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.



#blogsync: Dear Mr Tristram Hunt, these are my thoughts on education and teaching.

Dear Mr. Tristram Hunt,

To be honest, it’s very hard to put the reality of teaching into words. How would I even begin to explain to an ‘outsider’ about the job that gives me so much joy & so much frustration; the job that lifts my spirits & saps all my energies; the job that I willingly give so much to and yet it is never enough.

I think after that contradictory start, I need to explain further.

The students, my colleagues and the wonderful Tweachers are everything that’s amazing about education.

The students keep me inspired through their never ending fight to be better, to understand and to grow.

Sadly, so many of my students have to keep fighting at home. I was fortunate enough not to grow up facing the struggles of many students: abuse, parents fighting addiction; the care system; neglect. Every day they amaze me with how strong & courageous they are just to put on their school blazer and walk through the front doors. They make me want to be a better teacher. They make me fight for them until I have nothing left. I do not want them to face a life where they have to keep fighting every day once they leave my care.  But this takes a toll. This drains you as a teacher, and a person, especially when you teach several students in this situation each year.
All of the students I have taught have left a lasting impression on my life, my heart & my teaching. (sadly, I can’t remember all their names, but I am USELESS with names – better with faces luckily!) I can think back through every year of my teaching career and recall countless students who have brought something positive into my life. Even the ones who have destroyed lessons, hurled abuse at me or just plain thrown things at me all come with at least on positive memory.

My colleagues support & inspire me.

My current school is going through a hard time at the moment (the DfE & Ofsted in the same week, was hopefully the end of the chapter of waiting and the start of a new one) and we’re EXHAUSTED. Not because we’re lazy and struggle to work 9-3 for 6 weeks at a time like the press & some politicians would like the public to believe, but because we haven’t stopped driving for success since September. Our staffroom is a mix of enthusiasm, drive and passion but this can only be sustained for short times before you burn out. And this is why I love my colleagues. We push each other on. We motivate each other. And when all else fails we help each other to keep going. This was only too evident when we got the Ofsted call – the flashes of panic on people’s faces was quickly replaced by light hearted reassurance to make sure those who had never experienced an inspection weren’t paralysed by fear. And then the children went home and the work really started! I’ve never seen so many staff still planning, filing, marking & tidying until 10pm (and this happened at the end of the first inspection day too). This wasn’t done because we hadn’t worked until this point – the DfE were in the day before so surely everything was already in place? But trusting that alone was not good enough for us. We wanted perfection for ourselves, our school and our students. Yet amidst all this panic, fear & mild delirium we stopped and came together for Dominos. I’d never experienced anything like it: SLT, middle leaders & teachers sat together ate, joked & supported one another. No one was too caught up in their own lesson or worries that they couldn’t take the time for everyone else. (I wonder if Performance Related Pay will affect this mentality?)

The Tweachers provide me with the best CPD & guidance all day, everyday.

It’s great that you have promised to read our contributions to #blogsync but if you want the real truth follow us on Twitter. Read about our days, our successes and our failures. Get involved in #SLTChat or #EngChatUK or any of the other wonderful moments where Tweachers come together to support total strangers.
We use Twitter to find out about CPD events. Without Twitter I never would have known what a TeachMeet is (and if you don’t, you really need to if you’re going to do good in the world of parliamentary education), let alone presented at one & signed up to present at another. I would not have had the opportunity to attend and be part of the LATE / BFI winter conference or #TLT13 (Teaching & Learning Takeover).
Twitter is where you’ll find the realities of teaching, as are the TeachMeets & CPD events that are advertised through the many education related tweets.

I’ve tried to give you a balanced impression of what my current realities of teaching and education are so far. But I feel I would be doing an injustice to myself (and education) if I didn’t tell you about the realities that are long standing & have a, sadly, powerful impact. The countless policies and the endlessly moving goal posts make our job so much harder than it needs to be (not to mention the name calling, “enemies of promise”. Seriously?!) It’s hard to do your job when you feel unsupported by the ‘big bosses’, it’s even harder when you feel like we are constantly at war with each other. It’s ridiculous really as we seem to be fighting over the same core issue: what’s best for the students.

To be honest, I’ve never met you or Michael Gove so it would seem rather churlish to judge you both but then, from my research, you two don’t know much about being a teacher. I think you can see where this could head…
It would be very easy to go on the ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about’ rant, but where’s that going to get us? However, it does genuinely concern me that something as vital for a country’s future as education is being run by people who don’t know the ins and outs of it. I don’t wish to seem like I’m doubting your intentions, ambitions or ability to do good as shadow secretary for education but I am concerned, and a little confused, by the lack of experience held by many of the people who have held the posts both you & Gove hold.

People have flippantly thrown around petitions & invitations for politicians to come into schools, but I would honestly welcome you into my job for a week. I would happily show you the data of the 130 children I work with each fortnight and give you a detailed description of the personality, learning styles, disruptive tendencies and personal issues of each one. Then, I could tell you where each class was in the scheme of learning and the assessments they are working towards, as well as the deadlines! This would lead nicely into me teaching you how to find the resources, books, way round the school, my diary and all the contact details for parents – just in case. Oh and my marking pile – that damn thing never gets smaller, only bigger! Before I left you to plan for the week ahead.

I’m not beginning to suggest that I could do your job, I don’t have enough experience for that… yet! But if you are genuinely interested in the realities of teaching (and I so hope you are, because then my faith in those that are in charge of my job, my vocation and my passion would start to be restored) you need to experience it firsthand as well as talking to teachers honestly and listening to them being honest.

But if you ever fancy being ‘Mr Hunt, English supply teacher in for Mrs Keenan’ for a week you know where to find me.

Yours sincerely,