UK teachers on the edge: but who really cares?

30 April 2010
The Times and The Sunday Times
link to original

The case of Peter Harvey, cleared of attempted murder, has refocused attention on the stresses faced by school staff nationwide


I suspect many teachers, like me, are feeling relieved that Peter Harvey, the teacher who battered a difficult pupil about the head with a dumbbell, has been found not guilty of attempted murder. The jury at Nottingham Crown Court took less than two hours to clear Harvey, who, at 50, was a very experienced teacher and a father of two.

Clearly, the jury felt some sympathy with the science teacher because his pupils were planning to provoke a fit of rage so that his reaction could be caught on camera and passed around students. The teacher hit the weight on the 14-year-old’s head while shouting “Die, die, die” after the youth told him to “f*** off”. This boy had disrupted the class nine times before Harvey attacked him. Clearly there was pandemonium in the classroom before the incident took place.

While the severity of Harvey’s attack is very unusual, the disturbance that triggered his violence in the classroom will be familiar to many pupils and teachers. An Ofsted survey, published a few weeks ago, suggests that pupil behaviour is unsatisfactory in a fifth of schools, while the Association of Teachers and Lecturers last month found that a quarter of teachers have recently encountered violent pupils.

This said, these figures need to be put in context. The Harvey case is also an anomaly in that he was an experienced, long-serving teacher at his school. Overwhelmingly, the worst behaviour occurs in schools where there is a high staff turnover or the staff are very inexperienced.

I certainly suffered most when I was wet behind the ears. When I started teaching in 1991, corporal punishment had been illegal for only a few years. The school where I did my trainee year was full of older teachers who still chucked chalk at their pupils and regularly hit them on the back of the head. As most of the pupils suffered the same at home, with nearly all of them coming from poor, disadvantaged backgrounds (90 per cent were on free school meals), not many complained. The macho culture in the school meant that the softer, more inexperienced teachers suffered a terrible fate. In my first year the pupils, like prisoners on day release, ran amok in my classes. In one class they rioted in a particularly egregious fashion, shouting and swearing at the top of their voices and pushing the furniture out of my room. One pupil puffed cigarette smoke in my face as my desk sailed out into the corridor. In the next few years of my career — though not at my current school, I hasten to add — my pupils turned the air blue with their swearing, dealt drugs under the table, chucked missiles out of the windows, set the bins alight, stole my stuff, put ripped cans underneath the fabric of my chair, threw sharp objects at me, criticised just about every aspect of my appearance, questioned me ruthlessly about my sexuality, locked me out of the room, ripped their work up in front of my face and refused to listen to anything I said.

You may be surprised that I actually haven’t found this misbehaviour the most appalling thing about teaching — after all, kids are kids, aren’t they? It’s getting the blame for their misbehaviour that really takes the biscuit.

Senior managers, parents, bureaucrats, inspectors, social workers and other teachers have all told me that I haven’t been teaching well enough, that I don’t have enough rules, that I have too many rules, I haven’t given enough detentions, I’ve given too many detentions, I haven’t “met their needs” in the right way, and I’ve been too understanding. A cacophony of contradictions!

Any teacher who survives in the classroom has to develop the skin of a rhinoceros and let such criticisms bounce off. I’ve come to realise that certain things are totally out of my control. First, the parents my pupils have. Surprise, surprise, the pupils who come from stable, happy homes are, by and large, much easier to teach. Second, the time of day I teach: teaching first thing in the morning is always easier than the lessons just after break or, even worse, after lunch.

I have also learnt that I can control my emotions. Every teacher should learn the lesson of the ancient Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus, who taught the value of keeping calm even though the world might be about to end. Epictetus’s saying “Man is disturbed not by things but by the views he takes of them” should be every teacher’s mantra. I try not to lose my temper if things get a bit rowdy now. A teacher blowing his top is at best a figure of fun, a red-faced buffoon, and at worst, as we saw in the Harvey case, a violent offender.

