Saturday, June 16, 2018

Violence in the workplace

My father was a prison officer, so I have a polarising viewpoint when it comes to the judicial system.  His viewpoint was biased as he noted recidivism in the system.  This has also biased my outlook as once a child enters the judicial system, they become exposed to others in the same system which can normalise behaviours that wouldn't occur otherwise.

So when I was faced with violence in the workplace for the first time in my career where I believed a student intended physical harm to myself, I had to consider what my philosophical viewpoint is regarding children coming to grips with their physicality and using it to influence their environment.  Did this need to be reported to police?

I considered that students have maturing brains, are impulsive and will have limited empathy for others.  I considered that my actions, as administrative staff, sets the tone for the school and my personal philosophy needed to take into account the norms that the school wished to purvey.  I considered societal expectations of what teaching staff were expected to deal with.

These probably need to be dealt with separately.

Student influences / Context

There are many reasons students become violent.  Frustration, domestic violence, physical abuse, peer interactions, sexual abuse, physical development, trauma, self image, helplessness, modelling/culture, attachment, gender confusion, sexuality, mental health, drug abuse are just a few reasons that spring to mind.  Any one can make a student respond in a violent manner given particular situations.  Schools today are expected to identify issues, manage risk, provide options for counseling and deal with situations that arise when plans put in place fail to adequately cover a violent series of incidents.

School influences

Maintaining a safe workplace is a necessity as a school becomes a melting pot of these issues.  How a school responds to the threat of violence, dictates how safe children and staff feel when in the school.  The ability of a school to predict where a problem may occur and develop a rapport that prevents violent outbursts is critical to the managing of low socio-economic schools experiencing many of the issues identified above. Staff that can do this effectively are rare as each issue tends to demand a different response and the responses can be personally draining and require high levels of support for students and support staff.

The maximum immediate penalty that can be imposed is 10 days of suspension, a period intended to allow time to improve risk plans, allow time to consider actions, organise support for families and support staff and work with students impacted upon by the violence.  Diversion of a student to another location may be attempted, but if different solutions cannot be used, this may only move the violence from one school to another. When a school cannot devise a solution that is likely to succeed (and has likely failed many times with attempted solutions) then, and only then can exclusion be considered - it is a long and arduous process, as it should be, as there is no real solution at the end of it, other than saying school is not for that student.

Philosophical issues

Teachers do not report students to the police often or probably often enough.  There are a few reasons for this, the main one being is that (good) teachers see students for who and what they are, not for their aberrant behaviours.  In most cases these children are the most needy and require our assistance not our condemnation.  I didn't start in education to be a pathway to the judicial system.

The counter is that as a deputy I have a responsibility to provide a safe working environment, with limited resources to deal with violent offenders.  Nothing in the EBA indicates that it is ok for a teacher (as a worker for the Education department) to feel unsafe in their environment.  Physical aggression, intimidation and assault are not ok and need to be seen to be dealt with for the mental health and confidence of staff, students and parents in the school.  In a no tolerance for violence environment, 10 day suspensions for breaches are one part of a two part solution.  Consequence for behaviour together with assistance to prevent similar behaviour in the future is key to success.

Societal Expectations

Schools are being asked to be a one size fits all solution to youth issues, increasingly working with agencies to fill gaps where there are no resources to deal with them.  Finding alternate agencies with capacity in itself requires resources and deviates from the core business of teaching students the curriculum.  In a high care, high expectation environment, schools are required to deal with context and deliver results.

What then?

I still have not in my career referred a student to police for threatening me physically (although I have for student welfare concerns and have restrained students on a number of occasions), I do hope that it remains this way.  I must say though in the past five years, I have gone from feeling that students understand that threatening a teacher is unthinkable to now being a threat becoming relatively commonplace. I am more reliant on personal rapport with students than respect for my position to keep me safe.  Both in junior and senior school  there have been times when I have felt there has been risk I would be assaulted and that dealing with the student situation had a level of risk of physical assault, I may end in being physically hurt.  Although schools are supportive when police reports are made over assaults, teachers like myself remain reluctant to ignore the factors that cause the assault in the first place (listed under student influences above) and fail to make a report - our knowledge of why student's behave violently is part of why we are teachers in schools like ours.

Mandatory reporting of assault against staff together as suggested by the union (did I just agree with the union??) with protection from freedom of information may be one solution to measuring the issue and to target higher levels of resourcing to support students with anger management issues.  Blanket FOI would be problematic (as with NAPLAN) as it would target schools attempting to deal with spikes in violence that occur with particular cohorts.  Identifying accurately epicentres of issues, their causes, teachers struggling and then providing schools targeted assistance through existing processes would be a good start.

Violence in schools remains an area of potential conflict between parents, administration and teaching staff, where any action may be viewed as too little or too much, with clear differences in opinion in what is necessary to protect staff in their workplace and students in their high school depending on the perspective of the situation.  

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

CMS Training

I've just finished CMS training (a little humourous as I rarely teach, more to train others using consistent terms) and although I question the effectiveness of some strategies for teachers that might be struggling to gain control of their classrooms, there is some good information in there.

Today though was the first time I had to question the delivery of the session and the assertion made during the session.  The statement made was that every escalation that led to a student-teacher power struggle was instigated by the teacher.  The explanation given (and predicted before it was given) was that it takes two to have a power struggle and that the adult had the ability not to raise it to that level.

