The Joy of Good Manners

When I was in my teens and twenties, I despised manners. Why would you say words to other people without really feeling them?. Why would you go through routines, using fixed words, instead of expressing the spontaneous emotion of the moment?

In this, as in so much else, I was influenced by the degraded Romanticism which pervades our culture, in which emotion is raised above reason, and the individual will must be at the centre of everything.

It didn’t do me any good, of course. I missed out on many cheerful words and many ceremonies which would have enriched my life. I graduated from university three times without once attending a graduation ceremony. I was often crippled by a lack of spontaneous words to utter, and would even avoid my friends at times when I felt uninspired. I remember crossing the road to avoid people I liked well, just because I couldn’t think of anything original or interesting to say to them.

Thank goodness, the burden of originality and spontaneity has been lifted. I’m sure it’s something to do with having been married for almost two decades. I’m not the slightest bit concerned that the words ‘I love you’ are unoriginal or lacking in the spark of divine genius, and I enjoy being married more and more as the years go on, and the words become more and more well-worn.

But lately, I’ve made yet another discovery about just how wrong and how miserable were the Romantically-inclined beliefs of my youth. I’ve started working at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, where the headmaster, Barry Smith, has been training all of the staff in manners. You might think we, as grown ups, didn’t need such training, but I can tell you that in my own case, it’s done me the world of good, because it has created a community in which there is a simple expectation: every time you walk past someone, you greet them. You never ignore them. You never keep your head down. You look towards them and bid them ‘good morning sir / miss’, or if there are many of them, ‘good morning ladies and gentlemen’.

Whether or not you’re feeling cheerful, you can be cheerful in this simple way, and it makes every day happier and brighter. It also means that pupils know that staff are around and paying attention to them. Staff are not invisible because they are audible. Staff can be heard greeting pupils cheerfully as you go around the school. No one is sulky or withdrawn, because that’s just rude. Teenagers do not retreat into themselves, as I often did when I was that age.

It’s a simple and beautiful thing, and it’s something everyone can do. It doesn’t depend upon the individual, but upon a communal expectation, and it becomes a habit after you’ve been doing it for a few days. Like all of the best things in life, it’s just normal, and it doesn’t gain me the slightest bit of glory. What a glorious relief for everyone!


Reasonable Hope

However much our opponents may wish to portray us as gloomy Gradgrindian schoolmasters, traditional approaches give us grounds for reasonable hope. The positive, practical outworking of a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum and a consistent culture of discipline is not gloom but a cheerful commitment to hard work and a resilient reaction to setbacks. This is because traditional approaches are based not on how we might wish human beings are, but how they actually are.

A traditional teacher doesn’t get downhearted when a pupil forgets something they studied yesterday. She is fully prepared for this. In fact, she expects it, and she has a plan for review of material, spaced out over time, so that the sharp forgetting curve can be overcome. Instead of complaining or blaming herself, she gets on with applying that programme so that pupils can truly master the knowledge that will enable them to think creatively and critically.

A traditional teacher doesn’t despair when pupils don’t share her love for classic literature. She knows that this love will build slowly over time, as their familiarity with the great stories and characters increases. She knows that curiosity is not immanent but emergent: it is a property that must be cultivated in pupils by giving them ever greater knowledge, so that they can make connections and comparisons, and enter into worlds that they would never encounter without her expert guidance. So she presses on with her programme of rich cultural capital, confident that pupils will one day come to appreciate the inheritance which she is passing on. Some will appreciate it sooner than others, but their ability to appreciate it at the age of thirteen in no way affects its intrinsic value.

A traditional teacher doesn’t take it personally when some pupils misbehave, because she knows that good habits take time to form, and that it is her responsibility to form them in her pupils, by consistent discipline over time. Their poor behaviour is a reflection of their imperfect moral formation, which she and her colleagues are striving to improve. She knows that she will be letting her pupils down if she gives in to the desire to be liked, and fails to apply sanctions consistently. So she perseveres, day in, day out, applying rewards and punishments, and knowing that over time, as part of a whole school culture, her pupils will be given the priceless gift of good habits that will serve them well throughout life.

Traditional ideas give us the strength to be cheerful, positive and persevering, because we know that our pupils are on a long journey towards responsible, knowledgeable adulthood, which will take many years of consistent effort to achieve. We’re not looking for instant results or flashy gimmicks. We’re just looking for steady, faithful effort, in ourselves, and in our pupils.