Realising that there is a lot outside my control has, ironically, helped me to maintain better discipline. I used to be a “controloholic”: the whole aim of my teaching was to control my pupils, keep them quiet, even if this meant them doing meaningless tasks such as copying out and colouring in. I was continually sssh-ing under my breath and patrolling my classes for the slightest signs of misbehaviour. I came unstuck when my pupils realised that they could wind me up by giggling or answering back. Things escalated and I would end up shouting, trying fruitlessly to intimidate them. In the end, suffering from sleepless nights and nightmares, I gave up teaching for a while.

Despite my negative experiences, I found that I missed the classroom. Working in an office wasn’t nearly as eventful. So I ventured back, resolving to learn the lessons of Epictetus. Now, instead of shouting, shushing and finger-pointing, I have a little notebook and jot down any misbehaviour that I see. I find this more effective than making threats because it enables me to keep calm and think clearly. My notebook fosters problem-solving, not anger: I follow up with quiet words outside the classroom. Often I find that at the root of most pupils’ misbehaviour is insecurity — and that reassuring them that they can succeed helps more than punishing them with detentions.

I have also benefited from the whizzy new technology in the classroom. Gizmos such as interactive whiteboards, individual computer workstations, Virtual Learning Environments (the VLE is an online classroom where pupils post work and teachers upload key content) and publishing my own podcasts mean that even the most recalcitrant pupil can be lured into learning.

But the whole area of teacher stress needs looking at more carefully: some surveys suggest that teaching is one of the most stressful occupations. In a National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) survey, 40 per cent of respondents reported having visited their doctor with a stress-related problem in the previous year, with 20 per cent confessing to drinking too much and a quarter suffering from a stress-related health problem, including depression, sleeplessness and high blood pressure. A Times Educational Supplement survey found that as many as four in ten teacher vacancies in secondary schools were due to stress. Research suggests that there are a host of causes: comparatively poor pay, low status and selfesteem, long hours, a lack of autonomy, unsupportive and bullying colleagues, antagonistic parents, confusion about a teacher’s role, a dull curriculum, Ofsted inspections, being blamed for pupils’ poor results, and a lack of proper resources have all been found to raise teacher stress. In this context, pupils’ misbehaviour can be the last straw.

This was the case for Peter Harvey. Fortunately, his victim didn’t die and he was acquitted of attempted murder. If we don’t do something soon, there may be many more cases like his, with far worse outcomes for all concerned.

Case study

J was an experienced teacher of design and technology who had worked at a school in a deprived area of London for more than a decade. The school initially had an excellent head and deputy who patrolled the classrooms and kept order by disciplining badly behaved pupils. There were firm boundaries and everyone knew where they stood. However, when the head and deputy left, the new management hid in their offices making policy documents as chaos gradually enveloped many classrooms. Within a couple of years, J found that the children’s behaviour was noticeably worse because they knew that nothing would be done if they were naughty. When J complained to his head teacher, he was castigated. J’s classes became battlegrounds, with children throwing things at each other and at him. J became ill with stress, taking time off school. When he returned, matters were worse. When a child attacked him, he defended himself by pushing the child away. The offender accused him of assault and J was suspended. Eager not to get bad publicity, J “did a deal” with the head and agreed to leave the school quietly without anything going on his record. He was off sick for a year after that, before returning to teach in a school with a more supportive management. His health is now much better because he is less stressed.

What should teachers do if they are stressed out by their classes?

Set clear boundaries and rules. Get pupils to participate in making these rules if necessary. Have clear reasons for your rules.

Emphasise the positive. Praise students who are working. Reward them with attention. Praise badly behaved students when they do things right. Praise yourself when you have a success.

Avoid empty threats that you don’t follow through on. When you do threaten, you must act on it

Discuss your problems with colleagues you trust, who will listen.

When you do criticise, criticise the behaviour, not the child. Don’t label them as “thugs” or “bullies” but tell them that, in your judgment, it was “thuggish behaviour”.

Adopt the attitude of the Stoics. Do deep breathing when confronted with rowdy children; put them at a distance in your mind. Think calmly. Don’t get angry, don’t shout, learn to solve problems like the great philosophers.

Experiment with different solutions: vary seating arrangements, vary the way you teach, vary where you stand.

Ignore pupils who are misbehaving as far as possible. Blank out pupils who are being cheeky. Make a note of their misbehaviour and follow up after the lesson, by talking calmly to them, making them reflect upon their behaviour.

