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Unmet needs – are we just excusing bad behaviour?

Getting kicked out of school was the wakeup call I needed. Now I’m a teacher and it’s got me questioning our view of ‘unmet needs’…

Ben King
by Ben King
Year 6 teacher and history lead in a Sussex primary school
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PrimaryEnglish

Standing in my bedroom on a Tuesday morning I waited patiently for the voice on the other end of the phone to speak. It was October and I was in Year 11, approaching the final stretch of my studies before exams. 

“Hello, Ben. We have a slight issue with your history coursework. In brief, it is very similar to, well, to be honest, several others.” The voice said.

And that was that, I knew my time in secondary education was over. All for the sake of £35.  

Having been caught selling history coursework I knew I would be lucky if they even allowed me to sit my exams at the all-boys school I had been studying at for my teenage years.

I knew this was the final straw. I was only at home that Tuesday morning as I had been excluded for two days for writing a mock report into the management of the school and handing it out on the playground at the 3:15pm bell.

That was the fourth exclusion I had received in my time at the school. 

Behaviour as communication

There is a trend at the moment of declaring all behaviour as a means of legitimate communication. To be honest, this has me scratching my head a bit.

I moved past my exclusions and other issues, and went on to achieve three A-Levels, an undergraduate degree, a PGCE, an MA in Educational Leadership, and I served with Sussex Police. But was my appalling attitude just an unmet need? 

I really don’t think so.  

I grew up in a fairly affluent part of the world where crime was very low, with parents who were happily married and in a home where from the age of 12 I had my own room. I was dressed well and fed healthily, I got pocket money and my older brother showed no signs of my issues with authority or controlling behaviour. So why was I different? 

The truth is – and nobody likes to say this aloud – I enjoyed the notoriety. It was something that hadn’t been part of the fabric of my primary school, but in an all-boys (fairly old-fashioned) secondary there were certain people that were known as lads you just ‘don’t mess with’.

The first time I was excluded in Year 7, it was for a simple fight; a disagreement between me and another boy – fists and feet and two days at home. Simple as that.

What was I communicating? I already had friends, it wasn’t like I needed to be seen. I was. On the second occasion I threatened another pupil, not with a weapon, just words. But it went round like wildfire that I was out of the school again.  

When I decided I was bored in a maths lesson and I threw my calculator out the window at another child I didn’t like, I was only trying to communicate to him that I didn’t like him.

Nothing else. If restorative measures had been used with me, in that situation, I would’ve said anything the teacher wanted and walked off smiling to myself. 

The fact is, I was arrogant, I was gobby, and I was hormonal. But who isn’t?

Just an excuse?

Some say bad behaviour is generally caused by a desire to avoid something or a desire to gain something. I just don’t see life as that black and white, and I say that as someone who has worked with children, youth offenders and criminals.

I have arrested adults for how they treat children and arrested children for how they’ve treated adults.  

We excuse the behaviour of those misbehaving by giving them a constant, cast-iron get out. We remove the personal and make it societal.

Of course, it can be, that goes without saying. Of course an unfed, unloved child will potentially lash out.

But how unfair, how unjust, to compare my enjoyment of fighting and causing a scene – and I say that fully aware of how that sounds – with the genuine horrors faced by some of our most vulnerable in the world. 

I got my wakeup call at the end of that phone conversation. I begged to still take my exams, I pleaded with the local college to take me, and I developed a desire to work with children and offenders and help them on their path.

Should I have been expelled earlier? Who knows. I know I wouldn’t have achieved what I did though, if I hadn’t faced those consequences. And it wasn’t down to being unfulfilled.    

Ben King is a Year 6 teacher and history lead in a Sussex primary school. Follow him on Twitter @thatteacherguy_

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