High Standards and Humility

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June 9, 2016 by Doug Napolitano-Cremin

We often forget how complicated behaviour can be. In the day-to-day madness of teaching, with various pressures from all areas of the profession and our desire to do our best for every pupil under our care, it can be hard sometimes to just stop, think, take a moment to plan a response to the words that have just been heard or the actions we have seen. Having taught in five very different schools over the last ten years I was lucky to have developed a quiet confidence in my ability to build relationships with my classes and manage difficult incidents with pupils. That confidence seemed to disappear without a trace when I started my current school in January last year. January is never a great time to start a new job in a new school, especially as a Head of Department. The school is set in a leafy suburb of North London and has a good reputation for its academic and behavioural standards. Quite different from my previous school. To say my new classes gave me a tough time is an understatement. The pupils questioned every element of my practice. I had to deal with regular disruption to my lessons and numerous complaints from parents. It got to the point where I seriously questioned my love for the profession and my ability to remain within it.

The summer holidays of 2015 couldn’t have come soon enough. It gave me a chance to take stock and evaluate my practice. I planned every element of my practice that I could think of. I tried to improve the environment I was teaching in and reaffirmed the belief I had in the rules and routines I expect all of my pupils to follow. I was able to take a step back and understand the reasons that many of my pupils and their parents were being, as I saw it at the time, confrontational and just generally difficult. I planned in opportunities for our department to provide as much information as possible about what was going to happen in the next academic year and, most importantly, why we would be doing things a certain way.

Once lessons began in September I was amazed at the transformation in the pupils. In their eyes I had passed the ‘initiation’. I had survived. I hadn’t decided to ditch them like many before me. I had somehow stuck it out. My most difficult classes, classes that I dreaded seeing every day, became my favourite. It got to the point where the pupils would apologise for how awful they had been the previous year and joke about how they were clearly now the best pupils I had ever taught.

In just under a year I have gone from actively pursuing leaving teaching to being full of hope about the possibilities for myself, my faculty and our pupils. I have recently said goodbye to many of these pupils as they headed off on study leave for their GCSEs and A-Levels and hopefully on to bigger and better things in life. I have received some incredible cards from these pupils that have really demonstrated the events of the last year and a half. It has made me laugh to see so many cards start with, ‘We didn’t have the best of starts but…’ One card in particular really hit home and has helped me learn an incredibly important lesson.

Sarah (not the real name of this pupil) seemed to take an instant dislike to me when I started teaching her last year. Everything seemed to have to be a battle between the two of us. From taking a coat off in the classroom to the completion of homework. Sarah had many difficulties outside of the classroom and was well-known by the pastoral team in the school. She seemed to keep everyone at arm’s length and appeared to take great pleasure in displaying her disdain at my subject and my attempts to teach. This week however I found a card from Sarah on my desk. She had come in after an exam and left it there whilst I was out. I am not ashamed to say upon reading it I couldn’t help but feel quite emotional and a little teary. Below is a small excerpt of what she had written:

“Thank you so much for everything over the past couple of years! I know I have been a (bit of) cow at times in your class but I have honestly enjoyed GCSE Biology because of you.

…it is so clear that you actually care about your job and your students and that honestly means so much and makes such a difference. It is obvious that (most of the time) you enjoy teaching us, so thank you SO VERY MUCH”

The honesty of the card really struck me. I have always tried to set high standards in all areas for myself and my pupils, but I have often been worried that I set the bar too high for some pupils. I am the first one to put my hand up and admit a mistake. This card confirmed to me however that continuously setting high standards and having the ability to display humility when it is needed can not only ensure you push pupils to achieve what they are capable of, but also demonstrate to pupils that everything ultimately is done out of a desire to see them do well. It is important to see beyond the textbooks, test scores and the ‘mass’ of bodies sat in front of us and continue to focus on the individuals. At the risk of being incredibly trite, it is moments like reading that card that make all the battles and hard moments completely worth it.

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