Professor Paul Cooper, BA, MEd, MA, PhD, CPsychol, AsFBPS, is the series editor of JKP’s Innovative Learning for All series, which features accessible books that reveal how schools and educators can meet the needs of vulnerable students, and encourage them to engage in learning and to feel confident in the classroom. This week, he’ll be answering some questions about the series and educating students with Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (SEBD).
How did your early experiences as a teacher lead you to specialise in education for young people with SEBD?

Today, Professor Cooper tells us how he got started in education and shares his philosophy about the role of teachers in the lives of children with SEBD. 

It’s now thirty-one years ago since I took up my first job as an English teacher in a run down urban secondary school. I came across a picture of the school as it is now recently and wasn’t at all disappointed to find that it looked to be in a state of dereliction, long since closed and with boarded up windows. It was a grim place. Status distinctions were straightforward: both students and staff were segregated by perceived ability. There was a strange relationship between pupil ability and behaviour. The most ‘difficult’ pupils were in the lower streams, while the higher streams were characterised by a willingness to comply with teacher directions. Staff ability was largely determined on the basis of length of experience. Therefore, the least experienced staff tended to be given responsibility for lower stream, more challenging classes.

This environment was not conducive to the kinds of interactions associated with effective teaching and learning. I and many of the pupils at that school felt that the place had a custodial atmosphere. This is not to say that there were not some teachers in the school who genuinely cared about the students and who were skillful enough to forge positive relationships with students who for the most part were not considered to be ‘academic’.

I was not a skilled teacher at this time, and this setting did little to nurture whatever potential I might have had. I made many mistakes. In retrospect I was emotionally distant from my pupils and sometimes harsh where I should (and could) have been sympathetic, largely out of a sense of the need to be defensive.

Surprisingly I was not put off teaching by this experience. This was brought home to me by the fact that in spite of my lack of skill and the grimness of the environment, there pupils who seemed to value their time in the school and their relationships with staff (even with me). We even had fun sometimes: reading Catcher in the Rye, writing poetry, composing letters to the local council about the poor community facilities on the estates where they lived; producing monthly school newspaper and an annual magazine. These were genuinely exciting experiences that transcended the grimness of the environment and energised many of the students and me. As a result I started studying for an MEd with one aim in mind: to find out how make education better, especially for the most vulnerable children – those for whom education could from an escape route.

In your view, what is the primary role of teachers in the lives of children? Children with SEBD?

The best way to answer this question is to ask ourselves what we most remember about our schooldays. Whenever I ask groups of people this question it’s never long before someone mentions a teacher. This always triggers a flood of emotional recollections in the group: some positive; some not so positive. Lives are changed and sometimes shaped by encounters with teachers sometimes for better sometimes for worse for decades after we leave school. It is true to say that we leave school, but school never leaves us.

It is easy to be fooled by the apparently dismissive attitude that some young people show towards to school. It may be the case that for many students school is, indeed, ‘boring’ but this does not mean that it is unimportant to them. On the contrary, the school is the main site where young people establish their independent identities outside the family unit. From their earliest experiences of schooling, children are engaging with a key social institution as individuals in their own right. Whether they see themselves as succeeding or failing, socially and academically, they cannot escape the impact of these experiences on their developing identities.

Relationships with teachers are central to this identity formation process. Schools have a cruel habit of differentiating between students on social and academic grounds and assigning different values to individuals. It is natural for some teachers to be drawn to students who are co-operative and rewarding to work with, and display particular warmth to such students. Insightful and caring teachers, however, actively challenge the potentially exclusionary effects of such favouritism and recognise that the failure to show such warmth towards the less engaged and rewarding students exacerbates their disengagement. For students who present with SEBD the teacher’s personal regard for him or her is a vital mechanism in promoting what the criminologist David Smith refers to as ‘attachment to school’, which he shows to be an important protective factor against the development of delinquency. Attachment to school is characterised by the sense that school is safe and rewarding place to be; where the individual is both valued as a person and, in turn, values the experiences to be had there. For students who are considered to present with SEBD, some of whom come from chaotic and insecure home backgrounds, the school may be the only place where such positive affirmation is made available.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

Tomorrow: Professor Cooper provides some advice for both newly qualified and experienced teachers!

Paul Cooper, BA, MEd, MA, PhD, CPsychol, AsFBPS, is a Chartered Psychologist and has been Professor of Education at the University of Leicester, UK, since January 2001. He is also co-chair of the European Network for Social and Emotional Competence (ENSEC). Since 1989 he has held academic posts in the universities of Birmingham, Oxford and Cambridge, and has been a visiting professor and invited lecturer in many countries throughout the world, including: Japan, Taiwan, North America and several European countries. He has authored and edited over 100 journal articles and 14 books, and is the editor of the quarterly journal ‘Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties’.

Learn more about JKP’s Innovative Learning for All series, edited by Paul Cooper.

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