And we know it isn’t personal. We know that there is something outside ourselves which is worth striving for: we know the value of knowledge and good habits, which do not come naturally, but which must be formed in young minds by our efforts and theirs. Nothing worthwhile comes easily to anyone. We’re ready for the setbacks, and the remedies are already accounted for in our planning.

The fantasy land of progressive ideology is what brings gloom, because its bubbles are bound to burst, and its delights will always be temporary. When you break free into the light of reality, then you can actually begin to make progress towards worthwhile goals.

Don’t Be Yourself


Achilles sacrificing to Zeus, from the Ambrosian Iliad

‘Just be yourself’. We’ve all been advised in this way, when we’re feeling nervous about something, or facing a new challenge. It’s worse than useless, as a piece of moral advice. It’s as futile as the teacher who tells her pupils to ‘use your own knowledge’. The teacher’s role is to impart knowledge that pupils did not previously have. It is also to instil self-discipline so that her pupils will not be stuck in the circular trap of ‘being themselves’.

The conceited, pompous Polonius offers this advice to his son Laertes as he returns to university: ‘To thine own self be true’. Having promoted such licence, he sends spies to check up on his son’s behaviour. That’s our situation. Fatally weakened by the widespread idea that freedom means following the whim of the moment, we are at once licensed to do whatever we please, and placed under close surveillance by the government, which has to deal with citizens who cannot be trusted to act responsibly.

Telling people that freedom means following the whim of the moment betrays a deep pessimism about the human race, a pessimism perhaps expressed most eloquently by Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent, where every character follows their predestined path in the urban hive: ‘We can never cease to be ourselves’. Somehow, the Romantic proclamation of individual freedom had turned, a century later, into the modernist proclamation of social, psychological or evolutionary determinism. We had become gods, only to be relegated soon afterwards to rats in a laboratory maze.

The descent from the divine to the animal was inevitable, because the Romantics had rejected the traditional understanding of human nature, which is at war with itself. ‘I have quelled my passion, as I must’, says Achilles to his mother Thetis, reflecting on the way he had allowed himself to be enslaved by his anger following his quarrel with Agamemnon. Achilles had not been master of himself. He had not fought against the selfish inclination to sulk petulantly, and his friend Patroclus had died as a consequence. Because he had not done his duty and fought with his comrades, but had become the slave of his emotions, he had become a ‘useless burden to the earth’.

The traditional understanding is far more optimistic, because of its faith in human freedom, based on the possibility of self-mastery. Our pupils are rational, and capable of mastering their emotions. They can be trained in doing so, under the caring authority of teachers who do not want them to become the slaves of their whims. Then, when it comes to challenges such as job interviews, they won’t be doomed to ‘be themselves’. They will be able to do battle with laziness and get up early, then do battle with anxiety and remain calm, presenting themselves in a confident, professional manner, and thereby proving to prospective employers that they are masters of themselves, and ready to take on responsibility.

Is Poor Behaviour Widespread?

Hoop jumpingFollowing my post yesterday about troublemakers in education, and how important they are, I debated with two people on Twitter who objected to the claim that there is a widespread behaviour problem in England’s schools. They objected on the grounds that I could not provide them with convincing evidence that this problem exists. They were particularly unimpressed with any evidence based on the experiences of classroom teachers. You may not be surprised to learn that neither of these individuals are classroom teachers themselves.

Consider the evidence from Ofsted. The overall picture appears positive: according to Ofsted, behaviour is good or outstanding in 92% of schools. But when we consider this evidence more closely, the picture is not so rosy.

Firstly, visitors to a school, especially when they are preannounced, will not see the reality. Pupils usually behave better for visitors, especially when they are important. However badly behaved they are, they usually have a certain loyalty to their school. I have seen this over and over again during my years as a teacher. Most pupils who would normally be disruptive and rude become polite when visitors from outside the school enter the classroom.

Secondly, there are all the tricks that schools play to avoid Ofsted’s seeing bad behaviour, such as sending home the worst pupils or organising special trips for them. By definition, of course, these tricks will not find their way into official evidence.

