“Don’t raise your eyebrows at me as if I’m a crazy person! I am doing my job. My job is to teach you. When I correct your behaviour, I am not being crazy or unreasonable. I am trying to help you learn. Do you understand?”
Once again April raised her eyebrows.
In utter fury I ordered her out of the room.
We had been having conversations like this for weeks. April seemed incapable of responding appropriately to instruction.
In theory, I had a lot of compassion for her. Her mother was struggling emotionally and financially. I knew that the little family had had a spell of homelessness and April’s younger brother was unwell.
I was prepared to be patient, but something about that raising of her eyebrows, the expression of ironic incredulity, was intolerable.
Time after time I tried to explain to her why it was inappropriate.
I mimicked it for her, I even turned our exchanges into a comic strip with thought bubbles for her.
Every time I finished explaining, up those eyebrows would go… again.
On the edge
I next encountered April in a specialist behaviour intervention because she was at risk of permanent exclusion. In the intervening two years she had alienated most of the staff.
An assistant principal had made it his mission to ‘break’ her, but had only succeeded in gathering extra evidence to support a series of fixed term exclusions, all for angry outbursts at staff.
April’s mother was bitterly angry at her daughter for causing extra grief when her brother’s health was deteriorating.
April just raised her eyebrows at us all.
I had worked with April in the behaviour intervention setting for two weeks, and was trying, yet again, to explain why her eyebrow raising was inappropriate.
There was just the two of us and April was calmer than I had ever seen her.
She was sitting silently, listening to me.
This time, instead of raising her eyebrows, a single tear gathered and fell.
For the first time, I set my own frustration aside and really looked at her.
This miserable child had gone through so much but only seemed able to provoke anger rather than compassion in the adults around her.
“Would you like a cup of hot chocolate?” I asked. She raised her eyebrows.
She raised her eyebrows.
I had asked April a perfectly ordinary question and she had raised her eyebrows. Raising her eyebrows didn’t mean “You crazy insignificant person, I don’t believe what you are saying,” it just meant “yes”.
My perspective on her whole school career flipped and shifted. She had tried to do her best but the world was full of adults who became inexplicably and implacably angry with each interaction.
Nothing she did could stop them spiralling into deeper and deeper rage. Her own frustration had gown and exploded.
She was signalling that she understood and accepted what she had been told, why wasn’t that enough? She did not understand and her despair was sucking her under.
I’d like to say that April’s whole experience changed from that moment. It didn’t.
I couldn’t get her to transfer her eyebrow raise to a nod, and I couldn’t convince all the staff that this most insolent look was actually agreement.
Enough key people, however, were supportive and were able to offer April havens of understanding enabling her to finish her GCSEs.
As secondary school teachers, we are so used to checking how well our students are understanding us that we rarely stop and think about how well we are understanding them.
The complex grammar of emotional exchange often escapes us, or we deliberately avoid it.
I am not speaking about superficial hugs and fist bumps or asking that we soften our classroom boundaries; I am suggesting that we take an attentive, compassionate approach to our most vulnerable students if we really want to improve their outcomes.
Jo Bardsley coordinates therapeutic interventions and teaches English in an inner city London school. She has worked in a number of different countries, including the USA and Togo in West Africa. She blogs at compassionateteacher.home.blog.
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