Why I’ve given up school teaching

After a four year attempt to succeed as a school science teacher I have admitted failure. Having looked at on-line posts by other ex-teachers what has struck me is that they tend not to cite poor student behavior as a reason for leaving the profession. Long hours of preparation, marking, data entry and the constant requirement to provide evidence of student improvement repeatedly come up, but time spent with students did not; if anything  they saw this as a high point of the job. Not so in my case.

There is nothing I enjoy better than telling people about science, so when I was offered a fairly generous redundancy package a few years ago from my employer of nearly 20 years I decided to switch careers to teach Science in High School, specializing in Physics. From the outset I guessed that my greatest difficulty was likely to be behavior management. This was reinforced when I visited some schools to observe classes and found the crowds  of adolescents distinctly daunting, especially having been out of the school environment for more than 25 years. Consequently, prior to my beginning training I bought a couple of books on behavior management. The advice made a lot of sense to me: the idea that rules were there to protect rights – the right to learn and the right to teach; the importance of praising to encourage good behavior and so forth.

Having enrolled on my postgraduate education program I had the standard practicum placements in different schools, first observing other teachers in class, then taking over these classes. In my observations I observed many classes in which the students might initially be behaving badly, but with warnings and the issue of the occasional sanction they got down to work in some shape or form: the teacher clearly had control of the situation. This happened even when the teaching was not good; I well remember a lesson on Newton’s Second Law where the teacher repeatedly confused force and momentum during his explanation and gave no illustrative examples that might have linked the subject with students’ experience. He then handed  out a lengthy worksheet on the topic which he largely left the students to complete on his own while he attended to some administrative task. The students were nevertheless quiet and uncomplaining with,  as I recall one exception, who fell into line after receiving a fiery reprimand from the teacher.

When I later took over this same class from the teacher I found myself spending most of the lesson trying to keep them quiet. The only time I succeeded was when I put a video clip up for them to watch. The feedback I received from the teacher was that there was poor behavior because I was “boring the students”. I was tempted to mention pots calling kettles black, but instead merely nodded meekly in agreement. What he said basically reinforced the message I was getting from my college professors: “If you plan well the behavior management will go well”.

So I would sit up late at night planning meticulously: what would I be doing, what would the kids be doing at every point of the lesson. It wasn’t an immediate success as I continued to face low level disruption from my classes. Behavior was never all that bad during my teaching practicums owing to the safety requirement in school science labs that a qualified member of staff had to be present in the room.  I persevered with the teacher training, often feeling completely exhausted, losing my voice for a couple of days at one point, and never really feeling in control of many of my classes. I was certainly not a high-flying trainee teacher, but at the end of the final practicum  my school co-ordinating mentor opined that she thought I could succeed in the job but that I needed to “command the classroom”, an expression which she didn’t expand upon but I feel is relevant to my eventual failure.

The baptism of fire began when I began my first teaching job. The interview went well, and the Principal particularly complimented me on my strong subject knowledge. I duly got a job as a physics teacher. The first semester began.  For each of my classes I would introduce the class rules, or “expectations”, to use the fashionable term: no talking when the teacher is addressing the whole class, nobody out of their seat without permission, etc. I used the language of rights and responsibilities, stressing that my misbehaving they were denying other students the right to learn – all in accord with what the behavior management gurus demanded.

Now there were no other members of staff in the room, in contrast with my training year. All my classes without exception kicked off fairly quickly as the semester went on: even the high ability classes. They  disregarded my calls for quiet. I avoided getting angry, having been warned during my training that this would just make things worse. Instead I endeavored to be as consistent as I could. I handed out warnings, then second warnings and finally sanctions, which I would, usually at the end of the school day, enter on the school’s behavior management database. Such sanctions were typically met with defiance by the students: “but I didn’t say anything”, “I was talking about the work”, etc. Sanctions were often “escalated” in view of continuing disruption –  I would give time outs, followed by sending them to another teacher’s room, an instruction which they would sometimes refuse, requiring me to call in a senior member of staff to remove them.  If this member of staff turned up they would meekly do as they were told, accentuating the gulf between the respect they had for him/her and the lack of respect they had for me. All this of course played havoc with the lesson and lesson plan, which, the reader may remember, was supposed to prevent poor behavior in the first place. Simultaneous with all this I would be doing my utmost to praise students who were behaving well – “positive behavior management”, as it’s known. The hope was that the reprobates would feel they were missing out when they saw an authority figure lavishing praise on somebody else, and start behaving well themselves. However, there was precious little evidence that this was happening, and the idea started to take root in my mind that I simply lacked authority with adolescents.

