was a matter of make a good choice so you don’t get in trouble. Simple. When I chose not to make good choices, there was an immediate consequence. Not hitting (although even the threat of the belt was enough) but sent to my room, missed birthday parties (I can’t count how many birthdays I missed. It became a running joke in the family when my dad would arrive with my sister and not me. Everyone knew. I was in trouble again). If you noticed, I said I missed many birthdays not just one. It didn’t take just one missed party for me to get it. My parents were acutely aware that consequences needed to be consistent. So consistent that I couldn’t help but ‘get the point’. I’ll be the first to admit that I was hard work growing up. Disrespectful with a motor mouth that never stopped moving. I look back and want to slap myself when I think of how I used to speak to my mum sometimes. But it stopped there. I didn’t fall further downhill than that. My parents instilled in me the values I hold most dear today-we are all human beings so should all be treated as one. They never allowed me to fall into the habit of continuing to make bad choices because they forced a consequence on me. I had to learn that my choices and my decisions were my sole responsibility and it became a habit that I would make good choices and treat others with respect and kindness.

Schools are a whole other story. There’s a claim that consequences are frequent and consistent but I’ll give you two examples from just my last week of teaching that proves this isn’t happening. This is from the last week only. And only two of many stories accumulated over seven days. Scary when you put it into perspective like this. I am one teacher in one particular school. Multiply this by schools and teachers and I shudder to think of how many bad habits are being learned across the country.

A student was unsettled coming back from lunch. They clearly wanted to be anywhere else but the classroom and they decided to sit outside the door in the hallway. I will start by saying that this is a known offender. A student that consistently gets into trouble and makes the same choices to get themselves there. The principal happened to walk by and had a chat with the student. I was then informed that the student was choosing to participate in the lesson outside in the hallway and they would make a choice to reenter the class when they felt ready to. Firstly, I’m not blaming the principal here because they are so tied up in the bureaucracy of the system that they have to build a rapport with that student and sometimes they need to make compromises for the greater good. Secondly, that doesn’t mean I agree with these compromises being the norm. Put your hand up if you think this student, a re-offender, a regular culprit, reentered the classroom? Give me a break! They became worse, distracted the whole class, drew my whole focus and then carried the bad choices into lunchtime where they ended up removed from the classroom for the last session. Why exactly did they need those extra chances? Why is it we always make excuses for these kids and give them those extra chances when in reality it is not setting them up for success? How is a student supposed to learn their actions have consequences if they are not modelled by those who should know better? Why is it acceptable that that lesson was completely ruined by a student who was eventually removed from the classroom anyway? Couldn’t that have happened in the first place? As I keep saying, I don’t have the answer but if this student has behaved like this for years, principals and school staff should be more empowered to take action. This student doesn’t need extra attention. They are clearly thriving off the attention they already get. Ticking those academic boxes means nothing for this student (not at this point anyway, the academic should come after the emotional aspect. They aren’t learning anything anyway when they are rolling around on the hallway floor). They need to be taught manners, respect and common courtesy to participate successfully in society. It really doesn’t matter how intelligent they may be. If they can’t socialise, treat others with respect and recognise their bad choices, being intelligent won’t matter anyway. They will end up failing in society. Failing to contribute positively to those around them.

My second example is very similar. I encountered a student on the playground. Total defiance. Completely ignoring me as the teacher. No respect. I wasn’t going to chase him all over the playground so I left him and told an assistant principal about it after lunch in the hope something would be done. The only response I got was ‘oh yeh he’s volatile’. OH YEH HE’S VOLATILE! Well I guess that excuses him then? He has a nice shiny label of volatile so it means it’s completely acceptable for him to bully other students, swear and carry on with no repercussions. How did we let it get so far? This student should be removed, thrown into a setting where all they teach is respect and how to behave appropriately before he can be trusted to enter a mainstream school again. How many chances does he need? His name has popped up since the student started at the school four years ago. Is four years not enough time? Has he not been given enough chances or enough opportunities to prove himself? And as an extension of this, how much learning time has he taken away from others in those four years? He gets no punishment, no consequences but the other kids do. Those kids I always talk about, the ones who want to learn and succeed at their learning. They get punished by having their learning time stripped from them.

I guess I’m just tired of it. The unfairness I’ve spoken about before. The fact that I feel powerless to change it. The fact that I don’t see it changing anytime soon. The fact that these kids aren’t getting what they need. The fact that we continue to focus on testing and ticking boxes and ignore the real issues at hand. The issues an Education Minister sitting in his pretty office fails to understand. The issues all teachers can tell you about. It’s not just about writing up a behaviour plan and hoping for the best. If we are going to help these kids, it requires radical change and a process so strict and so routine, the bad habits will be replaced with good habits. It’s not about being mean or too tough. In my opinion, it’s time to be a little mean, a little tough if we want to make gains and achieve something positive for these kids. Otherwise, they tumble into high school and are spit out into reality without the tools they need to be successful.

Before anyone thinks I sound harsh, it’s black and white for me. Maybe it’s time for someone to be harsh. Harsh but still understanding. Harsh but ultimately working hard for the best for these students. Stop giving these kids chances. We are not doing them any favours by leading them to believe there are either no or inconsistent consequences for their bad choices and behaviour. Irrespective of their backgrounds, hardships and home life, no one student is better or more special than any other. That’s the bottom line so I’ll say it again. No one student is better or more special than any other. Our time should not be wasted on giving chance after chance, creating behaviour plans and expending so much mental energy on these kids. Our time should be spent educating, teaching the curriculum and engaging students to be the best learner they can be. That’s a teacher’s job, now let us do it. If teachers don’t start standing up and speaking up now, nothing will ever change.

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