Give him a break

Palmer was a popular lad: square-shouldered, dishevelled, dramatic. An eternal creator of classroom chaos: he and I did not share many positive interactions.


On a typical day, he would wander in late, toss his JD Sports bag onto his desk, slump into his seat, and immediately turn around and chat to his mates. In Palmer’s eyes, reading and writing were unnecessary distractions from his social life, and his disdain for me- a teacher, and therefore the unfortunate embodiment of such hindrances- could be felt in his every scowl and grimace.


In those early months of my teaching career, I was permanently exhausted. I had been warned about the late nights, absurd SLT demands and excessive workload, but nobody had quite managed to express to me the emotional toll of teaching. In the first term, I must have been trying to diffuse around thirty arguments a day. Most people won’t experience that in a year. It was draining. I found myself pleading with children who wouldn’t sit in their seats and sworn at by children who threw things at me. I was ignored when I tried to get the class to be silent; I was laughed at when I tried to sanction them.


Palmer was a frequent sparring partner, and he often pushed me to the limits of my self-control. Any instruction I gave was not only ignored, but sneered at or derided as if I were treating him like a prisoner.


It turned out that Palmer had quite a lot of ‘issues’. I won’t go into them here, because the issues themselves aren’t particularly relevant, but they were profound enough to manifest as they did. I found him difficult to teach, and I’ll admit that a wave of relief would rush through me every time he was absent. He was tough, I couldn’t handle him, and I felt guilty about that. Perhaps, I thought, I wasn’t being sympathetic enough to his needs or trying hard enough to understand them. Perhaps I wasn’t a kind enough person. Perhaps I wasn’t patient enough. Perhaps I was expecting too much. I couldn’t reconcile it all in my head, so I made the decision to give him a break. When he was naughty, I would try to understand why he was behaving this way and try to see things from his point of view. When he was rude, I’d remember what was going on in his home life and would calm myself down. When he was bored or angry, I gave him a break from the lesson and let him take a breather outside, as was his wont.


I gave him a lot of breaks. It didn’t work.


I now think that giving kids a break often isn’t the solution. Palmer’s life was an unfortunate mishmash of circumstance and bad luck. Disempowering and inescapable, he chose to shove two fingers up to the world and hide his anger behind a veil of heroic self-confidence. His brashness made him a tricky classroom customer, and his teachers became helpless victims of his every whim. It wasn’t just me who had decided to cut Palmer some slack. All his teachers had, because they were all human. Multiple simultaneous sighs of relief; a collective exhale of expectations. We lowered our standards because it was easier than not lowering them.


Some convinced themselves they gave Palmer a break because he really needed it. They did it because they cared about his welfare. Even I convinced myself that I was letting him get away with all sorts because of I cared about his wellbeing. After all, if a kid has ‘issues’, it would be cruel to expect them to function like a person without issues, wouldn’t it?


But by the end of the year, he had no controlled assessments, was catastrophically under-prepared for his exams, and couldn’t have a normal conversation with an adult without getting into an aggressive altercation of some kind. Was this what ‘care’ really looked like? Was giving Palmer a break really the right prescription?


I have taught too many kids like Palmer, and whilst I still have a lot to learn about building the strongest relationships and providing the best possible support, I am sure about one thing. If you give a kid a break, you reduce your standards for them, and to do so is to allow them to fall to those low standards. We do care, and caring is a thread inseparable from the complex tapestry of teaching. But sometimes, the most caring thing we can do for a child is to raise our standards even higher.





17 thoughts on “Give him a break

  1. Although I don’t think it is always as simple as you suggest here, I think you make a good point. Do you think it is possible to “give a kid a break” without lowering expectations?

  2. Firstly, this is an excellent post that’s base argument is one to aspired to.

    Without a doubt it is our job to demand a level of conduct/attainment/ confidence that a lot of young people we work with are sadly not afforded outside of school.

    What I worry about is any form of binary. I fear that the language you’re using leads inevitably to this. It is divisive. With both peers and students.

    Without a doubt, our job is to demand high levels of attainment and evoke an egalitarian atmosphere in our classrooms. However, there are exceptions, whether it be an issue as serious as the student who is a young carer and in need of extra time to complete homework, or an over exuberant type bursting out more often than some.

    Differentiation is a mark of good teaching, this should not be only considered so when it comes to classwork.

    It’s not as simple as ‘dropping standards’ by being reflexive or ‘demanding excellence’ by not differentiating your behaviour management.

    Teaching, for me, is way too complex to be tied up in easy maxims, guidelines and binaries. Good post though and good luck.

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      • Isn’t that what you tried in the first term? So what should you have been doing differently? I don’t mean what different thoughts should you have had, I mean what specific actions should you have carried out? What encouragement/empowerment/help will make the difference?

        Because sure, we should help, encourage, put in boundaries etc but that doesn’t tell us how to act in the moment, what practical differences to make to our behaviour in order to affect his.

  5. I’m not sure that this proves anything. As you note, you weren’t able to put your theories into action and in any event this is a sample of one- and is simply anecdotal. However fervently you believe in something you need to do more than simply assert it to be true. Were I to present a ‘progressive’ argument in this way it would be quite rightly summarily dismissed.

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