My brief experience as a part-time secondary school teacher was nothing if not memorable – and not altogether in a good way.
I was transported back to that time recently by a brilliant six-part BBC 2 documentary series called, with commendable brevity, School.
I started in the first week of the new millennium. Business at my micro-ad. agency had been going through a rather prolonged lean spell. I was always happy to ride the downturns and enjoy the upturns, but then I saw the ad. for a part-time English teacher at my local college for 15-18 year olds. A bit of extra cash for passing on my knowledge of Shakespeare, poetry and novels sounded like a win-win situation, so I thought “Why not?”
I was soon to find out the answer to that question.
After a week or so’s honeymoon period, my typical day became a Whitehall farce of (for instance) writing business documents and lesson plans in the morning, with maybe an hour or two of teaching squeezed in, followed by frantic catch-up advertising client calls and emails in mid-afternoon, with maybe a staff meeting on GCSE progress and overseeing some detention later the same day. Yes, it was hectic; but actually once I settled into a kind of chaotic rhythm, I started to feel it might be do-able.
Before long, though, I began increasingly to experience a factor I hadn’t really budgeted for: misbehaviour. My sons, both former pupils at the school, had warned me that “they’ll make mincemeat out of you”. They were so right. After a honeymoon period of about a fortnight, things started to get fractious.
It began with talking whilst I was talking; progressed to various pupils standing up and walking around; and ended up with some students walking out of class altogether, fighting, throwing things at each other and sometimes even more extreme activities. For instance, in the lowest ability class that I took, a stranger would occasionally appear outside the window of the classroom and one of my students would dash to the doorway and run through the corridor to meet him; I gathered from the other students that this was to do with exchanging drugs. There were frequent instances of boy:girl physical embraces, etc.; chairs were thrown on a few occasions; and then there was the memorable moment when smoke appeared at the back of the the class and I discovered that a boy had set fire to one of his (very old) trainers …
As someone whose vocal chords were toughened on the terraces of Ninian Park during my own formative years in supporting Cardiff City (alas, I am rarely able to see them live nowadays), I had no problem in raising my voice and maintaining high volume instructions and threats during the course of this behaviour. Senior teachers would frequently come into my classroom to assist in restoring order. But it soon became clear to me that even the most experienced staff members often had difficulty in coping with riotous situations. At that time, no physical contact between teachers and staff was allowed. So to keep a student from leaving the classroom involved pressing my foot against the bottom of the door to prevent it from being opened. In my day, I would have received a smack across the head if I had shown such a level of disobedience.
The reasons for bad behaviour in the classroom are very many and very varied; and they include both personal and social factors. The personal qualities and previous experience of the teacher are obviously a key influence; the ethos of a particular year group will often determine the nature and level of the disruption; and the psychological profiles – including their home environments – of individual students in a classroom is also a major factor. But whatever the reasons for an outbreak of bad behaviour, its effect on learning outcomes is critical. Frustratingly, I found that, on enquiring on a one-to-one basis, quite a few students who were disruptive really wanted to learn, but behaved badly only because they were pressurised into it by some of their peers.
I did take on board advice from other members of staff. There are some well-known techniques and classroom management strategies that can sometimes assist with maintaining a calm environment and keeping students focused. There is a whole seam of literature offering advice on keeping order. But the theory is all very fine: most often at the chalkface events can quickly prove that there are many exceptions to the rules. An ink pellet which hit the screen of my laptop as I was using it to project images from the First World War, teaching poetry, was the last straw and I resigned soon after.
But seeing the Ready To Learn system in action in the recent BBC2 documentary gave me real hope that there may be a way to solve this difficult problem …
Like many great ideas, it’s very simple. After just two instances of disruptive behaviour, students are sent to an “isolation room”, where they stay for a whole day, plus an hour after the school closes. As the documentary illustrated, it’s very boring. Talking or other bad behaviour is marked on a wallchart. After a given number of further transgressions the fixed system results in a call to the pupil’s home and may ultimately result in exclusion from the school. As the documentary also illustrated, the system is very effective. This is backed up by numerous reports available on the internet. Clear, consistent boundaries and the certainty of known sanctions seem to be the answer to much of the great scourge of bad behaviour in our schools.
Disruptive behaviour is the elephant in the classroom. It is rarely talked about in parliament, which focuses on “more important”, higher level considerations such as budgets and standards. Crime on the streets, violence in hospitals, domestic abuse – all these and other similar issues attract a goodly share of attention from the powers-that-be.
But bad behaviour in the classroom stunts the life chances of very many kids. It’s time for the education authorities to give this issue more attention. I hope they are ready to learn from the experiences of those schools that are implementing this system and will ensure its use becomes a requirement, rather than a very bright idea taken up by only a selection of enlightened schools.