When I was training to be a teacher I worked for a short time at quite a rough comprehensive school in the south of England.
One of my classes was a year 9 science group and one of the students - we’ll call him Sean - ambled into our first scheduled lesson late, as predicted by my mentor, the usual class teacher.
Sean looked very intrigued by the student teacher standing awkwardly at the front of the room, and proceeded to dominate the lesson and command my attention for the next 55 minutes. He did a marvellous job of preventing me from doing my job – teaching him and the rest of his classmates.
The end of the lesson was chaos with the whole group charging out the door and I was left feeling battered, with my mentor looking at me sympathetically.
I was ready for Sean next lesson though. I met the class outside the room this time. I chatted with them, settled them down and then let them file in the room to get on with some starter puzzles I’d left on the board.
With the rest of the group sat down and their attention on the puzzles, I waited at the door for Sean to turn up. He didn’t keep me waiting long this time and as he strolled towards the classroom sneering I casually leaned against the door, blocking his entry, and smiled.
“Sean, can I have a quick word? Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble.”
“What d’you want?”
“Well the truth is… all I want is what you want.”
“I’m guessing that what you want is to have an easy life, right?”
“Aye”, he grinned and seemed to relax somewhat.
“After all, none of us want to have a hard time, do we? And I know you’re bright enough to know what you have to do to avoid that. Believe it or not I think you're quite clever. I think you have a special kind of cleverness that not many people pick up on.
I paused until I got the reaction I wanted. Sean's expression changed; he was really listening now.
Sean, I know you probably find a great deal of school life to be a waste of time, right? But you also know that when you get in trouble you’ll spoil your chances of doing well. I want to help you do well, because if you can do well, you’ll have an easier, more enjoyable life. So tell me Sean – what can I do to make the lessons a bit more appealing for you?”
He was clearly taken aback. I went on to tell him that I wanted to make sure the lessons were of use to him. The message I tried to get over was that I wanted to help him, I wanted him to break out of the cycle he was in of constantly being in trouble - with teachers expecting him to cause problems.
After a few minutes, quite unexpectedly, he told me that he struggled to understand sometimes, and had difficulty reading the textbooks. I sensed his relief once he had got this admission out of his system. The ice was breaking.
We made a deal, and agreed a few strategies that would help us both. I reminded him what was expected of him in class but that rather than reprimanding him straight away, I would quietly remind him if his attention strayed. We made up a few private hand signals so that the rest of the class wouldn’t have to be distracted and I arranged to have the page from the textbook enlarged for him. I promised I would try to include videos and practical activities (which he said he enjoyed) in as many of our lessons as I could. It was amazing how thankful he seemed in response to this little display of concern for his welfare and happiness.
That lesson, and the rest of my lessons with that class, were very different from then on. A 3-minute conversation had completely changed his behaviour.
He no longer tried to dominate the lessons. He was no longer at war with me. In fact, quite the opposite, Sean became my greatest ally. If there was too much noise I just had to give Sean a nod and he would sort it out. Sean was one of the roughest lads in the year group and was aware of his influence over his peers - when he told the class to stop talking, they did.
I’m sure you’ve heard it said that our most difficult students tend to be those with leadership potential and a dire need for responsibility. That was certainly the case with Sean.
I noticed some big changes in him over the next few weeks. He was never late. Often, he would be first in class and last to leave. He'd hang around me and we'd chat about all kinds of things.
A brief chat, a little recognition and some care had been all he wanted. He tried much harder in lessons; but not for rewards, not for stickers, and not to escape detention. Perhaps it was because he wanted to impress me, perhaps it was because he wanted more attention, perhaps it was because he had a greater sense of worth and felt more capable. Whatever the reason, the fact was he was putting in more effort without the need for reward systems, bribes or sanctions. He was punctual, he was pleasant and he was a real asset to the class.
We could treat every confused, lost, angry, hurt child as a troublemaker. But when we do so, nobody wins. We don’t change kids for the better by coldly and mechanically punishing them. Beneath all the anger, all the animosity is a kid that needs support, needs listening to, needs understanding.
What changed Sean in this particular instance wasn’t some unattainable, elusive ‘gift’ that some teachers seem to possess and others can only dream about. It wasn’t the school’s perfectly organised behaviour policy. It wasn’t an ‘all singing, all dancing’ lesson filled with exciting activities. It wasn’t a series of tangible rewards nor was it the threat of a hierarchy of increasingly severe consequences. It wasn’t even the result of praise and encouragement lavished on the boy every time he did something right. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things of course; they can all help and have their place in our schools. But the one thing that always makes such a noticeable difference with the Seans of this world - and any teacher can do this - is making them feel valued and cared for.
Kids like Sean become problems in our schools largely because they feel disconnected. They feel that the school has nothing to offer them; they feel they don’t belong there. If we are to help kids like Sean we have to reach out to them, show them we care about them, and support them.
Making sure all students feel a sense of belonging is at the heart of The Needs Focused Teaching Method.
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