The greatest teachers are expert at the status game

Status: the position of an individual in relation to another or others.

 

The Status Game

I discovered the status game on a course years ago. Participants were given a secret number, 10 representing highest status and 1 lowest on a ‘status continuum’, and we were asked to mingle (or not) at an improvised party in the manner of our number. I got a 2 and scuttled around, Uriah-Heep-like, asking people if I could take their coats. Not method acting I admit – but then I was a probationary English teacher sent on a drama course.

Despite this memorable training, the little bit of KS3 drama teaching I did was never great. I’d spend so long on icebreaking activities that conditions were positively Mediterranean by the time my classes began any real work. However, I remain grateful for the experience. Not only was the status game always a sure-fire success as an icebreaker but, more importantly, the notion of status and how we communicate it suggested a really useful way of looking at behaviour management. For me, as I’ll explain later, the truly great teachers are expert at the status game.

Teacher as actor

It’s an odd thing isn’t it – how some people simply exude high status, and others really don’t. I remember receiving some devastating feedback after a placement at a primary school on my PGCE. I was being advised, I now understand, that my status was too low – there wasn’t enough distance between me and my pupils. That was something I had to work hard on – like many trainee teachers. Even now, some twenty-five years later, I’m still very aware that I’m acting when I’m projecting high status. It’s not really me.

However, our survival as teachers does depend on us mastering the high status performance with Stanislavskian conviction. We’ve got to think Mark Darcy, not Bridget Jones, if we want to transmit the commanding presence that most students respect. Sometimes it can even seem a bit unfair that Mark can stroll in and deliver an indifferent lesson without incident whilst Bridget, who has spent hours planning an interactive, stretching, objective-driven masterpiece is losing her break to yet another detention. We’ve all seen this happen so many times.

However, and here’s the real point of this post – the inflexibly high status teacher – the Darcy who refuses to appear from behind his (or her) inscrutable mask – will never engage the hardest to teach. Indeed, in my experience a rigidly high status stance can trigger some of the most hostile reactions from this minority of students. That’s one of the many reasons why Gove’s idea of fast tracking former soldiers into classrooms to ‘instil discipline’ was always such a silly one. It would have failed even on its own terms.

The hardest to teach

By the hardest to teach, I’m referring to those students who lack interpersonal skills, who may have low anger thresholds, who are shame-based, frightened to tackle new work which could lead to failure, who dislike being required to perform tasks which expose their chronic weaknesses. Those students who were denied the essential foundation of secure attachment as infants and who are therefore volatile, insecure, controlled still by their dominant reptilian brains. In short, those really vulnerable SEND learners that it takes a special kind of teacher to engage – the old BESD category, now more accurately described as having Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs.

Personal connection

Crucially, there are always some teachers who are able to build positive working relationships with these students. It does help if your subject is practical and enables the fragile learner to experience a sense of competence, but I’ve seen teachers from across the curriculum work their magic. Every school has practitioners who can do this and identifying precisely what makes their practice so inclusive ought to be top of any SENCO’s list of priorities.

For me, it does come down to this manipulating status idea. One student on my current inclusion register has a diagnosis of ODD and he is regularly removed from a particular lesson. When I ask him what’s gone wrong, his answer is always the same. “She doesn’t care about us.” From a superficially tough teenager, I find that an interesting complaint. All young people like to feel their teachers care, I’m sure, but this disclosure and many like it over the years suggests to me that the SEMH learner depends on this level of personal connection. And you can’t communicate personal warmth from a great height.

Clearly, however, the SENCO’s advice must never come across as a request to get ‘down with the kids’ – that would never work. What we’re actually looking for are some relatively minor adjustments to otherwise effective practice that we know, for this marginal group, would make a major difference – such as the old meet and greet strategy, choosing to reveal something of ourselves, referring to a student’s life out of school, knowing who his friends are, showing a genuine interest in the person as well as the learner.

Bill’s Top Ten

Bill Rogers is brilliant on all of this. He doesn’t couch his advice, helpfully summarised in Tom Sherrington’s ‘A Bill Rogers’ Top 10’, in these terms. However, he is, I think, providing us with a set of excellent lowering-status-whilst-maintaining-control strategies. Particularly relevant here is his guidance on positive language. Instead of, “Ryan, turn around in your seat and listen to me”, Rogers advises we try “Ryan, I’d like you facing this way and listening now. Thanks!” Tom Sherrington writes that he started using ‘Thanks’ all of the time after watching the Bill Rogers’ video on positive language, so significant was the change in dynamic that resulted. Clearly, modelling courtesy in this way involves a subtle lowering of status which warms the classroom climate and promotes social and emotional learning.

Take-up time

Another Bill Rogers tactic particularly relevant here is take-up time. It’s very familiar to most teachers now, of course, but I’ve seen it misused. I’ve seen teachers ‘patiently’ standing next to belligerent students giving them ‘time to make the right choice’. That’s not take-up time, that’s a power struggle. We have to walk away – talk to another student, perhaps another one after that. The adolescent, in urgent need of peer group approval remember, will then no longer experience his own status as directly threatened by the adult’s and will eventually comply. Significantly, for the young person with SEMH needs, a fight or flight response will also have been averted.

There’s so much in the Top 10 post that for me relates to status and a willingness to climb down a few rungs on the ladder. Partial agreement, avoiding the urge to have the last word, is another classic. (“I wasn’t talking!” ….. “Well maybe you weren’t but if you could finish the task now I’d be grateful. Thanks.”) Do read Sherrington’s post for the full set of gems.

Affective statements

I worked with one teacher whose management of even the most challenging students was simply extraordinary. They all loved him and, because they really wanted to please him, produced their best work in his lessons. Without doubt, it was the strength of the personal connection, not the subject or even really the lesson content that brought out the best in these learners, fully signed up members of the awkward squad included. On observing his practice, I found that humour was a key feature and, indeed, students reported this as being the essential ingredient. However, there was also something more subtle and for me more powerful at work. That was affective language – the language of feeling.

Restorative practitioners will be very familiar with the notion that, by telling a student how we feel – lowering our status and humanising ourselves – we can foster an immediate change in the student-teacher dynamic. Affective statements help us build a relationship based on students’ new image of us as people who care, who have feelings, rather than as distant authority figures. The expression of pleasant and unpleasant feelings are equally valid: students learn that we genuinely care about them and are excited when they do well. Equally, they discover that when they behave badly it is not just a rule that’s been violated but a relationship. Costello illustrates the subtle shift that’s required in his ‘Restorative Practices Handbook’, our bible when we implemented RP a few years ago now.

Typical Response                             Affective Statement

Stop teasing Ben.                               It makes me feel uncomfortable to hear you teasing Ben.

Talking when I am is inappropriate.    It makes me feel frustrated that you aren’t listening to me.

This is an excellent essay.                  I really enjoyed reading this!

 

How can we work this out?

The high status, unbendingly ‘strict’ teacher is not one who uses the tactics described above and others like them intuitively. High expectations of behaviour and work ethic, vigilance underpinned by expert subject knowledge – these are that teacher’s stock in trade. And we want such teachers on our staff. They’re really good and they command respect. But they are not, for me, truly great because they can never, until they learn to flex their status, relate to the most vulnerable. They tend to be the colleagues who, justifiably perhaps, want to see punitive consequences for misbehaviour when what we really want them to do is sit down with the child, away from peers, and simply say, ‘This isn’t working for either of us very well, is it? How do you think we can sort it out so we’re both happier? I need your help here.’ We just know that a conversation like this, one person to another, would be transformational. It’s a conversation that the greatest teacher, the master of the status game, would have without hesitation.

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