Archive for December, 2007

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Detentions: Part 1

December 16, 2007

Since most punishments used in schools were banned (or made impractical by the general anarchy) teachers have been left with two options: phone a student’s parents (and hope they punish the student) or set a detention.

The basic idea of a detention is that a student is confined to school for some set period of time. There are a number of ways in which detentions can vary:

After School versus Break Time

After school detentions require written notification to parents. Break or lunch time detentions simply involve keeping hold of a student at the end of a lesson. Which is more effective is likely to depend on the school (although this doesn’t stop many teachers from being convinced they know which of the two is best in all circumstances). After school detentions are most effective where:

  • Pupils walk home in groups and fear they will be beaten up if they walk home alone.
  • There are convenient places to hold the detentions (rather than a state of chaos at the end of the school day).
  • Students have reason to turn up (i.e. there is an adequate follow up for non-attenders).

However, after school detentions have a downside. Schools often record them and then blame teachers for setting them (“if you are punishing children then you must have caused them to behave badly in your lesson”). Parents can be awkward about their children having to walk home late. If teachers have to hold them in their own classroom it becomes inconvenient to have many students in, whereas you can often hold entire classes in at break or lunchtime). After school detentions can be longer but that can also be a disadvantage, they are after all unpaid over-time for teachers (but this has to be balanced against losing some of break or lunch time). Also the worst students cannot be safely supervised after school so people don’t set them detentions.

In some schools a half-way house is often used. Students are told to turn up after school for five or ten minutes without a letter home. Teachers often (incorrectly) believe there is no requirement to inform parents about short detentions.

Punishment versus Reflection

There is a real question as to what students should do in detention. The best punishment would be to force the student to sit in silence doing nothing. However, this can be difficult, particularly if you have several students in detention (not to mention a crowd of their friends waiting in the doorway) and no real support if they refuse to comply. The next best thing is to give them an activity (usually a worksheet) which involves reflecting on why they got the detention. However, a lot of the time students are given work to do which is fine if the detention is for not working but in other cases seems to indicate that school work is a form of punishment and a bad thing to be avoided. I have also encountered members of SMT who have said things along the lines of “detentions are for relationship building” and actually expect teachers to be making friends with the students in detention by being nice to them, utterly removing the whole element of punishment. One member of SMT I knew even suggested detentions be renamed “Opportunities for further work and reflection”.

Centralised versus Teacher Organised Detentions

Good schools have known for decades that detentions should be centrally organised. Teachers should just record the incidents, but leave it to management to organise the detentions (possibly with staff attending on a rota). However, just because it is common sense it has taken years for this to reach more challenging schools. The trail blazer here was Ninestiles school in Birmingham who went from academic disaster to success by introducing a Behaviour For Learning system based on centralised detentions. Schools with poor behaviour often have heads who have a jealous hatred of Ninestiles and argue against centralised detentions. It is transparently obvious that this is because such a system creates a lot of work for SMT but it’s probably worth mentioning the arguments they use against centralised detentions.

As mentioned earlier, some members of SMT claim that detentions are for “relationship-building” not punishment. Apart from the clear moral failure involved in suggesting that you make friends with children who misbehave rather than punish them, this “relationship-building” is only plausible in the virtual world of SMT where it is possible to believe that no teacher will ever need to set more than a couple of detentions a week in order to enforce the school rules. The other objection is that teachers should be responsible for the amount of detentions they set. In effect: detentions should punish teachers rather than pupils. You must be at fault if you set more detentions than another teacher. This in itself makes a mockery of having school rules that say when detentions should be set. Moreover, it suggests that the amount of detentions set is unrelated to:

  • How challenging your classes are.
  • How long you have had at the school to establish your authority.
  • How difficult/entertaining the subject you teach is (getting boys to speak French is more difficult than getting them to play football).
  • Whether your subject is optional or compulsory.
  • How much support you have with discipline.
  • How high your expectations for behaviour and effort are.
  • Whether you have been targeted for “terroring”.

