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History and Behaviour

I’m sat at a government review meeting and must admit I’m sneakily tapping away writing this blog. This isn’t because I’m disengaged or disaffected. Rather it’s because I’m very engaged and very affected. You see, the review meeting is about the new teaching standards for behaviour, and we are being asked what we think about them and how they will impact upon teachers and, particularly, new teachers.

The reason these behaviour standards have piqued my interest is because I’m wondering if teaching history is an amazing vehicle for helping to “manage” behaviour (as the standard says). In my mind, perhaps in yours too, history is all about people’s behaviour. It’s about understanding why people behaved like they did (whether a king or a mere minion), and how their lives and behaviours were affected by events and issues of their day. And history is also about understanding people’s behaviours in the present – why we view the past in a particular way, why we regard particular past events as significant. So what possible better preparation for “managing behaviour” is there? If you love history, you love people’s actions, their thoughts, their behaviours! So by our very discipline aren’t history teachers incredibly well placed to understand student’s behaviour, because we have an incredibly broad and deep historical context to draw on?

When a child tells us “I hate you and hate school” aren’t we privileged in that with our historical context we can appreciate that this is not a personal attack but rather an attack on establishment… And how dull history would be if there hadn’t been attacks on establishment! Now, of course, if we told that particular student this, he or she would be incredibly narked off and we would probably get an expletive or two, so I’m certainly not advocating this idea. But, at the heart of SHP – at the heart of good history teaching – is the principle that we should connect history to young people’s lives. If we are to live out this principle, history should be the hotbed which helps students to recognise their behaviours are in many ways very similar to those who have gone before. Not as a measuring stick, or a way to say ‘get over yourself’, but rather as a way to show our students that they are human, and it is very ok to be human! Perhaps there is some chance that history will help move them on.

I don’t claim that history is thus a cure all for student’s behaviour, or a discipline in which we don’t need to ‘do’ behaviour management. I am instead musing out loud whether teaching history and learning history makes you better able – socially, emotionally, mentally – to understand behaviour. I distinctly remember as I was going through a particularly gruesome time of teenage angst when I realised that so too had thousands of other teenagers. For example, working in a mill can’t have been easy when mixed with teenage mood swings, parent arguments and so on. I realised I didn’t have the monopoly on being a cow! My behaviour didn’t alter over night, but I did gradually mellow. My history teacher was the vehicle for this – the amazing Mr T who fascinated me with stories of children in the industrial revolution. He helped me connect myself, and my angst, to the past. Strangely, my future became possible. It didn’t seem like I’d have an interminable drag of angst.

But perhaps I’m incredibly naive. I’ve faced behaviour issues, sometimes that don’t go away with some classes, but would my theory apply to schools where you perceive there to be major behaviour difficulties? Would it apply to students with significant emotional and social needs? I’d love to hear your thoughts: are history teachers actually well placed to “manage behaviour” or is this my own experience applied too widely?