Thursday, May 06, 2010

today : the weight

I found it very interesting that Peter Harvey, the teacher who attacked a pupil was treated so sympathetically by both a jury and a judge. I've only read the press reports but it appears like they understood his position.

At the time of the incident I speculated on three things: firstly that the teacher would have been hard-working, commited and long serving/suffering with a recent history of stress illness. Secondly, that the pupil would be the kind whose existence was dedicated to misbehaviour, disruption and disrespect (I actually surmised this from seeing a photo of him on the news. The kid had a look on his face that so many teachers would recognise - a mixture of gormless arrogance and superiority), and that thirdly the school management would be somewhat implicated in the incident.

Turns out I was right on all counts.

From what I read, after the incident Mr Harvey immediately confessed to clubbing the boy: willing to take whatever punishment was deemed necessary.
Teachers suffer stress. I left the profession due to it, and I've written at some length about the sheer numbers of teachers who are suffering - the schools I've worked in where 20 percent of the staff are on sick leave at any time, the people who seem to cope at work but have devastated personal lives. Those who are no good, not because they are untalented or don't care, but because they've chosen survival, which means doing less at work in order to survive at home. Those whose alcohol and drug use is the only way they can cope.

I don't know the exact reasons why teacher stress happens at such a rate (and of course they are not the only ones who are overworked, under-resourced and subject to burnout). But I have a theory that for teachers it is something to do with the sheer volume of people you have interact with on a daily or weekly basis that provides a special kind of mental and emotional tiredness. I might be wrong, but I've worked long hours in both physical and non-physical jobs in my time and come nowhere close to to the stress levels I experienced as a teacher. I imagine medics and police might suffer the same kind of thing. Add this emotional drainage to overwork, constant changes in working practises and expectations and all the other stuff that teachers have to endure whilst performing their jobs and it can smash you apart.

I've noticed some of the black humour the Harvey case has inspired. Much of it is based around teachers taking violent revenge on misbehaving pupils. And I think it comes via a recognition from many school staff. When I was at my worst my temper outside school was constantly on a hair trigger and would explode quite violently over the smallest random thing. Thankfully I never quite lost control and caused any damage. Other people I know - placid, pleasant people - have reported the same symptoms. Peter Harvey gave into the frustration and countered the violence of intimidation and bullying with uncontrolled physical revenge. Many teachers will be thinking that it could easily have been them. How much further did they need to be pushed before they picked up a heavy object and used it to shut a taunting, arrogant, shit-eating teenager's gob? A millimetre? A mile?

You don't know your breaking point until you reach it.
I could easily have been in his position. Again, it's something I've written lots about. The taunts, the physical attacks, the threats, the disruption, the bullying, the sexual harassment, vandalism of property, continuous undermining. It happens in all schools. In some it is the norm. But there's also the patronising and ineffectual management, the cowardly refusal of school managers to deal effectively (or at all) with pupil misbehaviour, the sheer ignorance of special and behavioural needs that leads to tokenistic sanctions and meaningless, pathetic behavioural support systems rather than real but difficult and resource-hungry solutions.

I've probably mentioned this before, but I worked in a school where one head of year - I shall call him Morton - seemed to believe that success in his job was measured by the lack of misbehaviour by the pupils under his charge. His way to achieve this was not to tackle and solve misbehaviour but to ignore it. If one of his year 8 students was cited for disruption he would quietly destroy the paperwork and tell everyone he'd counselled the child in question. Which he didn't, of course. The consequence was that the worst behaved pupils not only continued to cause mayhem and stress for everyone in the school, but did it with stated impunity. Teachers would try to go over his head to deal with problems, but then found themselves badmouthed and threatened with complaints to the union. If year eight students were referred to the isolation unit without his consultation they would go and complain to him and he would just pull them out and put them back into thei regular classes. He would also tend to blame either the teachers or the pupils themselves. One of his mantras was that Year 8s were the most difficult and disruptive in any school. It was well known.

When he moved to become head of year ten, year ten students suddenly became the most disruptive in the school.

