It’s Christmas Eve, 1914. The night is cold, and moonlight pulses down illuminating snow-covered northern France. British High Command sends a message to the front lines: “It is thought possible the enemy may attack during Christmas or New Year. Special vigilance will be maintained during this period.” But how wrong they were.
As historian Rutger Bregman recounts in Human Kind, A Hopeful History (2021), first there were lanterns, Christmas trees and torches. Then, one could hear Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht – shortly followed by The First Noel from the British. A united O Come All Ye Faithful precedes gifts and shaking of hands, and more than one game of football is played: 3-2 to the Germans one match, 4-1 to the British the next. It appeared infectious, and Bregman asserts most soldiers sequestered the hate and the loathing and, instead, adopted brotherhood and humanity. There was, though, one ‘stiff-necked’, 25-year-old corporal who bemoaned “such things should not happen in wartime”. His name was Adolf Hitler.
Love wins over hate
History has shown us when one closes the gap, gets close and ‘immediate’ with one’s ‘enemy’, love wins out over hate. Indeed, that ‘strike’ in northern France was not an isolated event. Similar eruptions of peace occurred during the Spanish civil war, the Boer wars, the American civil war, the Crimean war and the Napoleonic wars. So, is it that the closer we get to our enemy, the harder it is for us to hate? Do our ‘walls’ crumble once we see the whites of the eyes? Turning over to geo-political author Tim Marshall, are we building an us-versus-them culture because of ‘the walls we build in our mind… quietly promoting unity through division (2018)?’
Poisoning the well
At the turn of the New Year, I wrote a very similar article to this on ‘zero tolerance’, a ‘strategy’ employed in some schools to crack down on nefarious student behaviour: top buttons undone, late or even no homework, walking the wrong way along the corridor – this type of malevolence. Yet, I was traduced on social media for (it seemed) daring to suggest we – teachers and schools – could approach behaviour in a more restorative, informed, way. One individual even adorned himself in the ad hominem cape to claim I wasn’t ‘a working teacher’. Alas, acts of personal incredulity such as this do tend to vibrate and quiver throughout education when one dares to question the status quo – when one dares to look to reason (and humanism) rather than settle for a recrudescence of fallacies.
‘Zero tolerance’ is employed in some schools; the semantics of whether it is or is not called ‘zero tolerance’ is merely gross indulgence in simplism, an attempt to reduce the issueto a straw man – which, of course, no grown-up conversation need tolerate.
Some schools purge children to ‘isolation rooms’, scribe their names into whiteboards and slam them in detention halls. It’s a toxic culture that pullulates throughout some ‘educational behaviour policies.’ All are ‘behaviour management interventions’ with no grounding in research. Instead, they are a pitiful collection of habitual practices passed down by generations of educationalists who, frankly, didn’t know anything else.
Some schools (appear to) subscribe to the Machiavellian dictum ‘it’s better to be feared than loved’ – that somehow a ‘don’t-smile-until-Christmas attitude’ is going to frighten the kiddies into submission.
Machiavelli was wrong.
Schools no longer exist to serve the fat-cat factory owners of Victorian Britain, to preach middle class morality and/or to subjugate individuals into being a loyal workforce. Parents and children expect more than a one-size-fits-all approach – certainly in the twenty-first century, and especially in the face of existing research into teenage development and cognition.
The teenage years are a time when the brain alters more than at any other time apart from the first three years of life. Clinical psychologist Dr John Coleman, author of The Teacher and the Teenage Brain (2021), compels educators to remember that the variation of hormone balance for teenagers is much greater than for anyone else, meaning emotion regulation is hard for young people. Granted, Coleman argues that in ‘neutral situations’, adolescents have similar cognitive abilities and response times to adults. However, in stressful situations young people are more open to influences from their peer groups.
Immediately, one can see the absurdity of shoehorning students into a room together under the banner of ‘detention’. Moreover, the shift from being a child to an adult is a long and complicated one, and teachers need to get comfortable with the fact that, because of this, young people can be both mature and immature at the same time. Neither teacher or teenager is an isolated entity; each is growing and changing and, in doing so, influencing each other. Altercations in teachers’ behaviour will have an impact on the students’ behaviour(s).
Teachers must be responsible for their behaviour, but it really is a bigger problem than the individual teacher’s approach. Paul Dix, author of When the Adults Change, Everything Changes (2017), argues that ‘the support available for teachers who struggle with behaviour is woeful’. Hypothesising why, Dix asserts that too much time ‘pleasing Ofsted’, focusing on progress and analysing data supersedes the real nucleus of teaching: relationships.
Too often, voluntary acts of love are found only from a handful of teachers who understand – and persevere with – the true power of ‘love’ not ‘fear’ – of ‘closing the gap’ for the benefit of all… of having a zero-tolerance approach to losing the relationship. That teacher who holds out their hand each day only to have their hand slapped back in their face – until that one day when their hand is taken. From then on, that child will follow that teacher off a cliff. From then on, that teacher can teach the whole child.
Significantly, Dix argues that ‘challenging students’ follow people first, then the ‘rules’. However, the prospect of a relationship can be off putting for many teachers – it suggests a deep connection between the student and teacher, such as we might experience with a close friend; the language is daunting, and it seems too much for the busy teacher. It appears such an egocentric profession that if we (and I include myself) don’t get immediate feedback we give up. Yet, children fundamentally push you away until they pull you back. We expect the opposite.
Lose the self-righteousness
Instead of reaching for the brick-thick ‘behaviour policy’. Instead of regurgitating your two hours of training from the most recent training day. Instead of the ‘oh-he’s-so-disrespectful mantra’… Instead, change your approach. Stop filling the dusty school hall with detainees and instead get them away from their friends and speak to them. Tell them you know you got it wrong. Tell them you should have planned the lesson better. Tell them it wasn’t your best day. Tell them you’re sorry, and you’ll find ways to put it right. Because here’s the thing: you’re the adult. And you owe them that. Lose the self-righteousness. You’re there for them. Not vice versa.
Teenagers’ behaviour is transactional – not collaborative. It just is! Detentions do not ‘teach’ students how to behave. Detentions only serve to widen the gap between teacher and student and cleave an us-versus-them culture even more. And writing lines is just plain medieval. Even prisons offer rehabilitation, and it’s high time we exchanged detentions for dialogue. School leaders need to look inwardly. Are you ‘teaching’ behaviour or simply following a habitual diet of punitive practice? The young men on that cold Christmas Eve of 1914 went on strike – albeit a mere sojourn, but they exchanged their weapons for words during wartime. We at the very least should be able to engineer ‘peacetimes’ in the microcosms of our schools.