Some of my students reported the poor behavior of my classes to their parents, and some of them contacted the school. The Science Department Chair, with whom I had an excellent relationship, took me aside and very tactfully informed me of this. We discussed ways that things might be improved. He, refreshingly, didn’t feel it was down to my planning, and was complimentary of the resources I was using, including lesson powerpoints. He suggested that when I gave sanctions I shouldn’t be so matter of fact but rather that my delivering the sanction should be part of the punishment: the students should feel that it was an unpleasant experience merely to receive a reprimand from me. Sadly, I was unable to elicit such responses in my students.

So to summarize the  key findings:

(1) I was not “commanding the classroom”, (2) my displeasure was not something my students feared and (3) conversely, my praise and approval was not something they in any way coveted.

The thought began to dawn on me that I had no authority with children and adolescents. All I had was the power to dispense sanctions: not a huge amount of power in reality. Possession of a little power without authority is not a nice position to be in. Things did not improve and I quit, exhausted, at the end of the School Year.

The following fall I thought I’d have a go at some substitute teaching. At least I wouldn’t have the burden of preparation and marking; I could forget about it all at then end of the school day. The problem was that now I had neither authority nor power, and kids would chat happily and even wander freely about the room during the course of my “lessons”.

How to develop good working relations with adolescents? I thought the best place to start might be with individual adolescents, and I advertised my services as a tutor. Since I teach a subject for which there is a severe shortage of teachers I found there was plenty of work to be had. I discovered to my joy that I had no problems forming good relations with adolescents but on the contrary gained good rapport even with those who had become disengaged from science through their school experiences.

So maybe I could succeed after all as a school teacher, and fulfill my desire to pass on my knowledge to others. I applied for physics jobs in schools. I was turned down by a few schools – hardly surprising in view of my somewhat  checkered resumé, but was eventually offered a job. In preparation I buried myself in more behavior management books: “Ah”, I thought, “maybe my mistake was not to wait until they were all quiet before speaking myself”, or “yes, maybe making them all put their pens down before I speak will do the trick”.

Alas, no. The same disregard for my authority became a feature with my new classes. A particular epiphany came when one of my 8th graders, whom I’d kept back for detention said to me “why can’t you control us like other teachers do?” I replied that maybe she should explain to me why she chose not to behave in my lessons when she behaved in other teachers’ lessons, and gave her this as a written detention task. She didn’t provide an answer, merely writing that “other teachers don’t give as many detentions as you, yet we’re always respectful to them”. It was a surprisingly candid comment to make, essentially implying : “we don’t respect you as we do other teachers, but I can’t explain why”.

All this evidence was pushing me towards a new theory of why I wasn’t able to manage behavior. It was not that I couldn’t form positive relations with kids – I could do that, but that I couldn’t manage …..

…CROWDS.

I remember many years ago having a conversation with a retired cop. For some reason the conversation turned to crowd behavior. He looked into the middle distance and said: “Crowds: nasty, stupid creatures”, before falling silent. Of course as a cop he’d had plenty of experience dealing with crowds. History also strongly indicates  that humans are at their most evil when in crowds, performing acts that they would not dream of as individuals. This came back to me as I contemplated my chronically uncooperative classes: crowds are really stupid. Of course my bright, articulate eighth grader wasn’t able to explain why her class didn’t respect me: they were a crowd. Do crowds stop to reflect on their behavior? Certainly not, even if those crowds contain some bright, articulate individuals.

And yet, none of the behavior management gurus ever mention this obvious fact about behavior management in schools: you’re dealing with a crowd. Presumably this is because they, as teachers, had authority over the crowds they dealt with. The crowd in its dumb way accepted their authority without being able to articulate why, just as it rejected mine without being able to explain why.

So there, ladies and gents, you have my theory as to why I’ve failed as a teacher: crowds instinctively fail to recognize my authority.

I handed in my notice to the school at the end of the school year, and I’ve returned to private tutoring while pondering the next stage in my career.

I’ve written this article in a deliberately polemical style; I appreciate that I haven’t always displayed “academic rigor” in coming to my conclusions. I now invite comments from readers, some of whom I suspect will also be …. failed teachers.

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