Is honesty the best policy with students?

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationships we foster in schools. This train of thought was bought about by two different factors: starting at a new school and a conversation with our trainee.

Yesterday while talking to our trainee I found out that her uni had advised all the trainees not to tell classes when they’re feeling under the weather or have had a bad day. This advice boggled me: we’re told to be inclusive in our schools, our classes & our planning yet when we lie (or do a lie of omission) we are excluding ourselves in the inclusivity.

When I started teaching I wasn’t sure about total inclusivity in schools, but looking back now I know that stemmed from fear over my own lack of ability to adequately teach them and include them in my lessons. Working at The Romsey School I saw the inclusivity they worked so hard to create with the dedicated unit for boys with Aspergers Syndrome. I spent three years watching those boys grow and feel like a true part of the school. But more importantly watching young teens learn about Aspergers and accept those who had it and all their behavioural traits.

Watching this had a big impact on my and my practice within the 4 schools that have formed my career so far. At all 4 schools I’ve taught a wide range of abilities and backgrounds And I can’t bring myself to agree with the idea of hiding that I’m human from my classes. Building relationships based on two-way honesty is the foundation for my teaching style.
Having come into school with ‘flu, laryngitis and other everyday ailments I’ve always found it works best when I tell the students. No matter what ailment I’ve had I’ve always found my classes to be considerate and caring towards me. In fact one of my happiest memories from my career was teaching 8.8 with laryngitis: they spent the whole lesson either whispering when talking to me or speaking at normal volume with our TA. I can still remember the deputy head stood in the doorway silently laughing at the silent movie style lesson we were having! Their maturity and compassion went way beyond what many thought they were capable of displaying, yet I didn’t expect anything less from them. And this came from the strong relationship we had built, not as a class but as a team. I was so glad the deputy head saw them this way too, as he often saw only the worse sides of some of those boys.

I’ve had students drop in on me to make sure I was OK because I told them honestly the reason I wasn’t in tutor the day before was because I was at a funeral. And I’ve seen a class be so considerate towards me, without me saying a word, because they heard about the abuse that was hurled at me in town by one of their friends. That incident was one of my darkest teaching moments & I questioned whether I was doing a good job and whether I even wanted to stay in teaching. But walking in Monday morning to feel that level of consideration and compassion from a group of 12/13 yr olds reminded me that I had the best job possible.

Building a strong relationship with your classes isn’t only beneficial when you’re feeling under the weather or having a dark day, it has benefits for the students too. The time I take to get to know my students and the honesty & trust I demonstrate has allowed students to do the same to me. Over the years I’ve had students talk to me about running away from home; divorcing parents and more serious CP issues. I’m always honoured when they feel they can trust me, but I really feel it’s because I’ve shown them that I trust them and that I genuinely care about them.

Benefits of building honest relationships with students pays off in ways some aren’t even aware of too. Y11 boys in my class have stepped in and helped smooth out an issue between some of their friends & a Y8 in my tutor group. I didn’t ask them to do it, but I was late to their coursework catch up session as my lad was scared to walk to the bus alone and it turned out he was right to be as I had to break up the starts of a fight. When I returned to my boys they accepted my apology, helped calm me down & then tidied my room for me without being asked. I found out later they’d then gone on to talk to their friends and help smooth it all out.

None of this would be possible if I hadn’t taken the time to build relationships with my classes and treat them as what they are: people. Too often we label them as students or children and forget what they can be capable of if we give them the chance to shine. I’m frequently reminded of sitting in INSET in my first school listening to the deputy head tell us “A rising tide raises all ships.” He was talking about differentiation at the time, but I see so many more truths in it than just differentiation. Daily, I put this thought into my practice by expecting & looking for the best in all my students in all they do. So far (touch wood) I’ve never been let down; admittedly it can take some a little longer to reach the crest of the wave.

I love teaching and I love working with teenagers. I think it’s such a privilege to witness first hand how they continually destroy the negative stereotype teens have in the media.

Our students aren’t stupid: they can spot lies and lack of trust. But it’s out most vulnerable children who can spot those quickest and, sadly, that’s because they see them in their home lives more than a child should and it’s these students who need us to be honest and open and vulnerable with them. We need to model that behaviour to them, teach them how to be honest and open and vulnerable in the hope that they may find the courage to open up to one of us and ask for help when they need it most.

Ultimately I’ve come to realise that with teaching, like everything else, you get out what you put in. If you want honesty, consideration and team work from your students you have to give it to. Inclusion is the best gift we can give our students: they learn what they’re truly capable of and they learn about each other. But it’s only half a job if their teachers exclude themselves from that. Schools and classes create magic (and progress and success if we want to be more literal and less metaphorical) when everyone from the head to the cleaner, from the biggest sixth former to the tiniest Y7 are all on the team together.

And from my experience it’s so worth it.



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