There were two issues that arose. One I can understand; one that still baffles me.

The first one is that he himself was allowed to get away with not discharging the responsibilities of his job because the people above him were as paranoid and weak as he was. They did exactly the same for disruptive and lazy members of staff as he did for the pupils.

The second, which baffles me, is that he spent so much time and effort not dealing with misbehaviour properly (by properly I mean in line with the stated school policies that everyone else followed. The policies are never perfect but it's a decent start when the whole staff start to follow the same hymn sheet) that it would have been easier for him to simply deal with the issues. There must have been something else at play - something specific to him.

Notably, Morton was high up in a school department that consistently got the lowest grades in the school and never improved. Because here is the truth - classroom disruption takes the highest toll amongst the teachers who care most about their students. They are the ones who make up the time lost to disruptive lessons, they are the ones who empathise with the pupils in the class who turn up to school prepared to work and achieve but are themselves constantly scuppered by unruly classmates. They are the ones whom, above all, are driven by an altruistic impulse and invest personally in the achievement of their charges.
This is fine when an institution collectively acts together, but when breaks in the chain are apparent and nobody addresses them, then caring teachers are left to fight the battles alone.

It becomes worse, because the more they fight back against those who are determined to disrupt and feel immune to sanctions across the school, the more those elements will try to 'win' in your classroom the way they have won elsewhere in the school (sometimes their winning against other teachers isn't about causing mayhem, but in being left alone. Sometimes the victory is to force a teacher into not putting any effort into trying to educate you, or address the special needs you are embarrassed about. Sometimes it is in succeeding in getting the teacher to turn a blind eye to non-classroom behaviour issues such as bullying or truancy. Many teachers are relieved when the potentially disruptive element fails to show up and it is always easier to let bullying happen on the periphary than to challenge it). The teachers in Morton's department would boast about not reporting truancy from their lessons. The pupils boasted about what they were allowed to get up to when they did attend. They loved those lessons because there was no work involved.

The weak managers in too many schools repeat the same behaviours. that allowed Morton to continue unquestioned Firstly they lock themselves in offices and actively don't engage with either pupils or teaching staff. The excuse for this is that they are dealing with budgets and meetings and the like. The second thing they do is turn a blind eye to difficult problems. The third thing they do is to is to turn everything back on the regular staff. More specifically they turn it onto the staff who work the hardest and commit the most, as they are the one who are wont to highlight problems and shine a light on weak management.

In no area is this more stark than in dealing with illness. Hard working teachers are more likely to eventually get exhausted and stressed and take time off ill. For many this signals the end of their career. Not because they don't recover, but because they are pushed out. Partly, this is heads finding an easy budget cut that looks good on their own CV. Force out a 10 or 20 year veteran and you can replace them with a newly qualified and much cheaper youngster. But partly this is also a good way to explain away failure. Push the blame onto someone who is ill with stress. It's easy. You can explain away league-table underachievement by putting it onto the member of staff. And it's not only heads. If someone in a department disappears for a few months other teachers can overstate the impact on their own performance in so many ways. 'We were carrying them for months before they were signed off. We had to cover their absence and work so much harder to plug the gap. It's unfair that on their return they get special treatment." And, oddly, there is still an attitude amongst many that stress illness is a sign of weakness or a pointer to incompetence. I have heard people who've been ill themselves espouse this point of view.
Peter Harvey likely suffered this. There is also a cavalier attitude to confidentiality. Managers and other backstabbing staff often gleefully tell the students that someone is off with stress (in my experience these are people who will point the finger at anyone for any reason to deflect from their own insecurity or incompetence). Many's the time I've been supplying and been told in great detail about the medical history of the person I'm covering for, as well as which teacher revealed it to the pupils. It was given in evidence that Peter Harvey was being taunted by the pupils for having time off for stress. Who told them why he was off?

