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Kyla Bruff: RE with Citizenship
As we restart lessons in the classroom this week, teachers and students face so much uncertainty. There is trepidation and fear about the return to social interaction, what it means to be in an enclosed space with others, and readjusting to intensive days of high-pace interaction. Throughout the constant inundation of news that we have all received leading up to schools reopening—the positions of teachers’ unions, views of parents, concerns over lost learning time, tutoring, and catch-up—it seems something important was forgotten.
Namely, students and teachers face this readjustment period and uncertain period together.
When I entered my year 11 classroom today for the first time since December, I had an intensive plan for revision of past learning. I was ready to be positive and had braced myself for open discussion regarding the cancellation of GCSEs. I was up late at night thinking of how I would now motivate my year 11 students to work hard. But when I saw them, something changed. None of that was necessary. I realised we were in solidarity together in this strange and uncertain time.
No one refused to work and no one complained about cancelled GCSEs. Instead, we opened by talking about their plans. Who has applied to sixth form? What subjects? Who has applied to college? What program? Life will go on, and they are excited about the future. The negativity I had experienced through the endless news cycle about exam years was not at all what I experienced in my classroom today. My students may think I am exaggerating or being ‘cringy,’ but I think we genuinely enjoyed being together in period 3. Ah, live interaction; the thing we sometimes don’t realise we miss when we are in control of our own worlds at home, but often draw great and unexpected enjoyment from when in the moment.
Then came the dreaded interruption of my lesson for covid-19 tests. Great, just after rebuilding rapport, warming up the students with a starter activity, and beginning my revision lesson, commotion starts and they leave for the swab. But I also forgot that regular testing is the new normal for all of us. I’ve been tested many times, as have the students. When they came back approximately 15 minutes later, we were able to find our groove again easily enough. As they trickled in, we commiserated on how uncomfortable it is to stick that that thing up in your nose. To my surprise, while waiting for the other half of the class to return, one of my students asked if we could debate a topic in citizenship—“any topic at all.” He seemed to be asking for me to just throw something in the air for us to talk about. I was delighted. I knew my lesson included a review of the role of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in protecting the rights of UK citizens, so off the top of my head I suggested we debate prisoners’ right to vote. This led seamlessly into the Hirst v United Kingdom case (in which the ECHR ruled that a complete ban on prisoners voting in the UK violated the European Court of Human Rights). The debate suggestion was an exciting way to get the students’ focus back on track. As more of them progressively joined the class and were invited to give their view, I didn’t even notice the refocusing was happening, precisely because they initiated it! I didn’t have to lead alone today!
One of the advantages of teaching citizenship is that current events and news stories often directly relate to course content. My lockdown review lesson today included a recap of the role of a free press in the democracy. On this theme, I experienced another unplanned win. The students’ asked me whether I had seen Oprah’s interview with Meghan and Prince Harry last night. I did. And bingo, I knew how we would use this critical media moment to critically engage with GCSE course content. “If Harry and Meghan’s claims from the interview about Buckingham Palace hosting holiday parties for tabloids in exchange for positive press coverage are true,” I asked, “does that compromise the free press and thereby democracy in the UK?” Collective exploration of such topics is one reason I love teaching citizenship. Admittedly, this particular subject is also the kind of thing I would discuss with a friend over lunch. In these moments, teaching KS4 is genuinely fun.
A final takeaway from today’s lesson is a new word of British slang that I learned from one of my students. As a Canadian, I am learning from them all the time!
One student asked, “Miss, so the palace is finessing the press for good coverage, yeah?”
I responded, “Finessing?”
“Yeah, like tricking and manipulating?”
“Oh, I’ve got it. Yeah! Yeah! Sure. They’re finessing them! Wait, are you finessing me to use British slang incorrectly so that I’m not saying what I think I’m saying?”
Then they genuinely laughed. “No, miss, you’re using it right!”
Thanks, year 11s!
In this blog, Kyla reflects on her teacher training journey with a particular emphasis on how she has developed her behaviour management skills.