After considering these factors, it’s amazing that the figure for good or outstanding behaviour is not 100%. It’s amazing that there are 8% of schools where behaviour is so appalling that they couldn’t put on a good show for Ofsted.

And in any case, what about the 8%? Even if Ofsted’s overall assessment were accurate, that 8% amounts to tens of thousands of children. Are we satisfied with a system where so many must suffer disruption and fear every day of their school lives? Can we afford to be complacent? Would we be happy if 8% of hospitals failed to provide adequate care to children? These tens of thousands of youngsters are required by law to go every day to a place that is often unsafe and frightening.

Now let’s consider the evidence of the first hand witnesses: the classroom teachers. They see the reality of school life, day in, day out. They are not sheltered from it in the way that senior leaders, consultants and inspectors inevitably are. Because Ofsted will never get the real picture, because official research will never reveal it, it is classroom teachers who must tell us what is really going on in England’s classrooms.

So here’s my witness statement. None of the schools I have worked in previously have had good behaviour across the board. In all of them, there were classes where disruption was frequent. In all of them, there was a significant minority of pupils who were rude, disrespectful and uncooperative. In all of them, these pupils were usually allowed to remain in classes and damage the learning of others, unless they did something really outrageous. In all of them, there were many areas of the school that were not properly policed, and because the dangerous pupils were allowed to roam free and did not fear serious consequences, such places were not safe.

The other first hand witnesses are the pupils themselves, of course. My wife was talking to a friend recently, both of whose children have avoided going to the toilet at school because they are afraid of the people who hang around them. Neither of these children go to schools where Ofsted considers behaviour to be poor. But whatever Ofsted says, these are not civilised places.

Meanwhile, in the same city, while most children are finding ways of surviving varying degrees of disorder and danger, there are sixty applicants for every place in the schools of a multi-academy trust which, like Michaela, tackles behaviour through school wide discipline and thorough training to build a culture of kindness and respect. Sixty applicants to every place. There’s some evidence for you. Large numbers of parents are sick of the bog-standard, complacent norm, where disruption and disorder are common in the classroom, and danger lurks in the corners of playgrounds, avoided by teachers who know they will not be backed up by senior staff.

This is the most criminal thing of all. There are schools which demonstrate clearly that it doesn’t have to be like this. They show that it is possible for all schools, whatever their intake, to be ordered, civilised places. But for most parents and children in that city where my wife’s friend lives, they can only dream of a place in such a school. Meanwhile, the daily battle goes on.

Discipline Must Be School-Wide

Copy of a lost bronze bust of Aristotle made by Lysippos (4th century BCE)‘By doing just actions we become just; by doing the actions of self-mastery we come to be perfected in self-mastery; and by doing brave actions brave [ . . . ] So then, whether we are accustomed this way or that straight from childhood, makes not a small but an important difference, or rather I would say it makes all the difference.’ – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

It takes a school to discipline a child. Good moral habits, like any other habits, can only be formed with repeated practice, and children will not gain the practice necessary if they behave differently in different parts of the school, or with different teachers. Consistency is essential, for practical and for moral reasons.

Doing the right thing needs to be a habit. If you are a polite person, you are in the habit of acting politely. You don’t have to think about such questions as ‘Shall I interrupt this person, or allow them to finish what they are saying?’ or ‘Shall I respond to this person’s points with personal insults, or with reasoned critique?’ Interrupting and insulting are alien to you, because you are in the habit of being polite.

How did you become polite? You weren’t born that way. Small children do not have good manners. They learn them, through the culture in which they mature. If that culture does not exemplify and demand politeness, then they will not get the practice necessary to form the habit. In fact, they will be practising rudeness, not politeness. If they are not reprimanded for interrupting, they will continue to interrupt. If only one adult in their life reprimands them for interrupting, but the rest tolerate it, they will grow up with bad habits.

For good habits to be formed, those in authority over children must act consistently, so that they don’t have to ask themselves how to behave with each adult. This is abundantly clear in schools where there is no consistent culture of good behaviour. Children will behave politely for one member of staff, and rudely for another. In this situation, they are not developing the habit of politeness, because they are not practising it consistently. It’s equivalent to having to give different answers to sums for different teachers. It’s confusing, it’s ineffective, and most importantly, it’s wrong.

