Controlling the classroom

10 June 2009
The Guardian
link to original

In my second year of teaching at a tough inner city comprehensive in the early 1990s, I occasionally used to grab my insolent pupils by the arm and fling them out of the classroom – if they were small enough. Once or twice, I gave the really troublesome boys a light clip over the back of the head. Although corporal punishment was illegal by then, many other teachers there, still not fully cognisant with the law, did the same and far worse; once I saw a teacher grab and kick a pupil when he was lying on the ground. Nothing was done; it was all swept under the carpet. In the absence of any proper management to enforce strict discipline, chaos ruled in the school except in the classrooms where you were really macho and hard. What we weren’t aware of was that the very machismo behaviour that temporarily made pupils behave was, in fact, leading to far worse problems throughout the school; it sanctioned all sorts of violent behaviour among the kids. If the teachers were biffing people, why couldn’t the kids?

I became a "controloholic"; a teacher addicted to controlling the behaviour of my pupils. I found that asking pupils to read in silence and threatening to chuck them out if they played up worked well; most of my classes in my second year were very well behaved, compared with the extremely unruly ones I had endured in my first year. However, looking back I am not sure that they learned much, except that they should obey. One of the major shortcomings of my lessons was that no discussion, group work or imaginative activities were permitted because that would possibly sanction chaos to ensue. In short, I wasn’t teaching, I was child-minding in a particularly uninspiring fashion.

I came unstuck when I grabbed a pupil by the arms when he disobeyed me, refusing to play Macbeth in a shortened version of the play. He ran out of the classroom and complained to the deputy head, who reprimanded me and warned me never to do it again. Which I haven’t. That was more than 15 years ago and my attitudes towards corporal punishment have changed hugely since then. I no longer believe in it; I have seen first hand how it just doesn’t work. Once you feel you have the sanction of violence at your fingertips, you cease thinking imaginatively, rationally and strategically about solving behavioural problems. Children cease to be people, merely robots to be re-programmed with a boot up the backside. Teaching stops being about relationships and all about obedience.

I am not surprised though that one in five teachers wants to bring back the cane. As I have seen myself, firsthand in countless classrooms during my decade and a half as a teacher in state schools, many British children are out of control, unwilling to listen, eager to answer back, and reluctant to work on anything that doesn’t stimulate their interest immediately. A recent government survey revealed that 60% of front-line teachers feel there is a discipline crisis in our classrooms. Bringing back the cane seems like it might be the only solution in the face of this desperate situation.

Of course, it isn’t. Many of our worst behaved children live in violent households, where they are beaten regularly by their parents. Not surprisingly, angry and disaffected, they bring this violence into the classroom, seeking to solve their problems with their fists and abuse. These vulnerable, sad, defeated children need properly trained teachers to deal with them; I have seen myself that there are strategies that really work such as finding a curriculum that engages them, giving them proper counselling, helping them get motivated in a positive, ’emotionally intelligent’ fashion. However, frequently, school far from being a refuge for them is even more of a nightmare; many of these children can’t read or write properly and more often than not hate their lessons. The current system is very inflexible and frequently doesn’t cater for their needs; school budgets are over-stretched and targeted support doesn’t happen. In the cases when it does, such as when Save The Children’s Ear To Listen project enables children to have an "advocate" who mediates between home and school, bringing them the right help and guidance, the results are remarkable; the poor behaviour stops and they start to learn.

I went back a few days ago to the old school where I used to be such a "controloholic" and was amazed to see how much it had changed; the children were better behaved than in most suburban comprehensives, the results were through the roof and everyone appeared happy. The headteacher, who joined the school after I left, had instituted some simple, consistent policies which really bore fruit: engaging lessons for troubled children, clear rules and regulations, targeted support for those who were struggling, and a sense of pride in the school. He didn’t need the cane to do that, he just needed some good, informed teachers, a lot of hard work, resources and common sense. Bringing back the cane would be an unmitigated disaster for our schools; we need to use our intellects to make our children motivated to learn, not our fists.

Francis Gilbert’s Parent Power – The Guide To Getting The Best Education For Your Child is published by Piatkus.

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