When talking to pupils, emphasise the value of them deciding to learn. Make them realise that deciding to learn is a positive choice that will make them feel better. Make them feel they can succeed if they put in the effort.

Learn the essential line: “If someone jumps off a cliff, would you follow them?” when a pupil says: “But everyone else was doing it!”

Remember, at the root of most pupil misbehaviour is insecurity. Many pupils feel that they can’t succeed. Reassure them that they can, but that it takes work and concentration. Be evangelical about the value of learning, tell them how it can transform their lives, that it’s never too late.


  1. I received an angry email about my article, accusing me of being “too child-centred”. The correspondent did have a good point about my statement saying “Ignore misbehaviour as far as possible.” That paragraph suggests following up after the lesson rather than dressing down a pupil in class. This is a tricky one. Obviously, with some classes telling off a pupil in front the class can be quite productive: it shows everyone you’ve got some clear rules! But when I give the above advice, I was talking about how to deal with a situation like Peter Harvey’s. Clearly, he and other stressed teachers were getting wound up by cheeky remarks and trying to dress down the pupil in front of the class. The class were sufficiently hardened not to be frightened by him. Clearly, in this case, Harvey would have been better off ignoring the cheeky remarks and following up after the lesson, and thus depriving the kids of their fun. But it’s a fine judgement call. These issues are very complex. The main thing is that teachers should feel OK about talking about their problems and not feel they’re going to be pilliored if they confess to problems.

    from francisgilbert
  2. Francis,

    Thanks for your overall response to my e-mail. I agree that a debate is very necessary about the direction of the ‘child centred’
    approach, particularly in relation to the aspect of order/discipline/authority in schools. I appreciate your putting my letter on your website.

    Yes, I agree that if a class is totally out of control there is no point in trying to rebuke a child for misbehaviour. Indeed there is little point in trying to continue with the lesson – simply perpetuating the chaos. I suggest, however, that the overall thrust of your advice to teachers, the details of which I refer to in my e-mail, represents a philosophy which (unintentionally) helps disorder to develop.
    Happy to have email published.


    Douglas Kedge

    from Douglas Kedge
  3. DK sent me this email which, while it is not very happy with my point of view, I feel raises some important issues, and perhaps could lead to a wider debate about the issues. This is his email to me:

    To FG:

    I read your advice on how teachers can minimise disruption with increasing incredulity and, finally, anger. Over the last 20 -30 years behaviour in schools has increasingly got worse. It is no coincidence that this decline has happened under the influence of the ‘child centred’ philosophy of educators who think as you do. As a teacher of many years experience in secondary modern and comprehensive schools, and I believe with the reputation of being a ‘good teacher’, I think you have got a number of things dangerously wrong. You do not provide the answers to the current disciplinary problems: you and those who think as you do are a major causative factor because you lack/reject the authority needed in school.

    Yes, I have very occasionally in my career received a cheeky remark in class. It did not reoccur in those classes because my immediate reaction made it very clear indeed to the perpetrator and to the rest of the class that it was a very unwise thing to say. Allowing it to go unchallenged during the lesson simply gives the offender and the rest of the class the impression that he/she has ‘got away with it’, and respect is immediately lost. A quiet word after the lesson does not impact on the class as a whole, although it can be an addition to the immediate reaction.
    Your advice to ignore pupils who are misbehaving as far as possible is astonishing. Have you every considered the impact on the rest of the class, and the contempt in which they will hold you, if you fail to deal immediately with any misbehaviour? Quite apart from this, the attention of the rest of the class is always distracted by the misbehaviour of the few : the class deserve better from their teacher.

    The often heard mantra that the teacher should criticise the behaviour and not the child simply gives the child the impression that he/she is not truly responsible for the wrong behaviour: behaviour and the perpetrator are implicitly divorced. I suggest a far more effective approach (tough love) is to tell the bully that he is a bully and will remain so until he stops bullying behaviour. The impact is direct, personal and much more effective.

    PS Bad behaviour is not ‘challenging behaviour’. The latter widely used politically correct phrase again simply gives the unfortunate impression that the behaviour and the perpetrator are morally divorced.


    from francisgilbert

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