Surveillance in Classrooms: a Chance to Reflect on Teaching Practice

Recently, I saw on the news a segment about how some schools in the UK are trialling body cams on teachers in an effort to combat bad behaviour.

Being that we are talking about classrooms full of minors, there are obvious considerations that need to be taken, with the article commenting that teachers would have to demonstrate a greater need than police officers for turning on their body cams, that they must give notice before doing so, and that the reasoning should be “legitimate, proportionate and necessary”.

In truth, I am somewhat excited for the potential opportunity to have a body cam in class and agree that it would be good as an effective deterrence to disruptive behaviours. There have been a few instances in my teaching practice where I wish I had a body cam; there was the time that a student punched me repeatedly for taking their phone away, and it probably would have been handy then, mainly as evidence for obtaining more support for that student.

I am also somewhat glad that the feedback from schools AND parents was positive and that they were an effective deterrent to bad behaviour. However, I think that there are grounds for continual surveillance in schools, mainly to improve teaching practice. When you have access to footage of bad behaviour, you also have an ability to see when, where and how it went wrong, and how you can improve your behaviour management in future to prevent these issues.

But, whilst the teachers surveyed give mainly positive feedback to the body cams, of course there needs to be a naysayer, and I really wanted to dissect some of the commentaries. The general secretary at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said:

“The evidence suggests that the best way to ensure children behave well in schools is for schools to have a good behaviour policy which is accepted by all staff and parents and is consistently applied in the school with sanctions all the pupils understand.

If schools have good behaviour policies they should not have to resort to using body cameras or CCTV. We would not support schools being turned into prisons.”

Aside from the fact that the teachers who are using the body cams in the trial have already begun to praise their effectiveness as a deterrent to bad behaviour, there is the simple fact that her suggestion is simply delusional.

Yes, a good behaviour policy that is well enforced by staff and management is a great thing to have but, most of the time, they are only truly effective in model schools.

When I was at university studying to be a teacher, we had courses dedicated to teaching behaviour management. Our senior lecturer said that we should never have to raise our voice should we follow the correct steps to prevent and counter bad behaviour. Many of the strategies were quite logical, like having a comfortable classroom, a safe learning environment, or ensuring that you have an interesting and engaging curriculum. These were examples of “preventative” strategies that were designed to combat reasons a student might disengage from the lesson or engage in disruptive behaviours (I swear though, the number of lessons where some students complained of it being too hot in the classroom and others simultaneously complaining that it was too cold was mind-boggling).

Then, there were further interventions that teachers could use for elevating levels or continued disruption in the classroom, starting at non-verbal interventions like planned ignoring (when you feel the behaviour is attention seeking and you simply wish to not give the student the attention they want for their disruptive behaviour) to proximity intervention (where you move closer to misbehaving students to get them to stop). You may then proceed to verbal interventions, starting with hints like adjacent peer intervention (such as praising a nearby student for engaging in the correct behaviour), name-dropping disruptive students, before escalating to more confrontational interventions where you explicitly call out students on their disruptive behaviours before eventually threatening them with a logical consequence.

As a student teacher, I could not wait to put the theory into practice, to step into a classroom and demonstrate competency and confidence in my understanding of effective behaviour management. I mean, I had practiced a lot of the escalating tactics on my peers in mock trials, I had written and studied up on the theories behind interventions and when and how to use them.

Take a guess at how effective they were.

I now understand why Australian teachers say not to smile before Easter because the single, most effective behaviour management strategy that I have ever utilised was to be as tough and despotic as possible on every student as quickly as possible.

That’s the funny thing about learning behaviour management strategies at university and trialling them in mock situations on other student teachers; student teachers can see what you are trying to do and will follow through with what the strategy states should happen once you employ it effectively. At the end of the day, a student teacher is acting the part of a student, they are not a student who is disengaging in school or being disruptive.

My university education taught me that if you quietly whisper (to take away their audience) to a student that they have a choice to do the right thing or have a consequence, that that should be the final step, and you either retain classroom order or have a misbehaving student punished.

But what if you have a student who wants to be suspended or who doesn’t care if they are punished?

My training never prepared me for a student who, when presented with the options of either stopping their disruptive behaviour or suffering a detention or suspension, opted for the detention or suspension.

You might think “but that is great, the student gets punished”, which is exactly what you offered them with your logical consequence. The problem is that the consequence, in that situation, won’t prevent the student from misbehaving in the future, it’s not a punishment for them that has any benefits. That sort of logical consequence only works on a student who is actually afraid of being punished. In the case of a student who does not care if you punish them, they will come back to class and continue exhibiting those behaviours.

Your behaviour management strategy, in this instance, has not worked.

The point of behaviour management is to enforce a set of classroom standards that students will quickly adopt and never stray too far from. They will know the rules and expectations and they will meet them, with only gentle, non-confrontational methods being necessary once they understand the classroom’s set of behavioural expectations.

Again, that works well in a model classroom. I would even say that it works well for lots of good students. The problem is that the students that these strategies work well on are not often the students who have behavioural issues that seriously disrupt the classroom.

