When I tell people that I used to be a teacher, I often get variations on the following response, ‘Oh, I could never do that for a job: I wouldn’t be able to control the badly-behaved ones…’
In truth, it isn’t easy – and it took me eight years even to begin to develop strategies. In terms of classroom management, some lucky people seem to have a natural ability (I wasn’t one of them!); whilst, at the other end of the spectrum, some never develop the knack and are tormented and walked all over the whole of their careers. I met a few of those during my time as a teacher.
Most of us fit somewhere in between these two extremes.
My first year, I was given two very difficult classes, one in year eleven and one in year nine. Coming, as I did, from a girls’ grammar school, I had absolutely no idea how to manage the disaffected, finding boys a particular challenge on the behaviour front. Chaos reigned as a result. In those days, the training we got to become teachers (I did a one year PGCE course) was hopelessly inadequate in practical terms, though we learned fascinating facts about educational theory!
I dreaded every lesson with these two classes – and the nadir of the week came every Friday, last lesson, when I had to teach (er, contain!) year nine bottom set for what felt like a couple of centuries.
Fast forward eight years or so and I was given a Criminal List of a class to take through the two years of GCSE coursework (as it was back then). When I first perused the list of names, I gasped. It seemed as if all the most notorious head-cases, uncontrollable red-mist-anger types and plain weirdos had been hand-picked and placed into this class specially for me. Most had been suspended at least once; half the class was on a high stage on the County Suspension procedure and most of them had some kind of problem. They were the kind of kids mentioned as ones to watch out for every single Staff Meeting. And I had about thirty of them!
Life during their year ten – or fourth year as we called it back in the eighties – was sheerest hell. To say that they didn’t respect me would be to indulge in wilful understatement. I got the coursework out of them, it is true, and no one actually took the classroom apart during a lesson – but it really was like trying to herd vicious and starving lions!
The turning point came by accident. I have always had a ready wit and a fast delivery on the humour front – and, even early on, regularly had more biddable classes falling about in the aisles with laughter. I cannot remember what I said to the Lions (and Lionesses), or why I felt able to do so, but they laughed; in fact, aptly, they roared.
It didn’t hit me all at once (I wish it had) – but gradually, it dawned on me that a strict approach leavened with humour actually worked: That telling a child off is a hell of a lot easier, and far less likely to end up in confrontation/summoning senior colleague for help, if humour is added to the mix.
Thus, a stentorian bellow of, ‘Be quiet or I’ll call Mr Smith!’ rarely works. But, ‘James, Sam, put a sock in it, can you? Honestly, you’re just like a pair of fishwives!’ does, for some reason.
The other thing I discovered, through trial and error (mostly the latter), was that detention does not work, and passing a difficult child on up the chain at the drop of a swear word should be avoided where possible. My philosophy was that, if I couldn’t handle the situation in the classroom, it was probably because I had made a mistake of some kind in dealing with a fragile child. I found, in the vast majority of cases, that talking to an individual after the lesson was far more effective than giving a punishment.
By a fine irony, the diffident, easily-taken-advantage-of probationary teacher of 1981-2 became notorious for being a strict disciplinarian, and a noted eccentric, by the time she left the profession in 2012.
So, what advice would I give those starting as teachers now?
Do not be too proud to admit that your handling of classes can cause problems – and that some explosive situations could be avoided if you looked at your own behaviour and expectations.
Control yourself first!
Try and avoid seeing the kids as inferiors, and being impatient with those who do not have a natural ability in your subject. It is not their fault.
Try and see the child, rather than its problems and problematic behaviour.
Teach the children, not just the subject. Some of the worst teachers are the very brightest of individuals: They find it very difficult to come down from academia’s ivory tower, let alone understand that you do not have to be an intellectual to be a damned fine human being.
Learn to laugh: At yourself (because you WILL make a pig’s ear of it most days at some point!) and with the kids.
Always remember that the vast majority of those you teach are someone else’s beloved children, and think, if you have them, how you would want your own offspring to be treated within the educational system.
Finally: Rome was not built in a day – and your ability to handle difficult children will evolve in its own time. If it doesn’t, you may need to rethink your choice of career.
I regularly bump into ex-pupils and it is always lovely to see them.