If you want consistency in school, with all teachers enforcing the same rules without exception then a centralised detention system is a necessity. In reality the only problem with a centralised detention system is that you have to rely on SMT to run it.

NEXT TIME: Do Detentions Actually Work?

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The Cult of INSET

December 8, 2007

Schools are host to a new religious movement, hidden from the students but familiar to all teachers, known as INSET.

Worship takes place in schools on specially designated festivals called “INSET days”. On these days the students are allowed to stay at home so that teachers can congregate for their religious rituals. Like most rituals the benefits are entirely spiritual and no earthly purpose would be discernable to outside observers.

The central rite which takes place on INSET days are religious services attended by all the teaching staff in a school and sometimes by other staff as well. The object of worship in this service is the deity known as Powerpoint. Adherents will sit watching slides proclaiming the teachings of the Cult of INSET. Many participants in the service appear to achieve an altered state of consciousness. In order to reinforce the spiritual experience all of the congregation will receive a handout containing an iconic representation of the slides. An elder will chant the contents of the sides, sometimes offering elaboration of the spiritual message contained therein. Sometimes these services will last for hours. Occasionally lay teachers will be allowed to contribute to the service. Often some of the service will be led by a Consultant (a type of guru) who will arrive from elsewhere with a spiritual message.

The liturgy for the service varies but there are certain consistencies. Usually it will be declared that the school is a very good school with many very able teachers carrying out exciting and important activities. This is a spiritual rather than a literal truth and will be repeated in any school no matter how awful and unexciting the school and its activities actually are. Prophecies about the future will also be presented, under titles such as “Target-Setting” or “The School Calendar”. Moral guidance will be presented in the form of advice on teaching and learning ritually preceded by claims that it is supported by research or that a school which followed the advice has improved its results massively. Again this appears to be a purely spiritual claim unrelated to any facts, and the advice will be of no use for actual teaching.

The congregation will also be split into smaller groups during INSET days. They will be divided into Departments in order to perform acts of penance such as tidying the stock cupboard or putting up displays. They may also be divided into groups for “discussion”, another ritual whose meaning and purpose is unclear although it is often suggested that it will in some way influence the future of the school.

The theology of the Cult of INSET is fairly complex. Believers can achieve salvation only through the repetition of slogans and the completion of paperwork. Like most cults it is believed that the end-times are near. The cult leader is likely to outline the official eschatology during the service. The first sign of the end is an envelope arriving from OFSTED. Within days of the envelope OFSTED will arrive to deliver judgement on the faithful. Only those whose faith in every decree from the leaders is greatest will be saved and ascend, while the faithless, particularly those who fail to share their learning objectives, will be judged Unsatisfactory and condemned.

Of course, as with all cults, apostates are ostracised and never mentioned again. Elders are constantly on watch for those whose faith may be weakening, reminding them they must be positive at all times. Questionnaires are distributed to the flock as part of a search for heretics.

If you fear that any of your friends and family are involved in INSET it is recommended that you deprogramme them by forcing them to call in sick and stay at home watching TV and drinking instead.

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“I Don’t Get It”

December 1, 2007

Often (i.e. most days) I have conversations like this:

“What question are you on, Natalie?”
“I’m stuck.”

“What question are you stuck on?”
“All of them!”
“You can’t be stuck on all of them.”
“Yes I am. I don’t get any of it.”
“Well what question is it that you are having trouble with?”
“All of them”
“I’m not asking you to do all of them at once. Try doing them in order and tell me which one you are stuck on.”

“Question one.”
“There isn’t a question one.”
“Well, question A”
“What’s the problem with question A?”
“I don’t get it”
“What don’t you get about it?”
“All of it.”

“Well which bit?”
“All of it.”
“Even the first bit?”
“Yes.”
“Well what does it say/”
”Copy and complete the table”
”Do you know what that means?”
“Obviously.”
“Have you done that?”