After reading my last blog post, another Teacher Trainee at my school asked me if I would write a piece on behaviour management. For many of us, this is the most challenging and unique part of the job. Sometimes it feels like we are trying to learn an art that we are unsure if we can master. This other trainee—along with my mentor—said he noticed a substantial improvement in the behaviour and volume of my most challenging class, which I teach directly adjacent to one of his classes. So I thought—what better moment than now to reflect upon how, exactly, this improvement happened. How is it that things actually did get better, even after just three months? During the first weeks of teacher training, achieving calmness in the class in question seemed like an unsurmountable challenge. Now I can honestly say I enjoy this formerly challenging group.
Due to the early hurdles implied above, a major focus of my teacher training since the beginning has been on building positive relationships with students in order to support them in their learning. Behaviour management is tightly intertwined with the ability to build relationships with students in secondary school. Simply put, if the classroom is not calm, and if the students lack focus and respect for the teacher, they cannot learn effectively. Equally, if the teacher does not respect the students and is confident neither in the material she is teaching nor her behavioural management skills, she cannot realistically expect the students to learn.
Before I started teaching secondary school, I had conducted some basic research on techniques for managing students' behaviour. I had also asked some of the teachers I know for their best tips. Perhaps the most frequent adage I heard in response to my question was that "no single strategy works for every child." And while I have come to learn that that is true, it is only the tip of the iceberg. I admit, a naïve part of me thought my jokey and down-to-earth personality—accompanied by the confidence and an authoritative voice I was told I exuded while teaching university—would carry me successfully through the secondary classroom. Needless to say, I was wrong. But in realising my naiveite, I have been humbled and my attention has been drawn time and time again to the diverse methods and paces at which different students learn. Moreover, my three months in the secondary school classroom has also made me more attentive to and responsible for the type atmosphere I create for learning. Unlike when I was teaching at a university, I no longer enter a room expecting to have control without working for it and employing strategies. Nothing is taken for granted.
Teenagers push boundaries. As teachers, we establish them. And as young people, they test them. But when they discover that the boundaries don’t move and are not selectively applied to different individuals in different circumstances, students push and test them a whole lot less. Erecting solid, consistent boundaries is more challenging than it sounds. Sometimes it means when a well-behaved, quiet child shouts out a correct answer to a question, I have to ask them to raise their hand and refuse to accept the answer they blurted out (even if it is correct). Sometimes it means giving a ‘warning’ to a nice kid because they threw a paper ball from their seat into the garbage can, as one of my rules is that nobody ever throws anything in my classroom. But despite the difficulty of such moments, I know that clearly establishing boundaries and rules is the process of building the arena in which the children’s learning, and even enjoyment, can take place. It is within these boundaries that positive relationships conducive to learning are built.
There is something even more shocking and ironic about this process, which seems to contradict everything I just said. Namely, as teachers, we selectively ignore certain behaviours. During a training session with Harris ITE, George McMillan, Executive Principal of Harris Academy Greenwich, explained the difference between primary and secondary behaviours. In a nutshell, secondary behaviours are the ones can that most often be selectively ignored for the good of the whole. A primary behaviour is the defiant or negative action that the child carried out. The secondary behaviour is the child’s reaction to having their behaviour corrected. For example, almost every time I instruct a student who has sat in the incorrect seat move to their assigned place, they moan or roll their eyes, drag their heels when they eventually do stand up, and sometimes they say something rude under their breath. If I were to become immediately enraged and visibly annoyed at every secondary behaviour, it would majorly disrupt the enthusiasm and flow I aim to bring to my explanations.
Part of me cannot believe I have become such a hardliner about boundaries. Throughout my years and years of graduate studies in philosophy, I read, and even published work, on the damaging effect that disciplinary mechanisms in society can have on people. It is hard to see how a society that seeks to discipline and control people could engender free thought. Because of this critical-societal training, during my first few weeks in the classroom, I felt that every student deserved a full explanation for any sanction in the moment that they misbehave. Rookie mistake. The amount of class time wasted to publicly conduct such a back-and-forth—which is time taken from the learning of other students—is the greatest injustice in this picture. I can’t imagine accomplishing anything in an environment of 20 to 30 children from different backgrounds without boundaries that are applied consistently. This ‘warm-strict’ attitude, as McMillan describes it, is one I am now trying to bring to my teaching practice.
