Totalitarian Behaviour Management


The mask that zero tolerance wears to convince itself it is its own antithesis is the label ‘warm/strict’ (which is a ‘technique’ in ‘Teach Like a Champion’) or its more brutish correlative ‘tough love’. Now, I’m all for warmth and alive to the importance of strictness,[1] but this semi-oxymoron goes under the misapprehension that it is worthy of respect when it is arguably the delusion the dominator has that allows them to continue in the act of domination. Children do need warmth, and they do need boundaries; sometimes, the thing that they might need is for the institution to be a little intractable. But the fetishisation of strictness is not something that a teacher with any gift would bother with because it is an unintelligent response to the delicacies of educating children; it can lead to decisions that are not based on the professional judgement of the teacher but on an unforgiving application of a set of intractable laws that does not accommodate for individual differences as it puts the need for consistency above the need for decency. 

Any obsession with consistency is, by nature, totalitarian. Reality is rarely consistent, so a landscape of falsehoods is created to appeal to those who value coherence over truth.[2] The mob finds the need for consistency intellectually an ‘adequate enough’ explanation as it is easier to put in a box than messy reality, so the mob readily and unthinkingly accepts it as truth. It is not; it is a substitute for truth. It is a fiction of the kind contained in the propaganda of totalitarian movements of the last century. The fetishization of consistency is a children’s story designed to manipulate the credulous.

This fetishisation with consistency initially seems to come from an understandable and logical place. There is an argument (and a solid one) that John Murphy has made that, without consistency of approach, students have to relearn social norms in every classroom. But John also argues that, in the event that consistency rubs up against fairness, then fairness has to win. Different children have different abilities, different backgrounds, different experiences of life, different parents; to treat them all the same, regardless of whether it is appropriate or not, is unfair. It is not decent. It is bludgeoning in a landscape in which great subtlety is needed. Of course, consistency is important as, otherwise, students don’t know what to reasonably expect, but if you are holding a traumatised refugee orphan to the same standards as a well-loved, well-fed, middle-class child, then, that way, you are going the way of authoritarianism

Student behaviour in classrooms should be corrected individually because our students are individuals, and one would have thought that conservative thought, which alleges to treasure, above all, the individual, would appreciate this. We are not talking of the class in a school as being as formless collective here. It is a collection of individuals who need responses tailored to their individual situations, to their personalities and to their personal vulnerabilities.


The authoritarian slant of totalitarians is full of willed and swirling contradictions. These go along the lines of, and nod along with this while you are tracking the teacher please, your chains will set you free. This is the rhetorical device of antithesis (perhaps), but this demand for unthinking compliance, for submission, for obedience from students, as we have seen, can become perverse.

Tom Bennett has it that “unless we control what they can and cannot do, we condemn them not to freedom, but to slavery.”[3] It seems quite an obvious point to make that teachers should be in control of the class but, given that it was just such a lens that allowed the abuses at Uncommon to occur, its lack of nuance is apparent. People argue that slavery is freedom.[4] In doing so, they give themselves permission to claim that degradation is salvation, up is down, black is white, that punishment is good for people, that, metaphorically, murder is the cure as long as it is in service of the wider good. It is truth spoken upside down. One wonders whether some of the people involved in the totalitarian movement realise that ‘1984’ is a satire of totalitarianism and not a how-to manual. 

Silent Corridors

Silent corridors are not held to be reasonable behaviour on the part of institutions by the majority of people who work outside of them, probably the vast majority of teachers and the vast majority of parents. As a rule of thumb, when you consider whether your treatment of a child is humane, it can be helpful to imagine their parent seated next to them and, if you wouldn’t take the action in front of the parent, do not do it when the parent is not present. Here is a brief section a previous blog that covers public reaction to silent corridors:

“Silent corridors were described by Jack Monroe when she discovered their existence, as turning schools into ‘a weird authoritarian compliance training ground’. And the reaction to Monroe’s tweet from people who are not teachers included the following: ‘horrifying and terrifying’, ‘takes a truth about children needing structure and turns it into a regime of brutality’, ‘dystopian’, ‘horrific’, ‘scary’ and, presciently, as ‘1984 is now’.”[5] [6]

In reality, as all these ideas were, it was sourced from a specific section of the American charter school movement where some schools actually draw lines on the floor so that children, like bovines being guarded into an abattoir, can follow them to lessons in which they will be forced to sit bolt upright and track the teacher. It is contemptuous of the children it claims to want to lift up.

In looking slightly deeper into this practice (but not very deeply), let us acknowledge that lesson transitions in secondary schools can be fraught. Students go from a hopefully controlled environment to one that is less controlled. Sometimes, students will dally; sometimes, there will be horseplay; occasionally, there might be fights. Generally, schools deal with this by having teachers stand at their doors during lesson changeovers, and sometimes there will be senior management present during them. 

Silent corridors seem at first, and at best, a nuclear solution to what might be considered a ‘smallish’ problem. But it is worse than that: this “sterile puritanism”[7] that seeks to ban children from speaking to each other during lesson transitions exercises draconian control over a perfectly ordinary human impulse: to speak. But its supporters have so heavily inhaled the fumes of their own rightness, are so stuck in the echo chamber of a clan’s dogma, that they cannot even attempt to see this. Being allowed to communicate with others is a very important facet of a fundamental human need: that for freedom. Students who are banned from talking to each other are not the owners of this concept; they are chained to its antithesis by people who exalt the notion of individualism while, at the same time, extinguishing it the right to it in others. 

As Primo Levi reports, “in countries and epochs [and one might add schools] in which communication is impeded, all other liberties soon wither; discussion dies by inanition, ignorance of the opinions of others becomes rampant, imposed opinion triumph.”[8] Arendt observes that in the Soviet Union, people were denied all forms of freedom, “of association … [of] freedom of thought, opinion and public expression.”[9] The supporters of this practice seem to have only a surface-level understanding of what it is to be human.



[1] People may be surprised to know that I have always, at every one of the eighteen schools I have taught at, been regarded as a strict teacher by my students. But, as a lovely young man with illegible handwriting who is not called Neil, once observed, the atmosphere in class is “informal formality”. 

[2]All totalitarian systems have an inner coherence.

[3] Tom Bennett, Running the Room: The Teachers’ Guide to Behaviour (John Catt, Woodbridge 2020) p76.

[4] This is a reversal of Orwell’s “WAR IS PEACE; FREEDOM IS SLAVERY; IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH”:1984 – The Jura Edition (Polygon: Edinburgh, 2021) p5.

[5] One of the responders to Monroe’s tweet worked at such a place. Here is her description: “Classes 8am-6pm. no break room, only coffee in an atrium, so any confidential matters were overheard. Zero pastoral care. Crying children ignored by staff. At lunch pupils were expected to do table service. They admitted feeling suicidal.”

[6] Phil Beadle, Person Specifications, Mind Control and Silent Corridors,

[7] Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless: Crimes Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe (M. E. Sharpe: Armonk, 1985) p26.

[8] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (Abacus: London 1989) p113.

[9] Hannah Arendt, Preface to Part Three: Totalitarianism, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Penguin Random House UK: London 1966) pxliv.

Added Mon, 3 Jun 2024 16:32

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