“No.”
“Well can you do that, please. Then ask me for help if you’re stuck.”
(5 minutes later)
“Have you copied the table?”
“Yes.”
“Are you stuck”
“No, this is easy.”

However, this entry isn’t really about the kids who don’t get it, it’s for teachers who don’t get it. There are teachers who are unaware of what’s happening in most schools. Some of them comment on my blog, some of them I see discussing issues on teacher forums, and occasionally I talk to such teachers in real life. Usually they have spent their careers exclusively in better than average schools (or alternatively in that peculiar state of denial which only members of SMT are capable of). They have a little difficulty understanding what teachers with tough classes are actually experiencing.

Here’s a few answers to the points they usually make:

Better classroom management would solve all the problems you mention. I’m a great believer in the importance of classroom management as a skill that can be developed. However, the “Fuck-Off-Factor” (the tendency for students to ignore all instructions and verbally abuse anyone who gives them), and “Terroring” (the intimidation of any teacher who attempts to bring about order in the classroom) provides a natural limit to what can be achieved through classroom management. Some of the schools I‘ve worked at have showed staff videos about behaviour management. The best of these showed Bill Rogers establishing routines in a class and enforcing rules in an non-confrontational way. It’s impossible to watch these without thinking: “How come none of the kids tell him to fuck off?”

My school has challenging students too: This point is usually followed by claims about the racial mix of their school, or descriptions of the poorest part of thei catchment area. However, non-white pupils, pupils from a deprived area, or even pupils from a deprived background do not make a school challenging. A school or a class is challenging if poor behaviour and no learning is normal. Background is only part of the equation and stereotypes about race or class can be quite misleading. Only the worst estates have no middle class people living on them, and most of the worst students are white, anyway. Inclusion has let some really extreme cases into good schools, but the question is always “what’s normal?” A school where all the worst behaved kids are recognised as nutters by the other students is not a challenging school. A school where some of the worst behaved kids are seen as an authority by the other students is.

You are bothered by little issues (like students not having pens). Teachers with no experience of the sharp end don’t understand the scale of a “little issue”. A child without a pen is not a major problem if there is only one such child and you don’t mind him working in pencil instead. What they don’t realise is that in a challenging class more than half the students will be without anything to write with (or too lazy to take their pens out of their bags if they do have them). Not only that but most of the ill-equipped students will arrive late, and aim to interrupt the teaching by shouting “I need a pen”. Often they will walk to the front of the class to demand something to write with or start going through the teacher’s desk drawers. They will start arguing if you give them pencils (“I can’t write in pencil”). If you are foolish enough to give them a pen they will take it to pieces and throw the pieces at others in the class. If you give them a pencil it cannot have a rubber on the end (that’s an eraser to any American readers) as they will bite it off and throw it at other students. If they return it at the end of the lesson it will be with the point broken off. Until you manage to come up with routines which minimise the amount of lending you will be handing out up to a hundred pencils in a week of which less than half will be returned in working order.

If kids are rude to you you must have done something wrong. This is my pet hate. Here are some of the things I’ve done to prompt verbal abuse by students:

Walked past them having never met them before.
Told them to stop fighting.
Asked them politely to do some work.
Taught their cousin.
Taken the register in a cover lesson.
Asked them to go to their lesson.

Politely asked them to leave my classroom as they are not in my class.
Suggest they stop climbing the wall.

Of course the usual prompt for verbal abuse is to enforce a school rule.

If you don’t like it you could just leave. Of course I can. Every teacher who wants children to learn can quit. Once the teaching profession is populated only by human sponges able to absorb any punishment and members of SMT unable to take responsibility for anything they do the problems in education will just go away. Alternatively we can and should fight to get the state of our schools recognised and order restored. Why should I give up my calling to teach just because there’s sod all teaching going on in so many schools?

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