RULES - BE FLEXIBLE, NOT RIGID
24 July 2015
(originally published in the Queenwood newsletter)
TEACHERS ARE HUMAN - GETTING THE BALANCE RIGHT BETWEEN CONSISTENCY AND FLEXIBILITY
I believe that most of my colleagues have, at some stage or other, experienced the following scenario: they come to school on a Monday morning and an excited student pipes up and exclaims something on the lines of: “Dr Seele! You were at Woolworth’s yesterday!” If this happens to me, I always feel tempted to say: “Yes, I know. And?” But I don’t. I usually reply, in the same excited tone: “Yes! How do you know that?” Which gives them the opportunity to launch into a long story to tell me which aisle they have seen me in and what I put into my trolley.
Somehow these scenarios are based on the assumption that teachers are not quite real people, doing real things, and that they look distinctly out of place anywhere other than at school. This is closely connected to another assumption: that teachers live in a different universe without the normal shades and variations of life. In our sad teacher world people don’t wear any earrings other than the official school stars. Clear earrings, no matter how invisible to the untrained eye, are a capital sin. Hats are to be worn, come rain or shine. Everybody is always punctual and polite. Draconian punishments are inflicted upon those who use mobile phones in corridors. In short: teachers are disconnected from the real world, have never been teenagers themselves, get morally outraged about petty things. We do, by the way, hear this view from parents occasionally, not just from students.
Well, let me take the risk and share a secret with you. Teachers are, to a certain extent, actors. Most of us will, at some stage of our lives, have been rebels. Most of us will, at some stage, have broken rules. I remember having had a rather boring teacher in one particular subject, and quite regularly a friend of mine and I would skive her lessons, walk to the River Neckar in my home town Heidelberg, hire a tread boat and enjoy a leisurely time on the water. We never got into trouble for it because the teacher never noticed our absence. I believe that our parents are still blissfully unaware of our shenanigans. And were my teacher reading this, she would panic retrospectively in this age of risk assessments and what might have happened to her, had something happened to us while we were supposedly in her care.
I am not defending what I have done, but I was young and carefree, and I have preserved in my mind an understanding for the young people of today which informs my judgment of their actions. To quote the controversial words of Jonathan Smith, a UK schoolmaster and writer, from his inspirational book “The Learning Game”: “The truth is you have to be shocked when you are not. You have to embrace double standards. You have to promote what you do not believe. And the trick, of course, is to know that you are doing it. You must not believe your own propaganda. If you do that, you are lost. You have to hold up a model approach knowing full well you do not yourself embody it. You do this because the model approach, the religious or moral or intellectual example you are offering the young, is much better than your own life.”
Personally, I do not fully agree with every aspect of these words. Yes, we do not really get morally outraged about girls who wear the wrong type of earrings, but we do believe that at this stage of their lives boundaries are important and consistency is helpful to them. This includes consistency with regard to sanctions, and even though it may not seem to be the case at the time, a consistent sanction system with specific sanctions for specific transgressions of rules is a useful tool to steer adolescents through these turbulent years of their life and give them a sense of security.
Whilst I agree with Smith about the pretence of being shocked when we are not, I would take issue with his words that we should promote things we do not believe in. As far as the bigger values are concerned, it would make us utter hypocrites not to believe in them ourselves. Our three founding values – Truth, Courage and Service – are easy to identify with, and the educational aims we consistently promote are something we very genuinely believe in. It does not mean that we embody perfection ourselves, but we are indeed offering a model that everybody, staff and students, should aspire to. This is the very definition of “model”: something that may never be achieved in all its facets, but an ideal standard by which to measure your actions, your values and your philosophy.
Returning to the topic of petty infringements of rules and the punishments for these: these, too, are based on an ideal model. Not the model of a world without mobile phones or earrings, but a world where members of a community show respect for each other, try their best to comply with rules and cheerfully accept the consequences if occasionally they don’t. Just as I was in the middle of writing this, I had a visit from a Year 12 girl in my office who wanted to talk about something else, but dropped in the conversation that in her entire school career she had never had a Friday detention. When I wanted to compliment her, she said: “Well, it is not that hard. Wear your hat, don’t use your phone, no jewellery and go to lessons on time, and you are pretty safe.” Indeed.
And sometimes it may appear - to those who only hold partial information - that we stray from the path of consistency, or that someone has got away with it, or that different rules apply to different people. As a general rule, this is not the case, but very occasionally there may be reasons why sanctions are not broadcast in order to protect the confidentiality of members of our community, leading to the false impression that they have got off lightly, or why sanctions are indeed not given because of special circumstances that only the most senior members of staff are aware of. As the Roman orator and politician Cicero so succinctly puts it: “Summum ius, summa iniuria.” Sometimes what may seem to be the pinnacle of justice, can actually turn out to be the pinnacle of injustice. Those of us who make the decisions at school need to preserve a flexible mind, and where we bend our own rules, we do so for good reasons. Please do have faith in our systems, and when you don’t, please tell us.