It’s wrong because it does not teach children that there is simply a polite way of behaving which should be used in all circumstances. It is not okay to be rude to certain people, when those people are perceived to be weaker, or unable to exert their power over you. It is simply right to be polite, whether to the headteacher, the classroom teacher, the caretaker or the cleaner. Politeness is not something which is only required in relation to the power and position of the person; it is something that is always required.

When there is no consistent school-wide behaviour policy that is centrally determined and enforced by centrally controlled sanctions, children are learning the poisonous lesson that you can mistreat some people, as long as they don’t have the power to make you treat them well. Weaker members of the community can be abused, whether they are less experienced teachers or less popular pupils.

Without a thorough and consistent school-wide discipline system, we are not only allowing bullying, we are promoting it, because we are refusing, in practice, to insist that there is only one right way of treating other people, whoever they are.

Further reading:

Our Pupils Need Discipline, Not Management

Freedom Requires Discipline

(Image from Wikimedia).

The Teacher’s Authority


Martin Luther King Jr, who challenged authority on the basis of objective truth.

The Teacher’s Moral Authority

No community can function without the rule of law. In a classroom, it is the teacher who maintains order. He must enforce rules, or there will be chaos. The weak will suffer tyranny from the strong. There may even be physical threats to the safety of both pupils and teachers. Both teachers and pupils have been violently assaulted in British classrooms where there is a lack of proper order and discipline.

The teacher has a grave responsibility to ensure that the classroom is a safe and ordered place. In order to fulfil that grave responsibility, he must have authority. Pupils must obey the teacher’s instructions for the sake of maintaining an ordered community, which will be of benefit to everybody.

Are there any exceptions to this? Are there any times when pupils have a right to disobey a teacher’s instructions? Yes, but they would be exceptional. They would be occasions where it would actually be immoral to obey the teacher.

This is analogous to the rule of law in society. We are obliged to obey the law, unless there are grave reasons for not doing so. Martin Luther King Jr articulated these reasons in his letter from Birmingham Jail in 1964, in which he said:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

King could only make such statements because he was judging the law based on objective standards. He measured the laws of the USA against objective standards of justice, and found them wanting. Thus he deliberately broke the law in order to draw attention to its injustice. He had no wish to express an ‘personal opinion’ or exert his ‘individual voice’. He considered that both he and the law must submit to higher principles which were not matters of opinion, but of truth.

It would be a grave and extreme case indeed if a pupil found similar reasons for disobeying their teacher’s authority. And the pupil would not even be capable of acting this way unless he had sufficient knowledge to measure his situation against objective standards. He will be enabled to acquire this knowledge if his classroom is ordered and his teacher takes his responsibility for forming minds seriously.

The Teacher’s Intellectual Authority

Intellectual authority is related to moral authority, but distinct. In most cases, the teacher knows more than the pupil, and if the pupil is going to learn, he needs to recognise this, so that he can move towards the expertise which the teacher has.

There will be times, however, when the pupil genuinely knows more than the teacher. An older pupil may have a special interest in a topic and have done considerable extra reading and study, and have acquired greater knowledge than the teacher in that particular area. This is conceivable, but it is a special case. In these cases, the pupil may realise that the teacher has made a factual error. For example, he may have given an incorrect date for an historical event.

What should the pupil do in this circumstance? He may raise his hand and, after having obtained permission to speak, point out the error to the teacher. The teacher may be convinced that he is right nevertheless. In this case, the pupil should drop his objection until such a time as it can be pursued without publicly undermining the authority of his teacher.

Promoting Critical Thinking

To think critically about any topic, a large store of knowledge is required, so that relevant examples can be compared and reasoned judgements made. The main task of the school teacher is to transmit this knowledge to pupils, so that eventually, once they have attained sufficient expertise, they will be able to think critically. The more knowledge pupils have, the better they will be able to judge the accuracy of the information which they encounter, not only in school, but in the media and in politics.

Therefore, the goal of being able to ask reasonable questions and make rational judgements is best served by the recognition of the teacher’s moral and intellectual authority. Pupils will learn much more in a safe and ordered classroom where they can listen and learn from those who know more than they do. Not that they will be silent in such a classroom, but when they do speak, they will do so in a respectful and rational way, and their comments will be based on knowledge, not ignorance, and on the humble quest for truth, not the arrogant assertion of opinion.

