Francis Gilbert: Our dedicated teachers deserve greater respect

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THE shocking, terrifying killing of Ann Maguire, an experienced, much loved teacher, has made the nation aware of how important it is not to take teachers for granted.

It is tragically sad that it has taken this noble teacher’s death to make the public conscious of this because, let’s face it, there are too many people who have contempt for teachers and I’m certain this has led to a situation where too many children don’t show enough respect towards their educators.

Having been a teacher in various state schools for over two decades now, I have witnessed first-hand how disrespectful some students, parents and other sections of the community can be towards teachers.

Sadly, some pupils do take their teachers for granted. When I was a young teacher, I used to get very angry at disrespectful students.

My responses often goaded them on though: I’d go red in the face and shout at them, demanding in so many words that they should show me some respect. Needless to say, they’d laugh in my face because this was what they wanted: for whatever reason, they wanted to be distracted from doing the work and “winding up” the teacher was the most entertaining way to do this.

As a result of my shouting and blustering, small incidents of poor behaviour would escalate and I would find truly terrifying things happening such as all the furniture being pushed out of the classroom and some students throwing missiles at me, or threatening me with violence.

Now I try to keep a calm demeanour in the classroom, set clear boundaries and rules from the outset and exude a purposeful confidence. I’ve learnt the crucial importance of nipping poor behaviour in the bud; every teacher needs to spot the very early signs of misbehaviour and “working” on the trouble-makers before they turn nasty.

This can mean “winning them over”: being positive about what they can do, praising the work that deserves praise and making them feel like they can succeed. One of the root causes of students misbehaving is that they feel, for a whole multitude of reasons, that they are “no good” and it’s not worth doing any work.

Unfortunately, English culture generally has a tendency to focus upon the ability of a child rather than the effort they put in; this means that very early on in their school career many children feel that they are “dumb”, “stupid”, and “not up to it”.

These sorts of phrases rattle around their heads day in, day out because they’ve not done well in various tests and exams: they feel that their whole identity is tarred with the brush of failure and that there’s no way to gain kudos with their peers except to muck around.

In contrast, children are judged upon their effort and not their abilities in many Far Eastern cultures like China. Even if they are doing badly in their tests, it is their effort levels that defines them. As a result, Chinese children show real “resilience”: they work harder if they are not doing well. They learn the value of “sweating the small stuff”.

English culture in a whole myriad of ways – not just in schools – ridicules people who try hard but do badly: they are doubly mocked precisely because they have put in the effort and still failed.

As a result, these children quickly come to disrespect themselves and stop trying. If we are going to improve students’ behaviour, we all need to start changing our attitudes towards people who try hard but do badly; we need to praise them for their effort and make them feel they are worthwhile people.

However, we live in a celebrity-obsessed culture that deplores “losers” and is forever celebrating the “lottery” winner, whether it’s someone who’s made lots of money gambling or getting a lucky break on The X-Factor. We seem to have forgotten the lesson of Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and hare; it is, of course, the slowly plodding tortoise who wins the race and not the hare, who is full of ability but has no stamina.

Sadly, many of our politicians enjoy praising the hare and not the tortoise. I was particularly dismayed to hear Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, praising “young teachers” and denigrating older members of the profession, who he sees as being members of an amorphous, soulless “blob” and the “enemies of promise”.

This was a terrible insult to people like me who have given decades of their working life to public service.

Gove feels that it is the “Teach First” generation who are far better than the older generation: these are young teachers who are trained for six weeks and then usually only teach for a few years. By and large, these are the “hares” of the profession: they do their “sprint” as teachers for a while and then give up.

I am not saying there isn’t a place for these sorts of teachers, but personally, I think it is the teachers like Ann Maguire who are most deserving of praise: these are teachers who have unremittingly given up their working lives to improve the lot of young people.

During this tragically sad week, let’s not forget the long-serving teachers because I feel they deserve our respect the most.

Francis Gilbert is the author of “I’m A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here” and a number of other books on education.