The problem students will not adapt to the behavioural standards you set, not because they are unable to, but for a myriad of different reasons. Sometimes, it’s because the punishment you offer, like a suspension if their behaviour is bad enough, isn’t really a punishment for them. Sometimes, it’s because they hate you, regardless of what you do or how you treat them, maybe because they hate the subject you teach or they simply hate people in positions of authority. Sometimes, it may very well be that the student does not have enough foundational knowledge in a subject, has not received the help they need to feel confident, and find that acting out is the best solution to hide their inability. Some students, certainly, find school a waste of time because they do not see the value in education, and act out because they see school as an unnecessary imposition on their lives. Of course, there is also the possibility that it is because, sometimes, the kid is just an arsehole.

The student who doesn’t care if they get punished is not a rare outlier. They are not the majority, certainly, but they are not so uncommon as to be rare. I have met several through my short teaching career.

I met one at the first school I taught at and, if I could describe him, it would be the sort of person who, one day, will get the shit kicked out of him at a pub and, when the police arrive, no one will admit to having seen anything. He was the sort of student who knew the rules well enough to stay within the bounds whilst pushing them as far as he could with his attitude and behaviour.  He would sit at the back of the class and play games on his computer; he would break his computer when asked what work he had done, so that he could wander over to IT and continue to not do work; he would disrupt lessons and bring others down with him; he would litter in full view of a teacher and, when asked to pick it up, would claim he did not do it.

His behaviour was bad enough to be disruptive and vexing, but never bad enough to warrant more extreme consequences. Once I observed a teacher give him an afterschool detention for not completing work; the teacher handed him the slip and told him to get it signed and returned. The student ate the detention slip; I did not miswrite that, he opened his mouth, placed the detention slip inside and swallowed.

What do you do in that situation?

You could write another one or give him a yard duty as well but there’s no guarantee he wouldn’t just eat those as well.

His behaviour wasn’t violent or aggressive, so suspension was not an option.

The teacher later told me that he went to the year level coordinator to explain the incident and the coordinator advised him to call the student’s parents to explain, because informing parents is somewhat important when dealing with behavioural incidences.

The parent’s response was simply “yeah, he’s a bit like that”, said in the spaced-out tone of someone whose head was in the clouds.

Apparently, the conversation then devolved into it being the teacher’s fault for stifling the student’s creativity.

The behaviour management strategies I learnt at university were not sufficient for this student; however, I would contend that surveillance would have been effective. The strategy this student employed was to persist in low level behavioural issues; the stuff that makes you look petty and have it in for a student if you report them to year level managers or senior management and must explain why the student requires punishment.

Had this student been recorded covertly, it would have been easier to demonstrate to his parents and to senior management how frustrating his persistent, low level disruptive behaviour was. From there, you can improve your teaching practice.

Had this student known he was being recorded, he probably would not have engaged in such disruptive behaviours because you would have taken away his power to make you look like a petty teacher who simply has it in for them.

Cameras in schools are powerful because they offer evidence. I said before about a student who repeatedly punched me for removing their phone. I hold no ill will to that student because they have social development and cognitive function issues that make it difficult for them to regulate their behaviour. They are as much a victim of their own impulses as the other students in the classroom are victims of their bad behaviour.

The thing is, in that situation, surveillance would be very useful. That was in the Special Education Unit I taught in and, since having spent time in a Unit, I have come to feel as though Special Education is often overlooked in the grand scheme of things.

Now, not all Special Needs students are behavioural issues but there are a lot behavioural issues in Special Needs classes. Surveillance cameras in Special Needs classrooms would be a God-send, not because it allows you to punish problem students easier, but instead because it might give the Department and government a real look into how little they actually support Special Needs classes.

Wonderful and hard working Special Ed teachers are doing the best they can, but as with the young child I spoke of in an earlier post who required a one-on-one teacher, we are receiving so little support and funding where it is desperately needed. Video evidence would make it harder for politicians and department officials to claim they are doing their very best to support schools, especially special needs classrooms, because they are not.

I would love video surveillance in classrooms, not because I am an autocrat or authoritarian, but because then everyone might have an opportunity to look into classrooms and see what is going on. Good and bad teaching practices on display for all; good and bad students on display for all; the reality of what it means to step into a classroom, on display for all. Then, maybe, when it is on display, average people might take a little more seriously the conditions in our classrooms that teachers face every day.

But, more importantly, it means we can address those issues. It means we can actually catch students who are disengaging in class and combat their reasons for disengaging so that those students can be successful in school, and so that we can have safe learning environments which are largely free from disruption.

At the end of the day, teachers don’t hate disruptions to their teaching because it bucks their authority, we hate disruptions and we hate dealing with behaviour management issues because that takes away from every other student their right to an education. If I am dealing with behaviour issues, I am spending less time on teaching, and on helping students understand the concepts. Given the choice between spending 10 minutes punishing a student for their behaviour or one hour tutoring a student who is struggling, I will take the latter every day of the week.

I got into teaching to teach, to inspire and to help the next generation have the skills and competency to address and effectively tackle the problems that they will face in the future, not to use my position to punish students. Any technology, any system that is effective at minimising behavioural issues and at catching students before they disengage from learning, is a welcome technology in my classroom.

But then, who really wants to shed light on problems which we can easily justify sweeping under the rug?


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