The @redorgreenpen Problem

If you haven’t been reading @redorgreenpen‘s penetrating “7 kids in 7 days” blog, then you’ve missed out. By describing in searching detail the behaviours of seven students, anonymous blogger redorgreenpen gives the most authentic descriptions of challenging students’ lives I have read in some time. Possibly ever.

The story of Arianne on the sixth day made me particularly nervous. With a penchant for incredibly aggressive behaviour, redorgreenpen laments Arianne being label as having ‘Behavioural, Social and Emotional’ difficulties (aka, BESD). Too often the BESD status becomes an excuse for not requiring her to behave better in classes, but this just makes things worse:

I believe that the vast, vast majority of the population is capable of exercising control over their behaviour. But if that basic standard really is not possible for Arianne, by god, she should have gone to specialist provision years ago. If we’re going to decide a child is incapable of taking responsibility for their own actions and behaving properly, someone else needs to step in and take that responsibility for them. That takes money, resources and time. There’s no denying that. But at the moment these uncontrollable children are operating in a responsibility vacuum, insulated by layers of obfuscation and excuses

Arianne does need help, and schools can very rarely access it. Having worked closely with BESD departments I know how the sort of complex inter-service help Arianne needs is often only available once a student has officially been tagged as ‘BESD’. And even then it is slow going. There is often no end to the difficulties of convening professionals, getting parents onside, legal implications, court appearances, continually writing and writing referral documents that get ignored, or lost, or need restarting. Then, on top of that, the complexities of the child’s mental state – the extent of runaway, drug, self-harm, sexual, suicidal behaviours – all of which needed to be factored into decisions taken by the school can make exclusions or managed moves an achingly long process. All the while teachers are being told “stick with her”.

But then came the seventh day – Fawsia. Another traumatised student, this time with an equally difficult backstory yet unwilling to misbehave. Her lack of aggression means her needs are constantly overlooked. Redorgreenpen explains:

The allocation of resources to students in schools is basically based on how loud you shout, how badly behaved you are, how many problems you cause. I’m sure Fawsia could do with some counselling: she’d probably actually turn up to the sessions unlike a lot of the kids who do get that privilege. But Fawsia stays in the background, hidden.

And then comes the nub:

Every time someone advocates including all the Ariannes in your classroom, think of Fawsia, sitting in the corner, having another hour of her education wasted.

The @redorgreenpen Problem

On what grounds do we value one student’s outcomes over another?  

When you only have one teacher in a class whose job it is to deal with the Ariannes and Fawsias (as well as twenty-eight other students) how do you do it? In this case it’s about behaviour – should Arianne’s aggressive behaviour suck in more resource than Fawsia’s desperate silence? Or, in the case of intelligence, should a precociously smart Tyrone ever be in the same class as a plodding Caitlin?

The most obvious answer is that we don’t pick one over the other. We give schools more resources. Proper mental health professionals working full-time inside schools. Proper referral systems where Arianne and Fawsia both get the support they need, without endless rationing which means only the loudest and most extreme cases get it. Proper learning diagnostics, proper follow-up, proper evaluation. But proper resources are ever-unlikely.

And so it is that most day teachers simply must answer the ‘redorgreenpen problem’ over and over again. On what grounds do we value one student’s outcomes over another? How do we pick who to prioritise?

15 thoughts on “The @redorgreenpen Problem

  1. It’s truly a difficult area for education just as for medical professionals in A&E deciding to prioritise treatment for certain children’s physical ailments over others (ironically the term ‘treatment’ is entering more into the language of education thro’ RCTs, though at least the non-prioritisation is random!). No parent will ever want to be told by a teacher or doctor that they are NOT putting their child’s interests at least at the same level as others. The key is perhaps to recognise that there are different types of educational and medical outcome and allow the systems to produce these and reassure parents/carers that this is a good thing for both their children and the system.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this, because it’s not an easy question, as you say. But then one thing struck me:

    We certainly should NOT value one student’s outcomes over another on the grounds of a moral judgment of that student’s character.

    It’s a slightly counter-intuitive idea, particularly when it’s put in negative terms. Why should we care about a student’s outcomes if the student doesn’t care herself? But it’s crucial, fundamental to universal education. Just as a doctor treats patients without asking if they’re good or bad people (this is why denying treatment to smokers is such a bad idea), teachers must teach without reference to whether students are good or bad people. Because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate: moral sorting of children by teachers.

    The professional principle must be: all students’ needs are considered equally important by the teacher. Obviously, a teacher cannot meet all students’ needs at all times. But whatever system she devises to cope with this problem *must not* involve placing greater importance on one need or another because of some characteristic of the child (their past; their moral goodness; their race; their intelligence).

    This is relevant to the Fawsia post, because there is an element of moral outrage in what redorgreenpen wrote. She wasn’t upset with the louder children because they were loud. She was upset because their actions were having a negative social impact on a person who’s done nothing wrong, and in fact is very deserving of our consideration and protection. She was upset at the moral wrong which the louder students were causing (not necessarily doing, but causing). But that moral feeling can’t be a reason for valuing anyone’s (Fawsia’s) outcomes over anyone else’s (the louder students’).

    That’s not an answer to the question. You still might want to start tilting your class resources (e.g. teacher time) towards Fawsia to correct the natural bias that redorgreenpen mentions: the loudest kids get the most resources. But it should be done out of a urge toward resource fairness, not an urge to use teaching resources to redress moral imbalance.

    1. “Just as a doctor treats patients without asking if they’re good or bad people (this is why denying treatment to smokers is such a bad idea), teachers must teach without reference to whether students are good or bad people.”

      Trouble is, the doctor gets to treat patients one at a time so the patient who smokes does not obstruct the treatment of the one who does not (other than consuming resources).