The early advice I received from senior colleagues at my school is that the best way to deliver instructions, state expectations and set boundaries with students is in a neutral tone and without too much emotional investment. This was quite a surprise to me at first, as I always wanted to be kind, personal and emotive in my teaching. However, I now see why they suggested this. First of all, the neutral issuing of a behavioural correction over time makes it clear that the rules and expectations are applied consistently. This drew my attention to a certain fairness, similar to the equality undergirding our application of the rule of law in society, inherent to healthy boundaries and rules in the classroom. Therefore, to the best of my ability, I apply my class rules equally, fairly and calmly. Secondly, I have to remain calm, as the primary defiant behaviour is almost never about the teacher. It would thus be irresponsible as the adult in charge to take this behaviour as a reflection on me. As one Lead Practitioner at my school advised me, being a student in a school is a role. But furthermore, as a teacher, you play a role for your students, too. This role is one of authority and of trust. Therefore, there must be an overlap, to paraphrase the words of my Harris ITE subject lead, of Kyla and Ms. Bruff in the classroom, but they cannot be completely congruent. If they were synonymous, it would be unhealthy for both my well-being and for the learning of the students (i.e., the students should not talk to me in the same register as they talk to their buddies). To think they should is to turn a blind eye to the authority role that a teacher holds in reference to her students.
If you don’t begin teaching with a thick skin, I think eventually you acquire one. Otherwise, you will almost certainly carry too much stress home with you. In view of this, despite the bumpy acclimatisation period of the first few weeks, strangely enough, I truly think teaching secondary school has already made me a calmer, less reactive person. This was confusing and surprising to me at the beginning. I wasn’t used to modulating my voice, for example. I thought I was just a generally enthusiastic teacher who presented subject content confidently. In perfect conditions, maybe. But it turns out that when my students focus and are quiet, my voice is lower-pitched, and when they lose focus, my voice shifts to a higher pitch and can even become shrill. As this would happen, my mentor informed me that my students would stop listening to me. On top of this, I learned very quickly that almost no one responds well to being shouted at. Students certainly don’t. Furthermore, simply reacting on the fly to students acting out does not provide any consistency, or even the room for empathy, with regards to their behaviour. A reactive attitude to behaviour is simply ineffective, stressful, and often confusing for both the students and the teacher.
So back to my initially challenging class. Apart from the standard necessity to be consistent with rules and boundaries, what exactly, was it, that they needed to begin to behave better? I think they needed humour, mutual respect and empowerment. Once I could be sure it was underlined by a sense of mutual respect, laughing with these students helped us to see each other as human. When one of them promises to write me a “big juicy paragraph,” I do laugh. Another one of these students compared me to a British gameshow host (for reasons still unknown to me), but I can assure you when he did I erupted in laughter. “At least I am entertaining,” I thought. But to begin establishing a more positive and less stressful rapport with these pupils, I admit I have also had to modify my reactions in moments when they still occasionally push boundaries. As for empowering them—well, I genuinely do believe in their capabilities to achieve greatness. And I think it took time for me to prove to them that this is how I see them. On the one side, I try to remind students of their strengths to them individually and quietly on the side and to praise them as much as they can. On the other side, this does involve a careful and consistent challenging of lazy or self-defeatist behaviour.
Managing students’ behaviour is the human side of teaching which offers teachers a challenging opportunity to get to know the students. As behavioural expert Tom Bennett has said, teaching is a “relational activity,” or a “dialogic” activity. For some kids, we get to be a source of consistency in the chaos. We get to be the keyholders of different worlds of knowledge for them. I hope my students will come to trust me as a fair and kind imparter of knowledge who can help direct them based on what they want in life. In any case, even at this early stage, as a result of building positive relationships with my students, I am now comfortable to engage in quick, informal chats with them when we see each other around the school. For example, many of the kids love that I ride a bike to work. I find it heart-warming that they yell “Hi Ms. Bruff!” as I pass them on the street. This also presents occasions in the classroom to talk to them about the environment and changing behaviours around covid-19, in a way which is grounded in our positive rapport outside of class.
