It’s not the enthusiastic people pleasers you ever have to worry about as a teacher. Those ones will do as you ask pretty much all of the time, because that’s who they are. They are interested, curious, they like school and the things we do in there. No, the ones we have those endless, circular discussions about in the staffroom (or wherever) are the ones who are the exact opposite. For whatever reason, they are the ones who don’t want to write things down. They don’t want to stop talking when I am talking. They don’t want to sit still in their chairs. They just don’t want to.
I’ve always been quite good at these ones. I’ve never found it particularly difficult to turn them around, to get them ready to learn. I think this is why I have spent so much time teaching in the middle years of primary school. Years 4 and 5 are my favourite. They aren’t infants, so I’m not worried about all the self-care stuff, and they aren’t the top of the tree either, so I don’t have to open the windows even when it’s mid-winter and they aren’t ‘going out’ with each other (if they think they are in my class, they soon find out that they are Not Allowed).
The thing is, though, I’ve never really thought much about what it is I do, that makes me good with difficult classes. I don’t always get it right, I have to say, but in general, when I look back on my career, such as it is, the classes, and the children, who have made the biggest impression on me, and not in a negative way, are the ones with challenging behaviour at their heart.
It was only when I was faced with the challenge of my own little conundrum that I really had to settle down and try to analyse what it is I do. For a long time I thought I might be veering on the authoritative side in my parenting. Little children, and by that I mean the very little ones, are always getting themselves into life threatening situations. Those three little holes on the wall are just the perfect size for tiny fingers. The funny stuff in the bin looks like just the sort of thing that needs a taste. It’s so much fun being chased, and look! Don’t I get an interesting response when I run towards the road?! Even today, thanks to a certain lack of awareness of the consequences of their actions, and I’m not just talking about Sam here, I have moments where I expect them to do as I say, no questions asked.
But the older they get, the more I find that I am taking time to explain why I am requiring them to do particular things. Tonight, for example, they have all gone to bed early (leaving me time to write this). They have had a run of late nights, they are tired, and they need to be up early for school in the morning. If they want bedtime stories, or time to read, they need to be snuggled under the duvet with the beside light on rather than sitting down here, talking over the telly. They know that I am going to insist they eat all of their breakfast and have a good drink in the morning because it will be a long time ‘til lunch. They know that I won’t be saying yes to sweets because I am respectful of their adult teeth.
When I think about my classroom practise, I know that I am doing something very similar. No, we may not all shout out, because we need to give everyone a chance to ask their question, or say their piece. We may not disturb other people when we have finished our work, because that isn’t giving them the same chance that they have given us. We won’t talk over, or make silly noises, or laugh at someone else’s answers, because that is not how we would like other people to treat us. We want people to be able to ask their questions, to say when they don’t understand, because it is my job to help them to do those very things. We will sit up nicely and listen and say please and thank you, because that is showing other people respect.
Sometimes I have to admit that it is a little wearing to have to repeat oneself so many times, and there are moments when I wonder if my life is imitating my art a little too closely. Sometimes, the Down Syndrome means that we are treading the same old paths for longer than we ever thought possible. Sometimes I admit that I just want them to do what I want them to do because I want them to do it and that is that.
But the thing is, I am not in the business of bringing up unthinking automatons. When I watch Sam cross the road I get the heebie jeebies. He knows to stop. He knows to look. I think he might even know to listen. He certainly goes through the motions. But when he has stopped, looked and listened, he steps out into the road regardless. He has not yet understood the importance of the why rather than the what.
Sometimes I think that life would be an awful lot easier if my children weren’t that little bit more compliant, a little bit more obedient, because my life would be so much easier if they were. But then I remind myself of my disquiet when I hear these terms describing children in celebration. And I think about my son with Down Syndrome, and I think about my daughter. I think about people trapped into abusive relationships, at the bottom of the heap because they were compliant and obedient. I think of people who make life changing decisions that in later years represent opportunities lost, dreams sacrificed because they were compliant and obedient. I think of the damage done to countless generations because they were submissive.
So when I look at the children around me, both at home and at school, I know that the very last thing I want for them is blind obedience. I especially don’t want it when it is coupled with compliance. And I certainly don’t want to see those qualities celebrated in end-of-term assemblies. Yes, they need to do as they are told, yes, there are times when they need to do it straight away, no questions asked; but as they grow, as they turn from the children they are into adults, I want them to turn from obedience to discipline.
And that’s why, when I am getting children to do stuff, I will continue to explain, until I am blue in the face, the why as well as the what.