When I moved from primary to secondary teaching, the biggest challenge I face was dealing with behaviour. Whilst class management is by no means a walk in the park in junior school, nothing can quite compare to the ordeal of teaching a year 9 class, foaming at the mouths at the idea of some boundary-pushing.
So, after a series of really difficult lessons with a notorious year 8 form, I came up with an idea 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 our empathy skills, but secretly, I also wanted them to see other students from a school like theirs, displaying negative behaviour just as they were. I wanted them to see the impact that this would have on the school and the students’ futures. I wanted them to become by-standers, observing the poor life choices of others. I didn’t want them to feel like I was telling them what to do or not to do.
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. I was able to refer to this in the following lessons, not only in class but also in conversations outside the door with defiant wrongdoers. I asked them think about whether they wanted to leave school like Mushy or like Hannah; feeling like they’d given it their all and smashed goals they never thought possible, or wishing that they could do the last few years over again.
When it comes to poor behaviour, teenage hormones and ingrained bad habits, there is no ‘cure,’ but there is a lot to be said for learning about negative behaviour without directing it at your students. If nothing else, they always enjoy ‘watching telly’ and it’s never bad to be reminded that hard work pays off and bad choices come back to bite you.