So, to answer the question of what I did to improve relationships with students in the first months of my teacher training—well, it feels like a lot and a little. On the one side, so many of the strategies for behaviour management that I have employed to make things better have been 100% intentional and even rehearsed. But on the other side, as behaviour management improves, I feel increasingly at ease in the classroom and the stress of the job decreases. I am now glad to be a source of consistency for my students, while at the same time personally tailoring my small, everyday communication to the individuals that I teach. Sometimes it’s the simple things. For example, yesterday, one of the louder children I teach proclaimed he was jealous of the quiet girl behind him because she did so well on her assessment, whereas he did not. I first offered the girl some soft, targeted praise, and then told the first student that he can use her success as motivation to work hard. Then I saw the little smile come to her face as she looked proud and accomplished. It somehow felt worth it.
As I applied to train with Harris, I was nearing completion of my PhD in Philosophy. During my twelve years (!) as a university student, I loved every minute spent in the classroom. Indeed, classes—which I often perceived to be “live events,” in which my mind was opened in real time and almost anything could happen—were always my favourite part of my educational journey. I therefore happily began working as a part time instructor at my home university in Canada in 2017. During this time, I realised that I experienced even more enjoyment in a teaching role in the classroom than in my capacity as a student. Teaching had all the excitement and spontaneity I knew from my student years, but with the longer-term joys and subtle pride that come with igniting a passion for learning and facilitating student growth and development. It became clear to me that the classroom was where I was destined to be.
Accordingly, I decided to move into secondary education. As with secondary students, the intellectual and personal development of young people, as well as the value of classroom interaction, is even more immediate and obvious than in university. The secondary school teaching role is therefore, in my opinion, more challenging. However, it was a challenge I knew I was up for. I thus decided to begin my teacher training in the two subjects in which I figured I have the best chance at having a positive, lasting influence on someone’s life.
Religious Education and Citizenship may not immediately seem like the most obvious choice as a focus for my teaching career, as my background first appears to scream philosophy and abstraction. However, a closer look at my previous education reveals an underlying logic in my decision to teach these subjects. My eclectic background includes a joint undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Political Science and a Master’s Degree in French and German Philosophy (which was funded by the European Commission). My PhD research was at the intersection of philosophy, politics and religion. It is in these three domains that my intellectual passion lies, and it is in the practice of teaching that my extroverted personality and practical skills find their home. In view of my university background, an added advantage of training with Harris is that, already in my training year, I was offered the possibility to teach the most intellectually demanding content at A-Level, while also guiding younger students in years 7-11 through a wide variety of content in religion and politics. I know how lucky I am to have a timetable made up of such diverse year groups, and to teach difficult content to students looking to enter university, while simultaneously learning the skills and strategies required when working with younger people.
Now that I am in the fifth week of my training, I can say that teaching secondary school is an incredibly humbling experience in which one learns extensively about oneself. But nevertheless, I must underline that secondary students are not university students, and accordingly, the area in which I need to devote the most work is, by far, behaviour management. Luckily the staff both at my academy and the Harris Federation are incredibly supportive. There are no egos and there is no judgment. Everyone in my vast support network here at Harris have been open about their past difficulties, similar experiences to my own, and their vulnerabilities. No one gets it right the first few weeks. But with guidance, we learn how to.
At the moment, I am working on everything from voice modulation to scaffolding learning activities for different abilities. In my view, to say teaching is a humbling profession is to express exactly this: we show our vulnerabilities and devote ourselves to others, but not in a chaotic or haphazard way. Rather via informed techniques, practical training, intentional action and by learning from others who are more experienced than we are. As teachers, we are motivated by the conviction that everyone deserves an education—a great education, in which they have the opportunity to learn about the world, how people live collectively, and their own personal values. This is the type of knowledge, consideration and self-exploration that Religious Education and Citizenship offer as subjects. As I improve as a teacher, particularly in behavioural management and content delivery techniques, I look forward to better serving the students at my academy, and those I will teach in the future.