Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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18/7/17: respecting the office or the person


Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.  But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
Matthew 23:1-4

This is the beginning of a section of teaching, shortly before His trial and crucifixion, in which Jesus is highly critical of the religious leaders of the day.  His criticisms go over their moral behaviour, their self-importance, and their erroneous teaching.

But my point of interest here is how Jesus starts.  Notwithstanding the withering criticism which is about to come of the Pharisees, He tells those listening to obey them.  Why?  Because they sit in Moses’s seat.  So a way of interpreting this to say: first and foremost respect the office rather than the person holding the office.  If the person holding the office is misusing it in some way, then that person is answerable ultimately to God and quite possibly to earthly authorities for this misuse.  We nevertheless respect the office that this person is holding.

Applications of this are not difficult to think of.  If somebody dressed as a police officer flags us down as we’re driving then we stop.  We do not ask to see the police officer’s CV., enquire what passing grade they got from Hendon Police Training College, or whether there are any outstanding disciplinary charges against them.  The fact that they have the position of police officer is sufficient to command respect.  We respect the office, and do not, in the normal course of things, ask questions about the person holding that office.

An aligned point to this is that, certainly in the UK and more generally I think, it is considered one league of awfulness eg. to assault another person, but a much greater league of awfulness then to assault the police officer who comes to try to sort the matter out.  One way of understanding this is that, in assaulting a police officer, one is not assaulting an individual but the entire authority system which goes with the position that police officer holds.  It is for similar reasons that contempt of court is treated so seriously.

For most people most of the time, interactions with police officers are likely to be short and not repeated.  Things get a bit more complicated when there is the opportunity to get to know the people holding the office.  Family doctors, or GPs, perhaps come in the mid range here where, unless a large medical problem is being sorted out, we see them on a repeatable but occasional basis.  As I’ve observed before eg. in this blog post, one of the defining characteristics of the teaching profession is that as youngsters we have considerable contact with teachers on a daily basis over many years, so we are likely to get to know the person behind the office.

I’ll come back to this point shortly.  Meanwhile, as regular readers will know, I’ve been doing some day to day supply teaching over the last few weeks, which has been ‘interesting’.  As previously observed, I am very sympathetic to pupils expecting the regular teaching and finding it’s me instead.  However good I might – or might not! – be, the lack of continuity is going to be an issue in their learning. 

(Parenthetical thought 1: on this point about how good a supply teach I am, very pleased to be proclaimed by one year 8 (13 year old) boy, “The nicest supply teacher we’ve ever had,” which is praise indeed!  Let’s be clear, he didn’t mean that I had been a pushover, other comments during the lesson included, “We’re doing much more work than if miss was here.”  Aware that other youngsters who have crossed my path recently will not be agreeing with these glowing endorsements, but we must take encouragement from wherever we can find it!  End of parenthetical thought 1).

So, I’ve been regarding supply teaching as the ‘art of the possible’ – first things first.  Right at the top of the list – health and safety, it’s pretty axiomatic in the teaching profession that children leave the classroom with the same number of arms and legs, arranged in the same way, as they arrived, understanding that multiplication is repeated addition may have to wait until tomorrow if there’s a conflict here.  Beyond that, I’ve been looking to create an atmosphere whereby those who wish to work can get on and do so, ensuring that everybody has what they need to get on.  When – if! – that is achieved, I then look to cajole those not immediately settling down, checking again they have what they need, offering help, trying to keep things as positive as possible and avoiding confrontations.  One line I have used, particularly with older classes is, “Please at least look as if you’re working!” which in general was respected and, albeit not necessarily immediately, often did lead to some work being done.

Much as I have been trying to avoid confrontation it won’t surprise you to read that I have not found this entirely possible.  Practising what I used to preach as an initial teacher trainer, I look to avoid language that ties me down to a particular course of action, eg. “If you don’t open your exercise book now I’m going to give you a detention”, with alternatives including things like, “I’m starting to wonder if you would find it easier to work on a table by yourself.”

(Parenthetical thought 2: even worse is, “If you don’t open your exercise now I’m going to have to give you a detention.”  Have to?  Why?  This denial of responsibility for our own decisions and actions hardly sits well with the values we are looking to instil.  This point is thrown into particularly sharp relief in the statement, “Unless you take responsibility for your behaviour I’m going to have to send you to the withdrawal room.”  End of parenthetical thought 2).

