Reading, in Berkshire, is a typical British town. In fact, it was once considered by some to be the most typical town in the country. In the years following the Second World War, its typicality was of great use to a nation rebuilding itself: it was used as a sample to gauge the morale of Britons on the whole. How the people of Reading felt, it was assumed, was exactly how the country felt.
Town planners noted the town’s typicality and sought to utilise it further. Thus, whenever it came to introducing new traffic systems, the planners thought that Reading, as the most typical town, would be the best place to trial them. If the new systems worked there, they should be able to work in most places.
This, however, had an effect on the town that the planners hadn’t taken into consideration. Reading – with all of its new-fangled roundabouts, unique traffic lights and unusual road systems – soon was like no other town in Britain. They turned Reading from the most typical in the country into the most atypical town.
When we train as teachers, we are encouraged to observe other practitioners in order to hone our craft. This is great advice. We learn so much about how to teach by seeing how others do it. In many ways, we are looking for typicality: we are trying to understand the norms of a good classroom. One of the most frequent focuses of this search for typicality is behaviour management. We are advised to go and dutifully observe a particular teacher to learn strategies to manage the behaviour in our classroom.
This seems sensible enough: if a trainee teacher can walk into a number of classrooms in a school and come away with an understanding of the typical approaches to behaviour management in the school, they will be able to work on assuming those approaches in their own classroom.
But if trainees are advised to observe specifically-identified teachers, with advice that ‘this particular teacher is good at behaviour management’, this might be a sign that such teachers are atypical of the school’s general management of behaviour. This might tell us that teachers in that school work in relative isolation to establish the culture of behaviour in their classroom. Whilst we send trainees to observe these teachers thinking they will see typical behaviour management, there’s a chance they are seeing the opposite. As with Reading, our ideas might have backfired.
I think that the domain of behaviour management has, in the past, valorised the maverick. We have lauded individuals who have developed a gift in handling difficult behaviour. And whilst we may have much to learn from them, often we have been presented with arcane wizardry beyond our mortal comprehension.
I can remember doing a placement in a school with a challenging cohort and being told to visit two teachers in particular: one, an imposing 6ft-plus ex-army officer, who conducted the behavioural movements of the classroom like a symphony conductor, demanding discipline through the very cadences of his voice; the other, a tough, maternal teacher who seemed at once gentle and brutal, a bulwark made of feathers, magically providing a defence against the tempests of poor behaviour. I walked away from both observations with no idea how they did it and no clue how to replicate what they did in my classroom. Both of their behaviour management styles were inseparable from their very personalities; they had osmosed a lifetime of interactions in different domains into the subtle tics and acts of legerdemain: their behaviour management style was simply who they were. Sure, there were some things that I could take away, but in general, I left with more of a feeling of my own inadequacy than one of empowerment.
Now such mavericks have a very important place in schools. They encourage and enthuse pupils about education. We should seek them out and celebrate them. But we shouldn’t valorise the atypical at the cost of the typical. It is the systems and culture – and the teachers who follow and promote those systems and that culture – that make a school. In particular, we should venerate the systems and cultures of a school that allow a trainee can go into any classroom in a school and come away with an understanding of how to manage behaviour. We should seek out the typical rather than the atypical. And if the typical isn’t good enough, we should look to improve that, rather than look to the atypical for help.
With the publication this week of his behaviour report, ‘Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour’, its author Tom Bennett addresses exactly the importance of the culture of a school. It is interesting to note that all of the cases studies Bennett refers to are focused on what good schools do, not what good teachers do.
As Bennett explains, “The school ethos, its vision, and the strategies used to achieve it, must be consistent with one another, and must be consistently demonstrated. Rules and values that fluctuate too much confuse what the school stands for.”
Fluctuation is the state in which mavericks thrive. In order for typical teachers to survive, we should take Bennett’s advice and establish typicality:
“Any area of general behaviour that can be sensibly translated into a routine should be done so explicitly. This removes uncertainty about school expectations from mundane areas of school life, which reduces anxiety, creates a framework of social norms, and reduces the need for reflection and reinvention of what is and is not acceptable conduct. This in turn saves time and effort that would otherwise be expended in repetitive instruction. These routines should be seen as the aspiration of all members of the school community whenever possible.”
By establishing typicality, we allow “all members of the school community” to thrive. Even the mavericks.
As a young boy, my first encounter with the concept of mavericks was in the movie Top Gun. Indeed, Tom Cruise’s protagonist was so maverick that they named him, erm, Maverick. But I always felt more investment in his co-pilot, Goose. Maverick was one-of-a-kind: a success in the skies, in love, and on the beach volleyball court. What’s more he had the self-confidence to pick up a microphone and belt out an impromptu blue-eyed soul tune in a packed bar. Let’s face it, you’d have hated him if he was a real person. But Goose was the level-headed, regular guy. Goose was the standard; the average; the typical. He followed the rules and would have made it to the end of the film if it hadn’t been for Maverick’s folly (yeh, I know, the investigation panel clears him of any fault). If I was choosing a wingman in a school, it would be Goose. Schools need Gooses more than Mavericks.
Teachers: be more Goose. And schools: establish the conditions and culture in which Goose can make it to the end of the film. I feel the need… the need to make behaviour a whole-school focus with attention to detail, consistent practices, visible leaders and clarity of culture. Yee-haw.