Some thoughts on, ‘When the Adults Change, Everything Changes’ by @PivotalPaul

I have come to a frightening conclusion.  I am the decisive element in the classroom.”  (Ginott, H., 1972).

I am just lucky, it seems, to be teaching in a school that employs many of the very, very good strategies laid out in this book (I can say they’re very, very good because I have first-hand experience of them) as my school existed before the book and @PivotalPaul has never had anything to do with my school.  The uncanniness was such that I had to DM him on Twitter and check.  We call the strategies different things but the parallels are strong.  What are the chances?  Or is it, maybe, actually all just common sense?  It feels like it might be … I wonder if @PivotalPaul would agree?

It’s certainly true to say that part of my enjoyment of the book – and I did really enjoy it – was because I found the strategies very familiar and relatable, though not always the underlying reasons given for the strategies.  I agree, for example, that public humiliation is a terrible behaviour management strategy.  Terrible because it’s cruel, even maybe emotionally abusive, and not, as suggested in the book, because it simply fuels a child’s fame and reputation… like some children enjoy being publicly humiliated.  I would strongly argue that even if a child appears to be revelling in the infamy they may gain from a very public reprimand, it still wouldn’t be true to say we shouldn’t do it because they’re gaining from it.  I don’t think it’s very likely that they are genuinely enjoying that notoriety – they’ve got to find some way of dealing with the humiliation – and, even if they are, that shouldn’t be the reason we don’t do it.  Nor would I advocate the ‘names on the board’, ‘good list / bad list’, approach, whatever visuals are used to represent the binary or graduated system being employed (smiley / sad faces; a rainbow; a league table etc.), but are we really suggesting that use of white, grey and black clouds has any dubious racial connotations.  Surely not!  Last time I checked, most of us would be more pleased at the sight of a fluffy white cloud than a towering grey one and it certainly isn’t because we are racist!  Furthermore, in places, the book seems to assume a widespread cynicism and jadedness within the profession, which i found jarring and at odds with the overall message of the book – positive relationships, restorativeness, and compassion. Depending on your school, what’s going on for you outside of school, the world, the weather, whatever, I know there can be lessons, days, weeks, terms and years where teaching is really, really, really hard… but I’m yet to find a teacher that didn’t go into it, stay in it, or even leave it for reasons that are good and right.  My experience of the profession is that teachers are open minded and resilient in the face of turbulence and change, and persevere in spite of it.  Ultimately, teaching is a vocation and leaving it if it isn’t right for you (or isn’t right for you any more) is as good for the students as staying if it is right for you.

None of this – not the fact my school already uses lots of the strategies or my concerns about some of the rationale for the strategies – means that I didn’t have any takeaways from the book though.  I did!  In fact, loads!!!  The book is bursting at the seams with great ideas, well explained in no nonsense and no jargon language, with lots of supporting anecdotes.  I particularly valued the bullet point summaries at the end of each chapter.  These could easily be put together into a list that would make it easier to keep reminding yourself once you’re back inside that black box without having to re-read or try to find specific bits of the book.  I have made myself a list of things from the book that I’d like to try and to work on, as well as new perspectives on existing strategies, ready for this new academic year.  It was good to consider some familiar ideas from a different perspective as well as ways of developing and adding to the repertoire.

It never takes me long to turn any issue around to my favourite topic; inclusion.  It is barely explicitly mentioned in this book and that is a good thing, in my opinion.  Good behaviour management is only good behaviour management if it is good for everybody – there shouldn’t need to be an alternative to make it work for some children.  The strategies in the book are all strongly founded in relationships, being reliable and consistent, being kind, being human and recognising that the kids are only human too, so fallible, and subject to having to deal with life like we all are.  Every school has children that have been labelled, either explicitly or tacitly, as ‘difficult’… maybe they have additional needs or behaviour that’s challenging… and anyone who has experienced success when working them will know that it is all about relationships, being hyper aware of your body language, consistency and reliability, kindness and understanding.  But being kind and reliable and pleased to see the children that you have chosen to work with (you chose to be a teacher and they didn’t choose to be a student!) is not an SEN provision and it is not a behaviour management technique!  This is just how we should be striving to be.  Just because we get away with letting those things slip with more resilient students does not mean that it is okay to become complacent about it.  It doesn’t mean its okay to be distant, short tempered, inconsistent and unkind.  In short, if we can get it right for the least able, most vulnerable children (and this book would be a great place to start!) we are going to be getting it right for everyone else as well.

As the author himself acknowledges, the strategies in this book work best (or just work at all) if done at a whole school level and with 100% opt in from staff.  A tall order!  I imagine that being the only person in the school, or one of a few, that are implementing these strategies would be very frustrating, and probably pretty confusing for the students too.  In fact, as @PivotalPaul acknowledges very clearly, it can be just as frustrating if everyone is on the same page and just one or two are not subscribing to the principles set out in the book.  This book either really, really is, or really, really isn’t, (depends whether or not you think a person can change!) a book for teachers who strongly believe that children should leave any social, emotional or mental health issues they have at the door, be seen and not heard, do as I say because I say so, and be increasingly sanctioned until they comply if they don’t.  As I’m typing that last sentence I’m struggling to believe that any teacher would be reading and saying, yep; that’s me.  However, my personal experience is that this is what some teachers seem to be doing.

Overall, though, I found this book an enjoyable and impactful read and would recommend it to all teachers in all types of schools.  Read it.  Take everything you can from it.  Then give it to your leadership team.

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