In May this year, over a year and a half into working at an all-boys senior school, I had a moment of clarity over an aspect of my teaching that I realized had changed profoundly over that time: shouting. I finally acknowledged that I was shouting in my lessons on a regular basis, and, worse still, it had become my default response to poor discipline in the classroom. A boy persistently talked: I would address him loudly and angrily; another spoke rudely to me: I would respond with a raised voice; I heard inappropriate language between pupils: I would assert my critique with a loud intervention.
I am not so un-self-aware that this change in behaviour revealed itself to me in an epiphany. I was well-aware over the course of the previous two terms in particular that I was increasingly raising my voice. I had been putting it down, however, to the personnel and dynamics of my classroom, with a particularly difficult Year 9 cohort, whose reputation was bad across the school, and an increasingly frustrating lack of self-control among immature Year 7s and 8s. I lumped it together with my increased use of the detention system, more and more pupils finding themselves sent out of the classroom for disrupting lessons, and more of them receiving angry red notes about missing prep in their exercise books. Although, by and large, discipline is extremely good at the school, I had attributed my increased vocal levels to the increased low-level poor behaviour.
To some extent, this was true. Behaviour this past year has, by and large, been slightly worse than the previous year, and the aforementioned Year 9 group have significant issues that have often manifested in rudeness, poor work ethic, distracted and distracting behaviour, and offensive language. This was not, I think, any worse in my classroom than in anyone else’s, but handling it was a regular issue, which I found both draining and depressing. I felt that I was going from maintaining a steady classroom atmosphere, held in check by my personal engagement with pupils combined with a highly-renowned hard stare, to one in which I was losing both authority and control, albeit at the lowest levels of poor behaviour. I consulted regularly with colleagues about how they were handling similar issues, seeking advice from those who had been longer at the school, or were in leadership positions, and support and suggestions were forthcoming. I also watched and listened to how other teachers were handling their encounters with the poor behaviour of pupils. Slowly, both deliberately and unconsciously, I began to change my strategies.
I work in a male-dominated macho environment, and outright disrespect of female authority from some quarters is a known quantity. This is not to say that I think that the behavioural methods I saw modelled and which were proposed to me are conducted by all men, nor that they are conducted by no women, nor that they are the only problematic methods of behaviour management; however, I do associate what I saw and was recommended with a certain strain of masculinity. As I began to pay attention, I realized how often I heard colleagues not just with raised voices, but with bellowing that seemed to manifest both real anger and conspicuous aggression. However, most importantly for me at the time, I saw that heir method was effective, at least in terms of short-term responses: miscreants would stop their actions and would rarely answer back. Furthermore, in my own practice I was advised to single out one individual from among the perpetrators, and direct my loud opinions directly at them, in a strategy of divide and rule that was widely advocated. Not only was I explicitly encouraged to shout, I was offered support with my classroom management by a senior colleague who burst in to do the shouting for me. Again, both in response to my actions and to his, I saw immediate results, albeit little longer-term behavioural change.
Writing this, I realize how unacceptable this all sounds, but within an environment where it is normalized, that swiftly ceases to be the case. Nobody is questioning how we use shouting because it is simply the accepted way of delivering behaviour management. I should add that it is relatively rare to hear a pupil shout back. Shouting is the instrument of power a teacher wields, and is largely accepted as such by the boys. In spite of the fact that I have a real distaste for shouting within my personal life, and believe it has little place in civilized relationships or public life, this normalization may explain why it took me so long to start to question my own new tendency to raise my voice.
In May, I read a book that I can describe as the single most important and inspiring text I have come across in educational writing: Boys Don’t Try? by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts. It is a book to which I will doubtless return in future blog posts, not least because of the impact it is having on my work revising how I teach Latin, but there is one section that matters particularly for this topic, where they cover dealing with public reprimands, their lack of effectiveness, and, in fact, the damage they can cause. Suddenly, as I read it, all the practice that I had cultivated and been encouraged to adopt struck me hard with the problematics that I should have seen all along. And so I stopped. Since May, I have not shouted in school. For one month of teaching (since that is all there was until the end of the school year), I did not shout at a pupil. It does not sound like much, but the results have been significant and humbling.
Firstly, I had to acknowledge that it was not easy. From someone who barely ever raised their voice and hated confrontation, my exposure to and adoption of the shouting method had made it my default. I have read enough about the cultivation of toxic masculinity to know that aggression breeds aggression, but it was tough to acknowledge its increased presence in my own personality and behaviour. I had adopted the responses I encountered in those around me, and with them had unleashed a resort to an aggressive tendency that quickly became an instinct.
Secondly, I became increasingly conscious of the use of shouting and loud public reprimand by colleagues, and, in some instances, its worst possible manifestations. Behaviour that I would never have tolerated if it were directed at me, or directed by one pupil to another, had become, I realized, the normal way of communicating authority. Underlying the shouting, moreover, would often be tactics of shame or humiliation, of toxic adult-child power dynamics, or of right-by-might. In fact, the very behaviours that one would seek to control among pupils were being modelled by the adults around them. Given the wide body of evidence that good leadership models behaviours it would wish to see emulated, we were sending an entirely wrong and conflicting message to our pupils.
Thirdly, particularly in response to the insights of Boys Don’t Try?, I started to realize that the counterproductivity of shouting is truly manifold and deep-running. Not only does it model aggression as a positive or necessary aspect of relationship or leadership, exactly in opposition to the sorts of behaviours we would like to see young people enact, it specifically feeds the culture among boys to win a badge of honour through attracting and enduring a teacher’s wrath that is far easier to win than their affirmation through hard work. The kudos within an anti-academic aggressive masculine club comes from attracting the anger of a teacher, and the more public that anger, the greater the kudos.
Finally, I had to relearn patience. Shouting in a classroom quickly becomes a kneejerk response, but also produces quick results. My famed hard stare had worked wonders in the academic girls’ school in which I worked previously. Speedily other girls had closed down the bad behaviour of whichever miscreant I was waiting upon, and the class resumed without further ado. Rarely was a reprimand of any great significance given, let alone a pupil sent out from a classroom; the occasional pupil was taken aside for private intervention, but I do not ever remember having to raise my voice, except perhaps over the top of occasional overly-exuberant chatter. However, having removed shouting from my arsenal, and with little time left in the term to develop my own way of implementing many of the techniques Pinkett and Roberts suggest, I returned to my old methods, resorting to quietly intervening to quell distractions, dealing with problematic pupils away from the rest of the class, and pausing lessons long enough and pointedly enough for pupils to self-regulate. Although the process was largely slower and self-regulation was more limited, provided I remained patient, its successes were palpable.
I don’t think that the school I work at it is in any way unusual for the prevalence of shouting in its behaviour management strategies, though there will be many other schools where these sorts of techniques may be obsolete or were never necessary. However, wherever they do prevail, I hope that teachers may be provoked to challenge them. The most telling moment for me lay in the response of a pupil who recently suggested that the bad behaviour of his class, himself often included, would provoke me to shout at them; when I replied that I had decided I would no longer shout in my lessons, he asked me, ‘But how will you be able to keep control of us?’. It is by our behaviours and the lives we lead that we teach our pupils; by shouting at them, we teach them that aggression is the only means of power.