Confessions of a Soft Touch

On Wednesday, as I sat in a classroom at my new school listening to the Director of Inclusion, I realised I had a problem. As she spoke eloquently and passionately about the scourge of low expectations and the culture of excuses that pervades both schools and society, I lowered my eyes. I suddenly understood.

I, Jessica Lund, am a Soft Touch.

As the famous saying goes, the first step to dealing with a problem is to admit that you have one. Well, I have one, and it has affected my dealings with all of the young people with whom I have had the privilege of working in the last two years. It has affected them – although I, and perhaps they, never realised it – and, had I not had the good fortune to be sitting in that room last week, it may have continued unnoticed and unchallenged for the rest of my career.

I, Jessica Lund, am a Soft Touch.

The best (worst) example of what I’m talking about happened last year, as an NQT. I was approached by several pupils who had just been given detention by another staff member for rudeness and inappropriate behaviour. Why did they approach me? Was it because I was their form tutor, or the head of the department, or some other person of pastoral or disciplinary significance? No.

I, Jessica Lund, am a Soft Touch.

I gave them the opportunity to air their grievances. It wasn’t fair, they said. They weren’t guilty of what they had been punished for, they maintained. This teacher had it in for them, they moaned. I probed a little and ascertained that, actually, they had been guilty of about 60% of what they had been punished for, but that the actual detention they felt was the unwarranted bit. I said I would speak to the teacher on their behalf. “Leave it with me”.

I can hear the voice of my new Headmistress now – WHAT?! That is outrageous. That is completely and utterly unacceptable. And she’s right.

What I did was completely and utterly unacceptable.

I, Jessica Lund, am a Soft Touch.

There are innumerable similar instances of such behaviour. The moments I would excuse non-completion of homework because of illness, technical problems with computers, trouble at home, trouble at school, bad hair days. The instances in which I would accept that a child would only learn 2-3 words in the course of a lesson because ‘oh, they have issues’. The times when I would listen to pupils saying that I, or another teacher, had unfairly punished them, and would (in some cases) reverse decisions. The moments when I overlooked equipment sanctions for the chronically disorganised child, or gave a pupil an extra chance to tuck in their shirt en route to a lesson. I was proud to be a teacher that pupils would come to in order to seek justice or discuss their problems.

I, Jessica Lund, am a Soft Touch.

I, Jessica Lund, am the embodiment of the Culture of Low Expectations.

I, Jessica Lund, pledge to change.

Perhaps what it took was arriving at a school where standards and expectations are so astronomically high, and seeing that pupils of all kinds were not only able, but eager, to meet those standards and expectations. I think in my heart I had always doubted whether they would, or could.

I also think – and this is difficult to admit – that I have low expectations for myself. I procrastinate, I do half-baked work, I accept mediocrity in many forms. In some cases, I have confused perfection for high standards, which I now know to be a false comparison.

While preparing for a new term at a new school, I have been thinking about what I want my classroom to be like, and how I want the pupils in it to behave.

I want smartly uniformed, well-equipped, punctual and incredibly polite pupils.

I want visible motivation, dedication to learning, hard work and effort.

I want engagement in the content of the lessons, and 100% focus on every task.

I want hands raised, answers offered, clear and articulate full sentences.

I want silence and attention at all times when it is required to learn.

I want my pupils to know that I will never, ever, ever, EVER make excuses for them or accept anything but their best.

I want pupils to fear my discipline and love the results.

So why would I ever accept anything else?

Being tough is tough. I’ve felt many moments of self-doubt in the last 48 hours, since the pupils arrived and I have forced myself to call out and censure any infraction of the above standards. I have told more pupils in the last two days that I was disappointed in them, that their behaviour was unacceptable, that they need to have a long hard think about their choices and whether they deserve the incredible education they will receive, than I have in the last two years. I have been quite shaken seeing pupils arrive late being castigated for their tardiness.

But I know it’s the right thing to do. I know that these pupils will think seriously about whether they ever want to arrive late again. I hope that every pupil who turns up next week without a pen will never turn up without a pen again. I hope that these pupils will learn more than they ever thought or believed possible, and I hope I can be the teacher that they deserve, and that I will sweat every tiny thing, and that they will leave school as accomplished, smart, kind, polite people because of it.

In doing so, I am going to have to hold myself to a high standard. To be hard on myself whenever I don’t meet that standard, and to ensure that I am working smart and working well on the things that matter. I will have to check myself regularly to ensure that my interactions with pupils are always discouraging poor choices and reinforcing good ones. I will, very likely, be exhausted by the effort of this half-term, as I pick up on every single infraction that I see. These are the habits that I must develop, because these are the habits that lead to the success I want for every one of my pupils and for myself.

I, Jessica Lund, was a Soft Touch.

I, Jessica Lund, care enough about my pupils to pick up on every poor choice.

I, Jessica Lund, am going to change.