|Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (1943) - often used to explain poor pupil behaviour|
and educational underachievement.
I have taught children with Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Depression, Schizophrenia, Developmental Delay, Global Delay, Moderate Learning Difficulties, Severe Learning Difficulties, stutters, stammers and all manner of Speech & Language Difficulties, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Dyscalculia. I have taught children with all manner of physical disabilities.
I've lost count of the number of after school classes I've taught. I've lost count of the number of 'holiday' classes I've taught. I've lost count of the number of Saturday classes I've taught and the Sundays are totting up.
I have been leapt on by a group of ex-students at a bus-stop and bundled to the ground. My fellow bus passengers thought I was being mugged. When I stood up the kids mock-worshipped me for getting them all to Cs and Bs in their GCSEs. When I started teaching them at the beginning of year 11 they were all on E grades. Not one of them had completed any of their coursework. In our first class, one of them said: 'there's no point Sir, we're all going to fail…' He was living in care and going through a spate of arrests. He got a B in English Language and a C in English Literature. I've been telephoned by students on results day who harassed the school secretary into phoning me so they could all shout their grades down the phone at me, thank me through the medium of song and tell me they'd got their college places. I have been hugged in the street by students that I no longer even recognise. I have had students that I don't even know tell me that they hear I'm a 'sick teacher' and that I 'go deep with the learning'. I've had students hold photocopied pictures of my face up on their pens in assembly when I was leaving a school. I've got set 3 better results than set 2. I've had a seriously troubled student come back aged 20 to see me and say: 'I just wanted you to know that I'm not a dickhead anymore, Sir'. I've had parents send me cards that say 'thank you for believing in my son'. I've had a child give me a card that read 'I love you Sir (not homo tho)'. I've had kids who've come out and been beaten up by their own families say: 'thanks for your support, Sir'. I've had kids say: 'thanks Sir'. A lot. I have been stalked by kids in corridors and playgrounds begging me to teach them. I have had cards that incredibly challenging students have been secretly working on in the art department in their lunch times 'for weeks'. I have had cards that say: 'you've influenced me more than you think, Sir'. I've watched parents well-up with pride when I tell them how well their child is doing. I've had students from the most challenging of backgrounds tell me 'you're not funny Sir!' whilst failing to suppress an enormous grin. I bumped into a hardened gang kid whose attendance was so poor that I used to send his work home and harass his mum to make him do it and bring it into school. I used to address the envelopes 'Snugglepops' just to wind him up. He said to me: 'One word, Sir: uni!' and pointed at his chest. I've had kids say: 'I have to behave for you Sir because if I don't you'll kill me. And your eyebrows will do that weird thing...'. I've had kids draw me cards with my eyebrows doing that weird thing (complete with annotations: 'angry face - like everyday!!!'). I've had kids forget themselves in a lesson, notice me looking their way and put their hands in the air in surrender because they know what's coming. I've had kids say 'why are you so on my case, man?!' and a thousands variations thereof more times than I can remember and every single one of them has wanted me to teach them. I've had a kid who I battled and battled and battled with to get to behave hold his results papers, look at me in bewilderment at his achievement and say: 'I'm not gonna lie Sir, we would've been screwed without you…' It was the same kid who told me there was no point.
If Maslow has taught me anything, it's that he can be proven wrong.
The idea that insisting on the highest possible standards of behaviour and refusing to accept excuses for classroom idiocy engenders (or is predicated upon) some kind of dispassionate robo-teaching or a callous, humourless, unfeeling school environment is the absolute falsest (and most damaging) of false-causalities. The hardships of children's lives are not excuses to indulge them in failure: they are motivation to force them to succeed. Insisting on discipline and punishing pupils when they do not meet your standards does not show a lack of empathy - empathy is the very thing that drives that insistence in the first place.
The standard response that there is a difference between 'reasons' for poor behaviour and 'excuses' is moot on the whole. Everyone is well aware that there are reasons, some more reasonable than others. Either way, the learning culture of the classroom must remain sacrosanct if education is to yield the socially transformative potential that it so uniquely possesses. Even if this sanctity is not born of empathy but by a simple determination to just teach and sod the rest of it (a pretence I often use), the outcomes are similar in the hands of good practitioners: kids feel secure and they learn. Which for some, is a pretty significant transformative step in its own right. Ironically, and albeit only within the micro-community of the school, it is actually rigid behavioural boundaries that help provide the very foundation of Maslow's hierarchy: once sustenance and shelter are taken care of, the second block of his famous pyramid is marked Safety, without which love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation are all compromised.
But the very best teaching of the most challenging pupils is not really about 'empathy' anyway. It is, I suspect, about love. And love isn't always about understanding; it's about doing what's right. My classroom is the most benevolent of dictatorships but it is, and shall remain, a dictatorship nonetheless.