Three students – let’s call them Mick, Paul and Stephen* – had an altercation as they were leaving my classroom last Friday.
I couldn’t hear what they were saying, as I was inside behind glass and they had just left the room, but there was no doubt that Mick and Paul were both speaking directly to Stephen and all three were verbally agressive towards each other before Stephen went to catch his bus and the other two headed in a different direction.
Mick had to return for a parent/teacher interview that night, so I was able to question him soon after the event. He assured me that “I didn’t have words to Stephen, I had words to my mates to make sure they didn’t get involved. Let’s get that right.”
It was no surprise to me that Stephen was involved. I’ve taught kids like him before – the kind of kid who you would have wanted to punch in the face had you been one of his peers at school. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t treat him any differently than I do the other students. It’s just that while I often praise the flashes of brilliance he shows in class, I also have to spend a lot of time ensuring that his barbs at the academic and personal lives of other students don’t become an issue in the classroom.
Speaking to both Stephen and Paul in private on the next available school day, the truth came out:
- Stephen had indeed mouthed-off at the other boys, calling Mick a “grey-haired old cunt” (Mick’s a year older than the other students in the class) and questioning Paul’s sexuality.
- Mick and Paul had both mouthed-off at Stephen, with Mick in particular calling Stephen a “fucking rapist.” (One of the girls at school once accused Stephen of indecently assaulting her, however the accusation never made it past the Principal’s office, for the reasons we are unaware of.)
The boys agreed to apologise to each other, and I was pleased when they did so. They also understood the need for them to face detention – so many other students, including much younger kids, had heard their comments that they all realised an example had to be made of them to show just how unacceptable their behaviour was.
However, I still had to deal with Mick. He had spoken with such arrogance and even disdain at the parent/teacher interview: “Let’s get that right.” I wasn’t about to allow a student of mine to lie to me and his parents without appreciating the inappropriateness of such an action.
Our conversation went something along the lines of the following:
Teacher: You know what you said in the corridor was inappropriate, Mick, but that’s not the point. To be honest, you may have been unlucky to be caught this time, which meant that what happened in the corridor couldn’t stay in the corridor. But once you were caught, you should have just admitted that you were wrong rather than digging a deeper hole for yourself by lying about it.
Student: I strenuously object to being branded a liar.
Teacher: So if you didn’t lie, what did you do?
Student: Look, all of us students move on quickly regardless of what issues capture the imagination of you teachers during the week. We simply can’t afford to look back. It’s a pity the teachers cannot do the same.
Teacher: But you always look back, Mick. You ask for feedback on your work so that you can improve in the future, actively seeking out suggestions as to how you can score a better grade. In fact, when you tutor the younger kids you’re always looking at what they did last time so that they can improve next time. As someone who has history as a favourite subject, surely you understand that the great Winston Churchill would argue that people must always look back to improve the future? That we cannot simply forget the past, as we’ll continue to make the same mistakes?
Student: But every day I have turned up for school this week I have been ambushed by you. Why? What is left to be said?
Teacher: What’s left to be said, Mick, is that you understand that what you did was wrong. And I don’t mean what you said to Stephen – you’ve apologised for that and you know that you were wrong to take his bait when you should have just walked away. I mean what you said to me afterwards. Now let’s get this right, Mick – you spoke to Stephen, and you lied about it in a pre-meditated, calculated fashion.
Why do I need to keep talking to you about this? Because it’s our job as teachers to help you to change your behaviour. You know decent blokes don’t lie, and yet you don’t just persist with it, you try to justify your lies as well.
Student: But teachers now hold students to impossibly high standards, as if they are a group apart from normal society.
Teacher: No, Mick. Being a man of your word isn’t an impossibly high standard. It’s simply the personality trait of which I hope you’ll be most proud of when you leave school. Because if you’re not a man of your word, you’ll find that people out there in the real world don’t have much faith in anything that you say. Ever.