I’ll cut straight to the big reveal: every relationship, of any description, at any time, is based on a contract. The contract can be explicit or implied, spoken or unspoken, verbal or not, but by any definition, it exists. It has to.
The contract is vitally important. It represents an agreement between two parties that forms the foundation of the relationship. Take this very blog post as a particularly immediate example. I have no idea who you are (unless, of course I know you, in which case, hi), but there is still a very clear set of unspoken contractual obligations at play. I have agreed to write something engaging and at least, relevant, that will not deviate from the agreed format of an internet blog post slash essay. I won’t lapse into Gregorian chanting or start typing in 1101110000011010011 binary code for example. And if you don’t like what you’re reading, you are well within your unspoken contractual rights to scroll to the end, close the tab, or get back to googling whatever it was you were googling before you got here.
Every relationship is built around some set of agreed rules in this way. Professionally, this can be seen in sharp relief with GCSE classes; those groups you’ve taught since year 9 and take all the way through to results day. At some point in year 10 an equilibrium is reached. The kids kind of get you and you equally get them. You know how far to push, the accepted limit of banter, the prerequisite effort levels, etc etc. And likewise, the kids know when to talk, when to listen, your various and far ranging moods and when to tune in to your increasingly frequent end-of-movie courtroom speeches. A contract has been established. 01010100001
Now, things tend to get interesting when a contract is breached. When the rules, spoken or otherwise, are broken, there will always be some level of response, or, worse, reaction.Take the GCSE class who gets the anxious new teacher in year 10. He or she might do the unthinkable and, say, get upset when the class doesn’t turn in a decent piece of homework for seven weeks. Said teacher might then lose the plot for a few minutes and tell the class a few home truths along the lines of, say, you’re going to fail your exams and fail in life because you have no work ethic and you treat these lessons like a joke. From teacher A, such aggressive verbal assertions might have been permissible under the rules of the unspoken contract established since Key Stage 3. But from teacher B, with no established contract, it becomes an act of pure aggression. The unspoken rules of the unestablished contract have been broken.
This is where contracts can be dangerous, which, incidentally, has nothing to do with the fact that they can lead to misunderstanding and conflict. The real danger stems from the fact that contracts are defined by expectation.
When a contract is being established, both parties come to the table with a huge menu of expectations and wants. When I sit down to eat at a restaurant, I’m expecting the food I pay for to live up to certain expectations. The money I pay thus acts as a holder of these expectations. In a less literal example, when I enter into an unspoken social contract with a would-be friend, there are clear expectations as to what we might say to each other, how we might behave in various situations, how far we can take our banter, and so on. This has to be the reason that legal contracts are so detailed; they have to spell out every nuance of every clause to ensure that expectations are explicit. The implied becomes explicit and therefore the risk of conflict is minimised. There’s no room for disappointment, because the obligations and expectations are clear.
When we teach your kids, us teachers are continually surfing contractual waves. When I recently told a kid that in all honesty, the class functions better without him, I was pushing the boundaries of the unspoken contract that I would not and should not attack his social wellbeing. Not my proudest moment, but I was angry and in a reactive state. So when he reacted and stormed off, I couldn’t blame anyone but myself; I had breached an important contract. Similarly, when a student who had repeatedly failed to put any effort into his work frustrated me to the point of bemoaning “idiot kids”, his reaction (“you can’t talk to me like that sir”) might not have been accurate, but it was justifiable.
For teachers, establishing classroom contracts in detail is not as important as being aware of the expectations we bring to the table. Not knowing what your expectations are leaves you dangerously naive and vulnerable to your own reactions (which tend to be impulse-based and unreasonable). Far better is to evaluate (and continually reevaluate) your ideals and put effort into developing meaningful relationships. Because ultimately, these relationships are at stake when agreements, explicit or otherwise, are breached. Something to think about.