I think the simple counter to that was that there are instances where it is in the interest of the school to ensure that certain standards are publicly kept to, especially around safety, intimidating behaviour and agression towards female staff.  It's not a PC view, and I know that but I'm willing to defend it.

A no tolerance policy towards intimidation and aggression has to be public.  Students cannot be seen to be able to intimidate, physically threaten or assault staff.  Students need to know that there is a line they cannot cross.  Early in my career, maybe ten years ago, I could stand between two fighting out of control students and know that I was safe with punches being thrown over my shoulders.  Today, this simply is not true.   Some of this is to do with the mental health issues now processed by schools rather than other agencies, some due to serious drug use, some have experienced war trauma, some due to fewer role models, parenting by screen and lack of care in homes.  Students are now 18 years+ when they leave school, some refugee students are older than this, are strong enough to challenge multiple members of the male staff at once.

The maximum practical consequence a school has is the 10 day suspension.  Expulsion from a public school is a rare and difficult process.  If students are comfortable with threatening staff this is not a deterrent.  The ramping of consequences in today's high school teacher -> Year leader/Student Services -> Deputy -> Principal can happen in a single incident.

So back to the original problem.  Student verbally abuses a teacher (reprimand by year leader after the child has calmed down). Student verbally abuses a year leader (reprimand by deputy after the child has calmed down).  Student abuses a deputy - there is only one step left before Principal and  the entire bluff that underpins the system is gone.  The student can't be expelled.  Here's the line where the processes of de-escalation have failed - the student has had the opportunity to learn how to identify the triggers leading to being out of control.  Now a harder line needs to be followed and the power struggle needs to be addressed and is fraught with issues.  If the student abuses the deputy, the situation needs to be dealt with there and then. In most cases the deputy has to diffuse or win the power struggle, in many cases with parent assistance.  If this fails, like in real life, police become involved.  After all, it is not ok for anyone to verbally or physically abuse or threaten to physically intimidate anyone, anywhere.  Sometimes it is a very difficult lesson for students to learn.  In life someone is always the boss of you unless you live alone on an island or up a tree somewhere!

Otherwise the child is out of control.  We are teaching the child it is ok to be out of control, if after best efforts to educate the student otherwise, they continue to be out of control.  The deputy in a school stands like police do in the community to ensure safety of the public, staff and students. To suggest that a deputy is wrong to stand for the school in a public exchange where power is involved threatens the fabric of discipline in a school.  A deputy is typically a highly trained and experienced member of staff.  These are people that understand the role they play and do not seek to become involved in behaviour incidents wherever possible as challenging a deputy is clearly different in scope than challenging another member of staff.  It's not advisable to have them dealing with day-to-day incidents as the punishments they hand out are significantly more serious (to deter challenging of deputies) than to other member of staff.  Discipline in a school requires them to be a last resort.  Deputies are better used developing rapport with students before incidents so that they can assist in post incident support of teachers and year leaders than during incidents themselves.

I've spent a fair bit of time explaining incident management to kids, a) that it is appropriate to surrender control to staff members when in school b) that it is important that students understand that they need to follow instructions without question for safety reasons.  a) can take a fair bit of convincing especially for kids that have a level of financial independence or are living independently.  b) is more easily understood by students.  After an incident, explaining to a student why I acted as I did, and appropriate future actions for a student is more important than the incident itself.  A student with limited control of themselves needs to understand where the boundary is, that it must be respected and alternative behaviours that can be learned to deal with undesirable situations.  My limited experience indicates that this approach works with most students.

The line that the teacher is a student's 'boss' is a learned behaviour.  The line that a student has to follow a teacher instruction is a learned behaviour.  The line that a student is respectful to a teacher is a learned behaviour.  The line that physical violence and intimidation is not ok is a learned behaviour.  The line that consequences escalate if student/teacher/Year Leader/Deputy/Principal relationships are not maintained is a learned behaviour.  These need to be taught, we can no longer rely on parents and the community to teach these behaviours to a small proportion of a school.

Getting the Principal involved in a behind the scenes capacity is great as they have a wealth of experience and have met most circumstances before.  Keeping them informed so that there are no surprises is a good idea.  If they have to get involved in a practical sense it is problematic.  They are the last arbiter in a school, if all else fails and they get personally involved, the situation has the potential to escalate, reach media and impact on the public image of the school - especially if they are forced to defend poor staff actions.  If they are placed in a situation where they make the wrong decision, it never looks good.

Intimidation of female staff by male students is also a particular bugbear of mine.  In the way female teachers are generally better at dealing with emotionally fragile students (the ones that need a hug and affection), male students using their physicality to intimidate female staff is an area that male staff can and (I think) should be used where appropriate.  Reinforcement of Australian values towards women, like everything else, is a learned behaviour that is not always modelled in the home.  Where culturally women are not valued - this message can sometimes be delivered by male staff and reinforced by caring female staff.  Not PC I know, but practical.  Some female staff don't want the help or need it, and that needs to be respected to.

I don't think I've explained myself very well, which probably indicates that this requires more thought to work through issues.  I think it is probably influenced by my involvement in corporate life where decisions cost money and failure to follow instructions costs jobs.  I needed staff that could question and develop ideas whilst being able to follow instructions immediately when required.  This made for a healthy and robust environment - something I hope I encourage with processes of escalation and the teaching of respect for authority in our school.