It is liberating to realise that education is not about the glorification of subjective self-expression, but about the acquisition of objective knowledge. Once pupils have realised this, they are on the road to developing genuine critical thinking.

What Is a Traditional Teacher?


Illustration of the twelve teachers of wisdom in Dante’s Paradiso, by Giovanni di Paolo (1403-1482)

I was once asked to provide a definition of traditional teaching in one tweet, and I described it as ‘knowledge for the mind, and discipline for the will’. A traditional teacher sees their role as primarily the transmission of valuable knowledge and secondarily the formation of good habits. These two goals involve a struggle against the natural ignorance and arrogance of the human race. Education is a battle against nature, not an embracing of its providential designs. The philosophy that Hirsch has labelled ‘providential individualism’ must be rejected.

Forming Good Habits

Knowledge cannot be acquired without good habits. A pupil who does not concentrate, who does not work hard, who interrupts teachers and peers, will remain both ignorant and arrogant. In order for knowledge to be acquired, egotism must be overcome; the pupil must begin to realise how ignorant he is and that others know far more than he does; he must realise that in order to obtain the knowledge which his superiors have mastered, a long, hard struggle will be needed.

A rigorous programme of academic study develops all four of the great human virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. A pupil must make prudent decisions about how to spend his time best; he must do justice to his teacher by obeying instructions and showing gratitude for the gift of knowledge; he must be temperate, especially in his speech; he must show fortitude if he is to persevere in mastering academic subjects thoroughly.

These virtues are not acquired overnight, any more than a thorough knowledge of history is to be obtained by reading a few articles on Wikipedia. They are acquired by a persistent effort to overcome egotism, by repeated practice under the guidance of authoritative instruction. To stand much chance of acquiring them, we need a community in which these virtues are viewed as the norm, and in which there are public consequences for being imprudent, unjust, intemperate or cowardly.

Humanity is something which we must struggle to acquire under the guidance of an authoritative community, not something we are born with. This is much easier to understand when one is involved in the raising of children, especially when they are younger. It is abundantly clear to a parent of young children that they are struggling to acquire the habits of their tribe. They are imitating the speech and the actions of their elders. Without an authoritative example to follow and without the struggle to imitate that example, they would not reach maturity.

Transmitting Knowledge

Walking and talking are universal accomplishments for ordinary members of the human race. They are remarkable accomplishments; they are cognitive feats which are achieved through much struggle and repeated practice. They can be learned by most people without formal instruction, however, because the normal child is surrounded by examples and receives rapid feedback on mistakes, either because his words are not understood or because he falls flat on his face.

Even these most universal of human accomplishments cannot be described as natural. To be human is to learn from others, to depend upon others, to submit to the authoritative example of others within a community, in order to grow and mature.

This is even more true when we come to formal academic instruction, which opens new vistas to the mind which are outside immediate experience. Reading and writing are not universal accomplishments; they are more artificial than speaking and walking; that is to say, they are more uniquely human. Writing with an alphabet which represents the sounds of speech is quite a recent invention in the whole span of human history. It is a remarkably flexible and useful one, which opens up vast new possibilities for knowledge and understanding. But in order to acquire it, formal instruction is required. Children may prefer to run around and play with mud and sticks. They should certainly have time for doing such things. But they will never learn to read and write by doing them. To learn to read and write, they must submit to authority and work hard under the guidance of instructors.

The traditional teacher recognises the importance of formal instruction, but also recognises its limits. He makes a clear distinction between work and play. Work requires self-discipline and effort. There is a place for play, once work has been completed. But they must not be muddled with each other, or neither one will be properly appreciated.

The traditional teacher works intensively to transmit the knowledge which the child requires to be inducted into the adult community. He sees in the child a human being who is not yet fully formed, and accepts the responsibility of forming the mind of that child by introducing him to the great human accomplishments in literature, history, science and mathematics.


Life is so much simpler when one recognises that hard work is needed to accomplish anything of value. Hard work can then be embraced wholeheartedly, and this leads to a deeper happiness than mere diversion or entertainment can ever bring.

A traditional understanding of education means that both teacher and pupil know that they are doing something serious and important, on which the continuation of human civilisation depends. Everything they are doing has a purpose, and it is a purpose which goes beyond mere individual gratification, and raises every person to real human dignity, as a member of a community who makes a contribution to its present health and its future existence.