One particular point of conflict nowadays, as far as I can make out, are mobile phones.  It makes perfect sense to me that parents like their offspring to have them as they travel to – and particularly from – school, and there are case studies of projects where their use is embraced eg. for the Internet browsing facility to find things out, to gather data, etc.  But in general, their use during lesson time, including for the calculator function, is not allowed.

So, what are teachers supposed to do if they see them?  This is one of those occasions – also including allowing students to go to the toilet during lesson time – where one needs to know the official school policy, alongside what actually happens in the school, alongside also some ‘common sense’.  Official policy tends to say that they should be confiscated.   Fine in theory, not so fine in practice.  Leave aside that, once confiscated, the teacher then takes responsibility for its security until it gets returned, which is not necessarily straightforward when in school on a day by day basis, there is the very real possibility that the pupil will refuse to cooperate.  If the teacher has previously asked for it to be put away and this hasn’t happened, one tactic is then to put it away.

My view here is that, having made all reasonable attempts to avoid confrontation, in this situation one must now insist that the student does comply, or face the full might of the school disciplinary procedures – which are difficult, but not impossible, to access on a supply basis.  Coming back to the starting point, one is acting in the office of teacher, requiring pupils to comply with clearly stated school rules and procedures when those rules are broken.  If the pupil does not comply, then it is not the teacher personally they are disobeying, but they are going against the whole basis on which the school operates.

But I have to say, strongly as I believe what I’ve written above, I feel that I’m whistling in the wind here.  Respect, it appears, has to be earned on an individual basis, it does not come with the job role.  This may give youngsters the illusion of behaving in a grown up manner, in practice, in my experience, it means that they demand to be treated as adults whilst behaving as children.  I’m very happy to treat youngsters as adults, and in the past youngsters I’ve taught have commented on this.  But this has to be a two way thing. If children behave in a childish manner – with which, in itself, I have no problem – then they must expect to be treated accordingly, and I expect them to respect the office of the person sorting this out.

Alongside this, I would say that I have seen examples of teachers engaging with youngsters in a manner which does no credit to the profession, allowing them to speak rudely without being challenged, and demanding things be done which were not then followed through.  I understand the temptation to do this, but for the sake of the profession – and the youngsters – in general if not for our own sakes, we have a responsibility to live up to the office we have taken on.

So, teachers of the UK, and indeed the world, unite!  We work not as private individuals but as representatives of an ancient, honourable and essential profession.  The office we take on is a privilege and that privilege brings responsibilities.  Where individuals fall below these standards then there need to be ways of dealing with this without, as a result, requiring every teacher to start from scratch, taking up a huge amount of valuable time and energy which could be much better spent in the teaching and learning process.  I would love to hear any responses to what I’ve written here, particularly on ideas as to how we build respect for the office.

6 Comments to 18/7/17: respecting the office or the person:

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Angurini Stephen on 19 July 2017 06:48
First respect is for the office and then the additional respect for the person holding the office if they deserve the respect
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Geoff on 19 July 2017 06:52
Thank you, Stephen, yes, what you're saying is right, I think - but some way from where we are in the UK, is this a lesson which also needs to be learnt in a Ugandan context? Trust you're well, Geoff


Oscar Mwangi on 19 July 2017 09:15
I quite agree with your assertion. The respect for the office and the respect for the individual conflict at times.students tend to respect the individual and not the office although this is sometimes condoned by the individuals. Its not rare to find a teacher being respected maybe because of how he/she handles the student's misbehavior with firmness but another not being respected due to doing his role contrary to the expectation and not abiding to the laid down procedures. In essence and straight to what I believe needs to be there is a mutual trust between the office holder and the society so that there will be courtesy
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Geoff on 19 July 2017 13:16
Thank you, Oscar, you make some important points here. Certainly I agree that the importance of youngsters respecting the office first and foremost has implications for the way teachers operate. My very best wishes to you and those you love in all your endeavours, Geoff


Jamal Mwaya on 19 July 2017 13:52
I have read your speech,I nearly felt embarassed. Anyway, it happens such scenarios in administration when someone works for majority and minority wants to weaken him or her. By the way working for the office keeps you free minded person but working for mab makes you slave
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Geoff on 23 July 2017 02:49
Sorry that this piece leaves you feeling embarrassed, Jamal, that is not at all the intention! Bu if it encourages you and others to rethink the role of the teacher and the professionalism that goes alongside, great! Happy to discuss the issues further, meanwhile, very best wishes and thanks for contributing, Geoff

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