We’ve had quite a topsy-turvy year in terms of behaviour throughout school. Our school ‘family’ has seen a lot of changes in staffing, including a lot of staff absence and cover lessons, and if I’m honest I think we’ve all come to realise that our school behaviour policy needs to change, much like the generations of students have.
So, in one of my more creative and resilient moments – it must have been the start of the term when I wasn’t quite so defeated – I came up with a plan for a one-off lesson. I planned to watch an episode of ‘Educating Yorkshire’ with my class. In this series, the cameras follow the lives of students, teachers and school leaders at ‘Thornhill Community Academy’ in Dewsbury, Yorkshire.
I told the class that we were focusing on the skills of empathy and understanding, but secretly, I really wanted them to consider the challenges facing school staff and school pupils, and really think about the long-term consequences of poor behaviour.
The attitude and behaviour of this specific class – or the majority at least – can be quite poor and afternoon lessons especially can be exhausting. When I have to speak to the class as a whole about shouting out/lack of attention/poor effort/volume, they nod along and make all the right faces, but their actions directly afterwards show me that they really haven’t listened or at least don’t care enough about my complaints to change their behaviour. Perhaps because I’m complaining about their behaviour, they’re too emotionally attached to the situation. To them, I’m just ‘having a go’ so their backs go up and their listening stops. Therefore, I thought it might be useful to remove them from the poor behaviour, and ask them to digest these situations and attitudes as neutral bystanders.
Throughout the program, we followed the stories of two year 11 pupils, on the cusp of their final exams, considering their future post-high school. I paused at relevant moments – skipping a few profanities! – as pupils discussed and completed grids in pairs, comparing the two central characters.
Musharaf (Mushy), who suffered dearly with a stutter from being the age of 5, was desperate to conquer the speaking element of his English exam and gain his C in English. We watched him battle with this, supported by an incredible English teacher, teaching assistant, learning mentor, head of year and Head teacher, all of whom showed genuine care for this boy and his journey to find a voice. Alongside this, we followed Hannah, a year 11 girl who referred to school as a ‘prison.’ We watched her turn up late to lessons and then run away from them. When she did attend class, she gave minimum effort and used the time to socialise instead. She admitted herself that she had come into year 7 with big ambitions, but had ‘fallen in with the wrong crowd’ and just stopped caring.
The comparison of these two students provoked some really interesting discussion. Students were quick to pick up on the fact that Hannah’s problem was her own choice; it was something that she could control, yet Mushy had no control over his stutter. “It’s about trying,” one pupil told us, “Musharaf is trying and trying so hard and only getting more frustrated and feeling like a failure… but Hannah doesn’t even try.” Another astute student commented that for Hannah, school was the prison, but for Mushy, it was almost like the prison was inside himself. He knew what he wanted to say, but the words just didn’t come out. Not bad for an 11 year old!
The end of the episode was a glorious triumph for Musharaf. English teacher and Assistant head, Mr. Burton, inspired by ‘The King’s Speech’, had Mushy reciting poems while listening to music, and feeling confident, and speaking, for the first time ever. He went on to complete his English speaking exam, and finally addressed his year group in the year 11 leaver’s assembly. It was emotional. My class watched – still; captivated. He left Thornhill with the grades that he needed to get into College, including a C in English. Similarly, Hannah had pulled it together enough at the end, realising that her friends were all leaving her behind, and finally buckling down to some hard work. She achieved 9 GCSEs from A to C.
As the credits rolled, we considered the end results; Musharaf’s glorious success as a result of both his own efforts and the incredible adults going above and beyond to ensure this victory; and Hannah, who had expressed a wish to start life over; whilst her last-minute change of attitude allowed for a better future for herself, we were left with the feeling that she could have been so much more if she had only made better choices.
Whilst I’m sure that I’ll have ‘bad’ lessons again with this class, at least for these moments and maybe even at some point in the future, they might be reminded that if you want to do what seems impossible, you sometimes need to try really hard, and that if you consistently make bad choices, you will probably end up wishing you’d made better ones.