Young trainee army officers used to have drummed into them that “there is no such thing as bad soldiers; only bad officers”. For all I know, it still is. But let us transfer the context:
How valid would the same idea be in the world of education? How far is it true that there is no such thing as bad pupils; only bad teachers?
The trouble with a simple word like “bad” is that it can mean many things, so decks must be cleared before we can discuss anything relevant to teaching. Out will go synonyms like “stale”, “cruel”, “immoral” and a dozen more.
Similarly, out go near-misses like “slow”, “incompetent”, “late”, “fussy”, “disorganised” and “forgetful”. Look at the heartfelt comments of tired teachers in old-time reports.
“A troubled teacher should avoid too many gloomy vigils in front of the fire with the bedtime beverage.”
No. Let us be practical. What is a bad pupil? In plain, commonsense terms he or she is to blame for behaviour which makes the conduct of a lesson difficult. So the debate is about the extent to which the teacher has brought this situation upon himself.
It would be sensible, I suggest, for a troubled teacher to avoid too many gloomy vigils in front of the fire with the bedtime beverage. There is no future in martyrdom. Nor in excessive breast-beating.
Try a little realism. Can it really be all your fault? No, of course not. Just look for the bits which are.
Think too of things you can’t change. You are not perfect. Neither are they. They are young; they are loud; they are impulsive; they are impressionable; they are volatile; they are immature.
True, they are capable of great heights, but they are also capable of great depths. You are not going to make them adult; you are not going to make them beavers or little swots; and you are not going to make them nice.
You are not there to make them any of those things. You are there to make them just a little more knowledgeable and willing than they were yesterday.
“Can it really be all your fault? No, of course not. Just look for the bits which are.”
Common sense, logic, psychology, and historians could all probably make the case that really nasty people do exist. If so, it would follow that really nasty pupils exist as well. Though possibly not quite as many as we would estimate in the depths of our agonising over the midnight cocoa.
If, however, you should be unlucky enough to meet such a creature, I’m afraid I have no treatment to offer, much less a cure.
What do you do then with bad pupils? You don’t take them on, that’s for sure. You are not alone. You are not solely responsible for the disciplinary system of the school. Even if you did win a face-to-face duel, that would not be the end of it. He will seek a second round; his pride will not allow him to do otherwise. His priorities are about winning, not learning.
“You are not going to make them into little swots; and you are not going to make them nice.”
Use the system. Don’t look forward to a tiny triumph in a local shootout. Bring the big guns to bear; that’s what they are there for. Remember, with the really unpleasant cases, you are not campaigning to protect yourself; you are campaigning to protect the system.
It may be that you have landed up in a school where there really are no bad pupils, and all the teachers are paragons of virtue. It you have, think carefully before you hand in your resignation.
“Don’t look forward to a tiny triumph in a local shootout.”
If you haven’t, and you get trouble, don’t make yourself wretched over something you can’t handle. It is no sin not to be cut out for teaching. It is a virtue to realise it.
Otherwise, just take in the advice available, gird the loins, take a deep breath, and go into the arena. Trust yourself to have what it takes to survive. Most people wouldn’t go near teaching. You’re quite rare birds; that makes you valuable.
This article is based on a chapter in Berwick Coates’ new book, Teach to learn, learn to teach, published in 2022 by Paragon Publishing.