Oh Canada – a tribute to Joe Bower

I have a distinct fondness for Canadians. I’m on to my second Chair of Governors to hail from that proud nation and I’ve been blessed with both of them – exceptional people in their chosen fields and as Chairs. My late great-uncle, Jim Quigley, was a World War II veteran in the Canadian Navy too, and it was at his funeral that I developed a love for their anthem Oh Canada! It’s fairly short and ended up being played two and a half times as Uncle Jim’s coffin draped in the Maple Leaf entered the crematorium, colouring a sad moment with a touch of comedy.

I have developed a fondness and respect over the past couple of years for another Canadian, but I never had the privilege of meeting him, and I now never will. I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of teacher Joe Bower at the weekend. I got to learn of Joe and his thoughts on education, and specifically about behaviour, soon after joining Twitter. I was instantly attracted to Joe’s views as they chime with my own. But, I had yet to meet many who thought that way or were brave enough to publicly admit as much. Those of us who espouse such approaches can be labelled as soft, permissive or just plain wrong, irrespective of the success of our work.

Joe’s blog For the Love of Learning is a rich resource and the aim was to, in his own words, “challenge ‘traditional’ schooling while exploring more progressive forms of education. I intend on using this blog to uproot some of the most deeply rooted myths that continue to distract people from a love for learning. And I am going to have fun doing it!”

The blog covers a wide range of issues and there is something in there for everybody, but his section Rethink Discipline is my personal favourite. The post Consequences for whom? states his views on the use of consequences and sanctions, as well as rewards.

We have to stop reacting to misbehavior by saying:

“He has done something bad; now something bad must be done to him.”

And we need to start saying:

“We have a problem here; how are we going to solve it together?”

This view upsets many as consequences and sanctions are seen by them as the foundations of solid behaviour policies. I am reminded of the time Basil Fawlty attacked his car for failing to start in the middle of the road.

Screenshot 2016-01-05 20.55.18

I saw Dave Whitaker use this very effectively in a training session once and I’ve now nicked it myself. It reminds me of the continued use of sanctions that do nothing to improve the behaviour of a child. The only purpose they serve is to make the adult feel better – Something must be done. Something that looks tough. This is that something. It is claimed that the situation has been dealt with. And yet the car remains there, unmoved and still unable to start.

Another of my favourites that many find challenging is Are children in control of their misbehavior?

I frame a child’s difficulties not necessarily as a choice that needs to be convinced otherwise — instead, I see a child’s difficulties as proof that the child is lagging skills, and it’s our job to help teach them those skills.

Are children in control of their misbehavior?

Who cares.

Those of us who work with children with social, emotional and mental health difficulties know that Joe is right. It is a view borne out of experience, of repeated failure to get things right, of repeated failure to improve things, of extreme situations that force you to confront the obvious – what you are doing is not working.

I’m sad that I’ll never get the chance to meet Joe in person, but I was fortunate to be able to let Joe know via Twitter how useful his blog has been to me and to let him know how influential he has been. I have recommended his blog to NQTs when I work with them on behaviour and will continue to do so.

Joe will be sadly missed by many, but I am confident that his thoughts and his actions will leave a legacy that will last for many years.

Have you ever sung at the Royal Albert Hall?

I am always pleased when children with SEN come up as a topic for discussion as it did yesterday following Quirky Teacher’s post on segregation. I am still waiting for the day, though, when I hear from a teacher who says in exultant tones that teaching children with learning difficulties has made them a better teacher. Until then I steel myself for deficit narratives, sometimes overt, sometimes implied. This deficit model is fed, in part, by the process of assessment for statements of special educational needs as was (now the Education, Health & Care Plan (EHCP)) which lists, sometimes in great detail, everything that the child finds difficult. I have often wondered what my own EHCP would look like – it would make depressing reading for sure.

This deficit narrative, these proxies for SEN, arise time and again. The two main ones I see are:

These children are an unacceptable drain on resources.