I remember when I was at school and we had a student teacher. Clearly a nice guy but not tough enough for our school (which was in an odd geographical position - it took about 60 percent of students from one of the poorest council estates in the country and the other 40 from the other side of the tracks: decent middle-class kids). The student was fine with my class - the decent middle class set one, but suffered the worst the others could dish out to him. Eventually he left, having been physically attacked a few times and gone through all the threats, intimidation etc. At the time even I believed that certain individuals had caused him to quit, rather than institutional failure or any other factors. They were the ones in my own school who perpetrated the violence, the disruption, the bullying, vandalism and chaos. These people are like Al Qaeda in that they will try to cause as much chaos as possible and, even if something is nothing to do with them, will claim the credit anyway. Two or three years later they continued perpetrating the myth that it was they who caused his demise, and wore it as a badge of honour. I am wondering if Peter Harvey's victim was maybe one of these types.

In some cases I know of, the returning teacher is simply punished by the management until they quit. Someone I know had three months off and was then put under an observation regime for six months. This meant, despite a decade of truly excellent performance, a requirement for them basically to prove their competence on a daily basis - turning in detailed lesson plans to management (thus even more workload), accounting for every moment of their time, having senior managers and even outside observers randomly placed at the back of their lessons. It was a campaign to make him resign.

It worked.

Which leads to paranoia. All that I've read suggests that Peter Harvey returned to work too early. I am willing to bet that he was also in fear of his job and maybe claimed to be coping when he wasn't. Show one chink in your armour and the self-serving vultures start circling. When I got really ill, I'd seen it coming a ways of and had already approached the school asking for help. I was ignored, of course. After I was signed off on the insistence of my doctor it quickly became clear that the local authority occupational health and the head of the school were acting in cahoots to offer the opposite of the support that I deserved and was expecting.

Others in my school suffered the same threats and ultimatums as I did. It was clearly policy to use illness as an excuse to 'weed' people out.
One teacher I knew, John, was stalked and terrorised by a small gang of sixth formers. They had caused endless problems in all their classes and throughout the school but the school refused to kick them out because the head of sixth form didn't want the hassle and it cost a cut in grants to have them leave. Tacit instructions were issued to let them drift along until they voluntarily dropped out in the last few months of their course, after the grants deadline had passed and the school was therefore allowed to keep the money. John cared about his other students and grew sick of these wasters disrupting classes, distracting others and risking everyones' hard work. So he stuck his neck out and insisted they be thrown off his course. When this didn't happen they lorded it over him, causing deliberate disruption to punish him for standing up to them. They were really only in sixth form to get the weekly EMA grant as free spending money and couldn't have a teacher spoiling it for them. He refused to let them into his classroom. His car was vandalised. The school took no action of course. (we were all supposed to fill in 'violence to staff' reports which the head then sent to the LEA for recording. It was well know that these were always binned, so people just stopped filling them in) Continuing with his classroom ban he took the argument to his union and threatened to get the police involved over the vandalism. Somehow the students involved got wind of the union complaint and the threats of calling the police so he then found himself followed home and stones were thrown through his windows. The students and their gang would stand nightly outside his house shouting threats and insults, turning out his bin and throwing stones at the house. One night he set out to walk to the local shop and was jumped and beaten up.

On recovering and returning to school a couple of months later he was treated to the interrogation and given the blame for abandoning his pupils in the lead up to exams. The entire department's poor results were pinned on him and, as a 30 year veteran of the school, he was placed under a similar observation regime to the one I detailed above. It cracked him and his doctor signed him off again. An agreement for early retirement was reached and at 55 he was thrown on the scrapheap to be replaced by a cheaply paid 22 year old.

As I said when the Harvey case first came to light, it is a surprise that these kind of things don't happen more often. Maybe the positive is that there are plenty of schools that look after their staff and students and take everyones' welfare very seriously. Extremely poor behaviour by individual pupils is generally dealt with in some way or another. There is a cohort who simply get moved on every six months or so, bouncing in and out of Referral Units and into a neverending series of new schools. But I know there are plenty of schools who do not take staff and student welfare as seriously as they should. Maybe the sheer numbers of teachers who leave the profession after only a short time is a self-regulating safety valve. Most get out before they reach the position Peter Harvey got into.

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