      Arianne blocks the education of everyone else in the classes she attends – she prevents Fawsia from getting the help she needs.

      Fawsia could almost certainly survive in a classroom environment if Arianne were not present – as could everyone else.

      1. I must agree with Teacher_P; Fawsia and Arianne are not morally equivalent cases. If it were only case of different educational needs, then Phil’s moral outrage at sorting children would be justified. A teacher’s role is to teach, and that means adjusting their teaching style and allocating time to pupils based on pupil needs. So if Johnny needed a little extra help with fractions, but Suzie found them easy, the teacher is clearly morally obligated to spend a little extra time with Johnny.
        However, as Teacher_P points out, Arianne’s case is not one of educational difficulties, she has serious emotional and behavioural problems that disrupt the learning of the other pupils. A teacher is neither a psychiatrist nor a social worker, nor should aim to be. The moral obligation in this case is to the other pupils who being denied an education.

      2. Thanks. This is an odd argument to be having, because I’m not sure we disagree in practical terms on what should be done.

        But there are still some things to say:
        “Arianne blocks the education of everyone else in the classes she attends – she prevents Fawsia from getting the help she needs.”

        I could turn that argument right around. Fawsia – with her English as a second language – slows the class down to the point where no-one else is getting the education they deserve. Fairly obviously, that argument makes me sound like a complete racist! But it’s the exact equivalent of what you’re saying about Arianne.

        Blaming Arianne for her behaviour doesn’t help anyone (N.B.getting Arianne to take responsibility for her behaviour does help; that’s not the same as blaming). And it’s not a principle by which we can legally or should morally regulate access to education. Everyone gets taught.

        “A teacher is neither a psychiatrist nor a social worker,”

        This just isn’t true in any way, and I don’t get why any teacher would say it. Of course you’re a psychologist. Your job is to work on the minds of young people. Of course you’re a social worker. You are responsible for the children’s welfare while they’re at school, and that may well include dealing with the issues that their home life creates. These elements may decrease as the students get older, but the teaching of non-adults inevitably includes these aspects.

        I think the fairness thing is so vital. As a professional group, you must know that you do not have the right to decide who gets taught and who doesn’t, for any reason.

        But I also think you know that. Were either of you really suggesting that Arianne had no right to schooling because she’s badly behaved. I doubt it.

        1. Having taught overseas where English abilities was a prominent issue (as it is in Britain), I don’t think it’s racist to suggest that English ability is a factor. If a student’s English is so poor that they can’t function in a classroom of English speakers, what benefit are they getting from being in the class? Of course I’m not suggesting that “they have no right to schooling”, but they need to be in a class for English learners, not in a regular classroom. Yes, it would be unfair to the other students to spend all my time as a teacher with one pupil. I’m not acting as a judge in Fawsia’s case; I don’t know how strong her English is.. Again, it is not at all racist to suggest that someone with no English not be taught in a standard English-language classroom. (Once their English improves, they are welcome. This has been the policy in every school I have attended or worked in.)

          You’re equivocating slightly with definitions in your second point- yes, in a sense, teachers are ‘psychologists’, but we are not trained therapists, and are certainly not psychiatrists. Yes, in a sense, teachers are social workers, but I am neither qualified nor authorised to deal directly with certain issues. I can deal with their effects to some extent in the classroom. I can help the child in the classroom, then I can inform the relevant authorities. BUT, I cannot solve the child’s problems at home, nor magically transfer them into a better family, nor cure them of any physiological problems they might have.

          Of course you’re right that all children deserve an education. What I am arguing (and perhaps others by implication) is that certain children cannot benefit from being in a standard classroom. Certain children need special help that I am unable to provide. This is why their are Special Education Specialists or EFL specialists, i.e. people who are trained to help these certain children.

          1. To clarify regarding ESL, in most situations pupils will spend part of their time in standard classes and part of their time in ESL class. The situation I was describing was referring to student’s with zero-English ability. It is also true that in Maths class, a student’s poor English was less of an issue.

          2. I am not a social worker, and nor do I want to be. There are some issues that I inevitably have to deal with on a daily basis, but we need a far closer link with people who are both professionally qualified and professionally engaged/interested/passionate in that area. I’m not; I’m not trained, or particularly interested in sorting out people’s personal lives. There are people who are, and we need to be getting students involved with them.

    2. Phil, thanks for your comment. It has really made me think. I imagine doctor, too, feel the frustration of devoting resources to those who seem to waste them – see alcoholics with multiple liver transplants for a drastic example. I think part of being a professional is getting over that and treating both types of patient/student equally respectfully.

      1. Though that doesn’t change the fact we can – and should – still have the important conversations about resource allocation and behaviour management on a school and system wide level

  3. Whilst I don’t have the same behaviour management issues as I work in post-16 I still have a prioritisation problem. We have been asked to focus on those students who if they get above their Target Grade will improve the overall achievement of the class the most. Focussing on improving three or four student’s achievement over other students leaves a bad taste in my mouth but as we are judged on our classes achievement what does a teacher do? Is it a bit like patients turning up at an A&E? Those that need the most help get priority?

  4. Fascinating reading, thanks for sharing.

    > How do we pick who to prioritise?

    We don’t. The school dictates which to prioritise based on which one most needs to make progress or attain a set grade to meet the _school_ target. The resources and time get thrown at the intervention groups that the Y11 data team identify need to ‘make progress’. If happenstance means you’re not in that group, tough.

    You’re right, it’s not the right (nor ethical) thing to do. It is what happens.

    It also exposes the fallacy that the metrics drive us to a system with ‘Good Schools’ that aren’t necessarily ‘Good’ for individual students.


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