Every child is a drain on resources by definition. So what? Start the watch on an INSET day and see how long it takes someone to come out with the wisecrack “This job is so much easier when the kids aren’t here! Eh? Eh?” It’ll be minutes, not hours. The line between what any school can and cannot do is undefinable and is, in large part, drawn by the headteacher. I’ve blogged about that before in Entitlement? Yes. Inclusion? No.

Their behaviour has an unacceptable effect on the other children.

I see SEN and behaviour used interchangeably and erroneously. Do some children with SEN sometimes present with challenging behaviour? Yes. So do all children. The last time I looked 53% of all special schools had an outstanding judgement for behaviour and safety, compared to 32% of all other schools and 27% of all pupil referral units. That’s the same framework remember. Special school exclusion rates are also half that of mainstream schools. Couple that with the fact that all kids in PRUs are there because of their behaviour and last year 25% of the children at my school came to us from secondaries due to their behaviour.

The thing that irks me most about this narrative is the subtext that without these children the lives of the teacher and the other students would be improved. I reject this.

I’m a love the one you’re with kind of bloke. I have unshakeable belief that all kids can do great things with the right teaching, support, care and, as Dave Whitaker would say, love. The things that the children I serve achieve sometimes move me to tears. They have significant difficulties in certain aspects of their life, but that does not mean that they struggle with everything. 10 of our students sang at the Royal Albert Hall this year. Not in some event purely for children with SEN. They were full participants in an opera with professionals and other children from across Surrey. My heart was bursting from my chest that night. I had to politely clap along with the other 6,000 people but I desperately wanted to scream and shout from the rafters about how proud of them I was. Take the young man in Year 10 who has Down syndrome but speaks three languages (Do you? I don’t.); the girl in Year 11 who was a Paralympic torchbearer in 2012 (as well as appearing in a BBC documentary and being interviewed on Japanese TV); the young lady in Year 12 who recently returned from Italy where she won four medals and set a European record at the European Down Syndrome Swimming Championships; the young lady in Year 10 who’s been selected for the GB Down Syndrome Swimming Squad. All impressive, but no more impressive than the 25% of our children who had to leave secondary schools due to their behaviour but have come to love school once more, a place that, at one time, scared the life out of them. For one of our Year 11 students it took FOUR YEARS for us to make him feel safe in school. It takes that long (this is the bit where you tell me to think of the other children) and we pride ourselves on not giving up on kids who have been written off long ago. Their difficulties will not be solved by the end of the week.

Teaching children with complex learning difficulties can make you feel unskilled. To start with it certainly makes you feel scared. This is at the heart of the matter – read Beefy’s response to Quirky Teacher’s post to learn more. Embrace it and it will be the best CPD you will ever have. It took me to teach children with profound and multiple learning difficulties to realise that what I knew about teaching, and behaviour, when I worked in mainstream was a veneer at best. Try teaching a child with multi-sensory impairment (that is to say, deaf and blind) and then you’ll have to begin from first principles. How does this child even know who I am? How do I know if they’ve learned something? How do I assess it? Have they really learnt it if they cannot do it in another class, outside of school or with another person?

My seven-year-old daughter and I were discussing jobs yesterday. Her visual impairment means that some jobs will be closed to her. She spends time with soldiers and police officers and thinks their jobs are cool. I’ve had to tell her that she won’t be able to do those things when she’s older. It breaks my heart to tell her and her disappointment is palpable. The thing that is most upsetting, though, is that she feels a little less human as a result. “There are things I’m not allowed to do. This makes me different from everyone else.” Her impairment is, in the world that I spend my time in, minor and close to being inconsequential. I can only imagine what it’s like for those with complex difficulties. Read Beefy’s response again.

Don’t make the mistake of perpetuating that deficit narrative. Don’t make the Fortune Teller Error – the prediction of failure – that I so often hear.

As Dylan Wiliam has said, “teach the kids in front of you, not the ones you wish you were teaching.