I’m writing this blog post on a flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles because I was so moved whilst analysing statements made by the participants in our behaviour school study that I just had to share them with my teacher colleagues.

You see, my research doesn’t often have positive things to say about schooling because I work with very disaffected and disengaged young people; kids who really haven’t had positive school experiences.

These kids typically have quite conflictual relationships with their teachers and for most (in our research at least) this started in the early years: K-2. In another project tracking children from prep, which was recently funded by the Australian Research Council, we’re getting some idea of how this happens and I have to say it isn’t all one way traffic.

By that I mean that classroom conflict takes two. It is the product of interactions between particular children (involving their temperaments, abilities, beliefs, likes and dislikes) and particular teachers (and their temperaments, abilities, beliefs, likes and dislikes).

In our longitudinal prep study, for example, we’re finding that children’s ability to self-regulate has a large bearing on educational outcomes and that self-regulation is affected by many things, including age and gender. Unfortunately, this sets some kids up for conflict with their teachers, some of whom find it difficult to understand why some of the children in their class find it difficult to control their bodies and emotions, whilst other children seem not to have any problem at all.

In the next few years I’m sure that we’re going to be reporting a lot of data on what goes wrong in the interactions between kids and teachers but, for now, I’d like to take this opportunity to share something about when it goes right.

Students’ recall of positive teacher-student relationships

My colleagues, Penny Van Bergen, Naomi Sweller and I are currently writing a paper analysing students’ memories of their relationships with past teachers. The lovely thing about this paper is that when we asked students to tell us about the first teacher they remember having, the vast majority remembered that teacher for positive reasons.

This doesn’t mean that the first relationship that they had was positive, rather that the teacher that was front of mind when they were asked to remember a relationship is a teacher they connected with.

This was true for students in behaviour schools as well and it is these stories that I want to share with my teacher colleagues. Teaching is hard work and I know that the hardest part of all can be working with challenging young people who often seem as if they do not see or care about the effort that their teachers are making.

The reason that I was incredibly moved today is because the recollections of the challenging little people in our behaviour school study show that they do see and that they do care, even if they may not acknowledge it to the teacher who made the difference at that particular point in time. This is why I’m sharing this data via a blog.

Yes, we’ll publish the paper and it will be evidence-based and it will feature rigorous statistical analysis backed up by the research literature, but I believe that researchers in education are in a position to provide feedback to the teaching profession that may meet other needs too: emotional needs, the need for affirmation, or just some acknowledgement that the efforts you’re making are being noticed. By someone and not least your students.

Data on these teaching contributions might not feature on My School but, well, somehow I don’t think that’s why you’re doing it… 😉

Anyway, the recollections that I’m reading as I analyse our data on the 5+ hours flight from Philly, show that kids notice the *little* things: a teacher who “always smiles at kids”, a teacher who “had time for me”, teachers who would smile when she/he spoke to them, who would say “hello” and talk to that child regardless of how they’d behaved, whether they were ever in that teacher’s class, or whether they’d had that teacher years before.

Because she had time for me… When a bunch of year sixes were picking on me and I went to her and she told me to come in and I told her what was going on and then she told someone, someone told the principal and…

(Rory, age 13, behaviour school)

These actions are the little everyday things that we all know teachers do but which teachers may not always be able to tell are registering with the little people those kindnesses are directed towards. Well, let me tell you, given that almost 90% of our students’ responses focused on positive teacher actions such as those I describe above, I’d say that those little everyday actions are registering. Remember that the next time your nemesis gives you a rough time…

Positive relationship with teacher meme


But, the big actions are also remembered

This is what made me cry. We hear all the time about teachers paying for children’s lunches and school supplies out of their own pocket, but I think maybe the general public either doesn’t believe it or they’re so used to hearing it that it’s kind of expected and so it goes unnoticed. Or maybe they think teachers just say this and that it’s not really true… Who knows.

Well, this comment by one of the boys in our research near broke my heart. In describing the first teacher he remembered, this boy (let’s call him Harley) talked about Miss H. Whilst his is one of the most poignant recollections, it should be noted that almost two thirds of student responses were in the same category: positive memories of the teacher because of something that the teacher did for the student. The other category, into which the remaining third of responses fell, was: positive memories of the teacher because the teacher was generally “nice” (e.g., nice to everyone).

In this case, Harley – whom I remember very clearly and who was enrolled in a behaviour school when he was interviewed – described the first teacher he remembered having as someone “who helped me with my anger”. But it was his response to the question “do you think she liked you?” that moved me to tears.

Yeah. She always used… um, like, every time I’d go there without food because my mum couldn’t afford it, she had to pay rent, because they do her money, like, different every week. She doesn’t get paid the same every two weeks, or something. One day she only got paid a hundred bucks, and she owed four hundred on the rent, and she couldn’t pay it – she paid a hundred dollars off the rent, left us with no food and no money, nothing. Just meat – she had meat and that in the fridge, but she can’t just give me raw meat or nothing, so Miss H always used to buy me lunch, let me go on excursions, because at [school name blinded] I’d never been – I was never allowed to go on an excursion because of my ADHD….and…yeah.

(Harley, age 13, behaviour school)

This made me cry because I know this boy lived with serious domestic violence and that he often watched his mother get beaten up by his step-dad. I also know that he, his mum and sister had been evicted many times because his mum couldn’t pay the rent in their housing commission home, and he’d had to move schools every time.

I know that the principal of the behaviour school had to call the police and women’s refuges to take the three of them in because Harley’s mum had come to the school with a depressed skull fracture, two kids, no money and nowhere to go. Like a number of our behaviour school boys, Harley had deep reservoirs of anger that manifested in a “don’t care/fuck you” attitude. This attitude was directed most vehemently to anyone who tried to lay down the law to him… Not hard to understand why once the context is known, hey?

Whilst this 13 year old was no angel and the actions of one kind and caring primary school teacher wasn’t enough to protect him from the overwhelming odds characterising his life, it was an action he still remembered many years later. It’s an action that – if repeated enough times and by enough of his teachers – could possibly have made a difference. It may still. I live in hope that he escapes the future I fear for him.

The difficult thing for teachers is that they seldom see the end product of their work. So much of the focus is about achieving academic benchmarks and handing on children who are sufficiently on the way to those benchmarks to the teachers of the next grade.

That’s absolutely important work. But helping the Harley’s of this world to cope with (justifiable) anger, to overcome the dreadful hands they’ve been dealt, to show them kindness, tolerance, understanding and love — well, that’s just as important. Without it, the other benchmarks might just become irrelevant.

So to all of you who’ve had a Harley in your class, who’ve lived the acts of kindness that these kids are talking about here, I acknowledge you. Keep doing it. Please.

It is noticed and it does matter. Support each other, build reservoirs of kindness in tough schools. Even if you’re rebuffed by the kids or the parents, keep going. These kids tend not to show it but even our toughest boys remembered a teacher who cared about them. And, you never know, that teacher could have been you.