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The Secret Teacher: Schools must have licence to be firm, even harsh

Missing the chance to let our students learn vital life lessons is to make a real dog’s dinner of educating them

“The dog ate my homework.” Just because I haven’t heard that for a while doesn’t mean the homework is getting done. When a sense of slackness creeps into homework and study habits at a young age, it can be hard to shake later. In primary school, there’s one watchman or watchwoman in the form of the class teacher, so repeat offenders are easy to spot. At secondary school, by contrast, with such a range of different teachers it is crazily easy for some youngsters to slip between the cracks.

Before going on a rant, it is important to acknowledge that there are sometimes very good reasons why work might not have been completed. Typically, this is when the parents convey the message, either via a note or in a more formal communication to school management, who then pass it on to teachers. Those instances have to be the exception, and that is how it should be. Unless it is for reasons worthy of the parent standing over it, the required work should always be in the room and on time.

If only that were the case. I frequently suspect that the volume of admin I generate solely around incomplete or entirely unattempted homework amounts to a few hours per week – enough for a personal assistant. Or perhaps a virtual assistant would be more appropriate.

The work I can’t see has usually been done, or so I’m told. So it does exist but in an alternate reality. I most definitely cannot see it, but I am resolutely assured it exists. In my extensive career as a teacher, I know that work that has been done generally finds its way to the teacher. Part of the satisfaction and pride that comes with a job well done is getting it safely to its destination. I’d be prepared to wager quite a sum that the vast majority of forgotten homework was forgotten before even being started.


But we aren’t in an era where it is easy to make those accusations. Nor in this day and age can we apply pressure to youngsters without genuinely fearing that it may be more than they can cope with. When we do venture something in the direction of motivation or encouragement it can so easily be perceived as pressure that teachers decide that less is more. But in taking a step back we are doing those who choose to avoid the work a massive disservice. Surely a classic case of “the only person you’re fooling is yourself”.

I suspect I would mind less if the excuses were in any way convincing, but they really can be incredibly unimaginative. For anyone doubting that, allow me to share a few of the more modern twists on the homework-eating dogs.

“I wasn’t here.” Incredibly, being absent from school seems to count as a genuine reason for not completing missed work. I’m afraid you’ll need to suppress all rational thinking, as it often does seem as though teenagers truly believe that if they weren’t there to experience it, it doesn’t apply to them.

“I didn’t know.” I find it hard to tell sometimes if this one is about me not having explained it well enough or them not having absorbed what I said perfectly clearly. Fear of the answer, and my potential reaction to it, means I tend not to pursue any line of questioning. In some sense I guess this means that I, the teacher, can truthfully say “I don’t know”. And yet ultimately I do, because in these situations the vast majority of the class has done exactly what I asked for.

“I thought...” And whatever they thought amounts to something different from what they were asked to think. I truly marvel at the capacity youngsters have to apply critical-thinking skills solely to get out of doing something. If those same skills could get as much use in the production of actual work it would lead to a dramatically improved performance at school, and the evidence in their results would follow.

There is not much substance to any of these excuses but for a variety of reasons – some mentioned above – these excuses work. And because they work, the students do not.

Aristotle’s quote comes to mind: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” This begs the question of where seeking to be excellent at “not doing” gets anyone.

“Have a heart, let them be young,” you might be thinking, which is precisely what every teacher who accepts these excuses is doing. What perhaps we should be doing is calling out the silliness of the excuses. If young people’s futures are at the core of schooling, isn’t training them for how things will be beyond school a fundamental feature?

Few workplaces or organisations will welcome anyone who spends their energy ducking and diving to avoid their allocated tasks and responsibilities. And they certainly won’t retain such people. In order to truly educate young people in the ways of the world and the workplace, schools must have licence to be firm, perhaps even harsh sometimes. This doesn’t need to be punitive, merely effective. Doing it properly involves accountability rather than blame, and creating opportunities for dialogue rather than delivering lectures.

Experienced teachers have been observing what makes students successful (and what doesn’t) for years. Many could write a book on the subject, if they only had the time. There is a wealth of guidance and mentoring in teachers that goes unused as long as students are protected from improving their performance.

Missing the opportunity to let our students learn this vital life lesson is to make a real dog’s dinner of educating them.