Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Tank Full of Piranhas

There are moments in teaching when you feel a complete and utter heel, usually because a careless or unintended remark upsets a child. Through experience you know where some of the potential land mines are sited, you have to carefully navigate around them. ‘Mothers’ Day’ can be problematic for children in care or those being brought up by their grandparents.

This year as cover teacher for PPA (that’s Planning, Preparation and… something beginning with ‘A’) I get to teach in different classes. You know that some children will always try it on with a supply teacher or any new face. That class you had under the thumb will chance their arm. The permanent primary class teacher has a whole arsenal of weapons at their disposal, in particular those all-important jobs to bestow or withdraw like pencil monitor and merits or house points.

Discipline should of course be a whole school issue; here the key is consistency and KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid!). In our school we follow the three strikes on the board and detention rule (we also have the ‘smiley side’). It generally works firstly because the children hate losing a playtime and secondly it is instantaneous.

It wasn’t always so, our old headteacher Erica didn’t really ‘do’ discipline, along with most of the other parts of her job description. I discovered the ‘discipline issue’ early on when I sent a child to her; they returned after half an hour with stickers all over their shirt and within a few minutes were worse than they were before. ‘I’ll send you to the head,” is usually one of your trusted reserve weapons in primary schools. Sending children to Erica was about as effective as feather duster in a bare-knuckle fight.

One child, Marvin, was a trainee psychopath; he was constantly pinching, kicking and thumping other children. One day I found a child lying in a heap in the corridor. Marvin had repeatedly slammed his head against the door handle, he cheerfully admitted it all, the child had been, ‘winding him up’. Erica started to give him a stern lecture, I had to walk away, later she told me that he was ‘so sorry’. Marvin appeared back in class with an evil grin plastered all over his face. I was convinced that if he did succeed in killing anyone Erica would send a stiff letter home to his dysfunctional family.

Luckily we had a succession of capable deputy heads who took on the role of enforcing some semblance of order and disciplining the small minority of miscreants. Mrs Moore could have fun with the children but when push came to shove she had the kind of scary voice that could penetrate the deepest reinforced concrete bunker, and a stare that could turn children into stone, verily she could have frozen hell. Detention meant children sitting in silence doing work. Such was her fearsome reputation that even some of the most recalcitrant Year 6s still quail at the mention of her name.

Last week I was teaching partitioning with Year 3. It was one of those mornings when you became aware that the bright promise of the new school year has begun to fade. Maybe it was the dull weather, but a collective lethargy had set in. You begin to wonder, ‘Is it me?’ Have you not explained it clearly enough? I got the class back together and clarified it again… glazed expressions, children fiddling with shoes, staring out of the window.

Teachers should always be patient, but you can have bad mornings too – the memory of the holidays a distant blur, the long stretch until Christmas, another imposition from the government, a chance remark by a colleague that throws you off balance, that costly repair on the car, the darkening mornings. Eventually I snapped, ‘If I don’t see more effort some of you will stay in at break time with Mrs Jones’ – our new deputy head.

I carried on with the explanation but still the glazed look of utter incomprehension from half the class. Then I spotted Peter with tears rolling down his cheeks, as I carried on he was desperate to answer every question although it was hard to understand his replies.

After I’d sent the class back to their desks I called Peter over, he was accompanied by his friend Chris who had his arm around him trying to console him. I taught Peter’s sister last year and you could tell the parents wanted their children to succeed, homework was always excellent, reading folder completed, notes from school replied to.

I asked Peter what was wrong. Now he has a speech impediment and in his highly charged emotional state the words came out in flood, a relentless unstoppable torrent at high volume, ‘DEE, DUM, DAT, DOO, DAT, DEE, DAH…’ Every thirty seconds or so he would pause and his lungs would heave in more air. I sat and listened sympathetically, after a few minutes he dissolved into tears. ‘OK don’t worry’, I sent him back to his desk. Peter carried on with his maths work, tears welling from his eyes like an unquenchable spring. Tiny blots of salt stained tears marking his book.

Later I called his friend Chris over and asked him quietly what was wrong, ‘Sir, he’s terrified of having a detention with Mrs Jones’. I summoned Peter over and gravely examined his Maths book. ‘Peter, we only give detentions for very naughty children and that isn’t you, is it?’ He shook his head. ‘You’ve tried really hard this lesson and that’s all that counts.’

Thinking about it I’d been way too harsh, Year 3 for goodness sake. You forget those school landmarks, those rites of passage; the journey from Infant to Juniors is a big leap for some children. There’s that fear of the unknown.

Detentions in our school are usually confined to the usual suspects and for the old lags it holds no fears – in the same way that Norman Stanley Fletcher viewed prison as an acceptable risk in a criminal career. Peter just couldn’t bear the thought of explaining to his Mum that he’d been in detention.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression, rewards have always featured strongly in our school, all stick and no carrot never works particularly for the vast majority of children who do want to learn. In nearly every case our ‘problem children’ come with a lot of baggage. I’ve taught in schools with perfect order and discipline but it was like being in a penal colony. Schools should be happy places. The other side is that children have a right to learn.

Luckily children have short memories, at playtime Peter and Chris were racing round the schoolyard. In the afternoon I moved on to gym with Year 2 and got them walking along the upturned benches. ‘Next week you’ll be balancing over a tank full of piranhas’. ‘Whatever!’

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It's hard to know who to feel sorriest for - you (for having to try to deal with the dossers who know you can't really do anything) or the "good" kids who end up getting punished through no fault of their own.

My own kids' school like to slap the whole class down when just a few of the usual suspects prat about. I don't know if the teacher hopes that the rest of the class will gang up on the dossers, but the net effect on my kids is that they're already developing a hefty sense of injustice and cynicism. That can't be good in the long run, can it? :-(
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