Be more Goose: a school shouldn’t rely on Mavericks

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.

An example Case Study from ‘Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour’ (2017), Tom Bennett’s independent review of behaviour in schools.

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.

11 thoughts on “Be more Goose: a school shouldn’t rely on Mavericks”

  1. A slightly differing take on the same facts. There are two levels of behaviour management here, school-level and teacher level. Leadership definitely must establish school-level behaviour norms, but surely within each classroom a teacher must develop their own style?
    Of your observed teachers you say “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”. Surely that is the lesson all trainees should be encouraged to draw from this? No one can teach you YOUR behaviour management style. You observe not to copy, but to grasp this principle?
    Good initial teacher training will inculcate some basic strategies. A good leadership team will ensure strong behaviour management principles across a school. Reading stuff from Tom and others will offer guidance. A good mentor can help you discover your style. But each trainee teacher should realise they must hone and develop their own style that matches them, their personality and their pedagogy. They must become as one… and it is a journey.:)
    Consistency within a classroom is more important than consistency across a school. Kids can cope with very different lessons from a Maverick and a Goose. Some will prefer one, some the other. Good schools will foster both. And other tropes – I don’t think there is a typical teacher. All kids should encounter a range. Uniformity is dull, and only caters to the dull.
    And just wondering if the plural of Goose should be Gooses or Geese? 🙂

    1. If watching teachers teach is to grasp a general principle that you are you and not them and you should find your own way, then that’s even woolier and unhelpful than I thought. Thanks for clarifying this.

    1. Not copy their style. Style is nebulous. But we should be able to observe and take away specific things that a teacher does and assimilate these into our practice.

  2. An interesting and thought-provoking post, thanks!
    But is this take not part of the problem we have in British education? Thinking of pupils and schools as towns like Reading and seeking to squash everyone down into a narrow definition of what behaviour looks like to white privileged teacher (myself included) can only help to move the profession further away from the reality: we teach kids not lessons. Tom Bennett seems at pains to say that each school and teacher’s behaviour management approaches should be flexible according to the circumstance albeit with clear expectations and routines.
    Yes, there should be consistent policies for behaviour, but if everyone nodded like Goose we’d all end up in a flat spin of acquiescence to policies that become ineffective. Bennett talks about leadership often not seeing things as they are, so a little maverick spirit is needed to challenge towards better outcomes.
    Also, in multicultural Britain, cultural values play a significant role in a way that they don’t in other PISA-leading nations. Kids from other cultures have different cultural needs that vary wildly within schools. For example, according to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, there is great difference in power distance, masculine vs feminine values, and individualistic vs collectivist cultures (to name but a few) that have a huge impact into the effectiveness of strategies in each classroom. In regions of high cultural transition, typical solutions that work in Berkshire might lose that loving feeling. Goose would probably not gander at these ideas though.
    I’d like to apologies for the puns too. They even gave me goosebumps writing them.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Dan. I think you have missed the point: the point is that leadership need to create a consistent culture, not that everyone should nod along like Goose.

      Also, I’m not entirely sure that my suggestion that each school develops a very clear culture with clear systems has to do with variance across schools or regions? I haven’t suggested that all schools take the same approach?

      I’m also very interested in the implication that standards of behaviour should be different for people of different ethnicities? Could you give me a specific example of how, in my classroom, I should vary the standards of behaviour based on the colour of my pupils’ skin? I mean really drill it down to something very specific if you can? Many thanks.

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