This entry can now be found here.
Archive for January, 2008
This entry can now be found here.
This is another one for the “if you have never taught in a bad school you might think this is trivial” file. The problem I’m about to go over probably happens in all schools, what makes it significant is entirely the scale of it in my day-to-day teaching life.
The problem is this: Kids throw things at each other.
Now this is a problem because it is constant, not because every child does it but because a significant number of students do it, and a small minority do it continually. You can punish when you see it, but for some students if they have something to throw they will wait until the teacher looks away and then throw at every opportunity. (I mean that literally, so potentially every two minutes for an entire day). Looking at it from the point of view of another student, just imagine what it is like to be in a classroom where at any moment you can have something thrown at you.
Some teachers set a detention whenever they see it happen. In a bad school the worst offenders are in the detention immune category and will not be deterred. You have little choice but to accept the inclination to throw as an inevitable fact of life, or teach in a way where you never look at a book or an individual but constantly survey the whole class.
So what do we do about the problem?
Well, it comes down to controlling the ammunition. Students collect a variety of things to throw:
- Plant-life. This is among the worst, berries, twigs and general detritus. Students are too lazy to bend down so they won’t usually collect stones, except to throw immediately, but they will strip hedges and trees of potential projectiles. All you can do is watch out for students stood next to hedges and trees and force them to drop their ammunition before they get to the classroom.
- Stationery and equipment. Fortunately in a tough school no student ever brings in their own stationery so teachers can control this one. Teachers must be careful never to lend out certain items except under close supervision. Staplers can be stripped of staples, glue-sticks can have their glue picked out, erasers can be thrown as a whole or broken to pieces first. Pencils with erasers on the end should be avoided, as should pens with lids or smaller parts. Activities that involve using small objects are avoided (so very few experiments in science are allowed, and no dice or coin-throwing in maths). Rulers, protractors, compasses and calculators must be as robust as possible. Colouring pencils and pens are never lent out (all shading is to be done in pencil).
- Paper. This is a very common one as it is in no short supply in schools. There has to be a very firm set of rules regarding it. Punishments must be given for tearing paper out of books or for passing notes. Worksheets must be kept to a minimum and always have names written on them as soon as they are handed out. Paper is often very unsatisfactory as ammunition, you need quite a lot of it to create a paper ball big enough to be noticed. The usual tactic to compensate for this is to chew it and fire it through a pen that has been adapted for the purpose. (The removed parts of the pen can then be used for throwing too).
- Food and sweets. In classrooms food and sweets have to be banned. Outside, it must be tightly regulated. It is entirely unremarkable to see students buy a cake from the school canteen and go into the playground and without taking one bite break off pieces and throw them until there is no cake left. Problems with gulls and rats are quite common in school playgrounds.
- Classroom Items. Teachers have to make their classrooms as bare as possible. No spare sheets of paper left out, no interesting tactile objects, no equipment left out in a tray. Drawing pins cannot be used for display work and blu-tack can only be used on posters high up on the walls. No classroom feature, such as blinds or heaters can have breakable parts.
All this seems like it might be overkill. I wish it was. The simple fact is there are kids in schools for whom this behaviour is habit. You know you have established your authority in the school when you can turn your back on kids without being hit with a missile.
Until you are truly feared then, student or staff, you can expect to be a target. If you’re lucky it will be a ball of paper or a berry. If you are unlucky it will be a calculator or a rock.
I am writing to inform any PE teachers reading this about a great new innovation in PE teaching. In the old days teachers tended to assume that the only way to learn football was to play it, and the only way to develop as a sprinter would be to do some running. Now we know that this is not how people learn.
Just as other subjects were changed by the discovery of Multiple Intelligences and the development of different Learning Styles, we can now make similar changes to PE teaching.
Scientists have discovered that there is no such thing as physical fitness. It turns out that instead of some people being fitter than others we all have Multiple Fitnesses. The Theory of Multiple Fitnesses has shown that people are better at some physical activities than others, which is something that nobody ever knew before. So for instance, a child may have one of eight fitnesses:
- Running-Really-Fast Fitness
- Lifting-Heavy-Things Fitness
- Jumping Fitness
- Ball-Games Fitness
- Running-Long-Distances fitness
- Dancing Fitness
- Swimming Fitness
- Playing-Darts Fitness
There may also be other fitnesses that can soon be added to the list once sports scientists have adequately researched them, such as Ass-Whooping Fitness and Drinking-Ten-Pints-And-Not-Throwing-Up Fitness.
We can assume that each of these Fitnesses has a corresponding learning style. So for instance a child with Running-Really-Fast Fitness will learn best by running away from their PE teacher screaming, a child with Lifting-Things Fitness will learn most if they are holding a 40kg weight, and a child with Dancing Fitness will learn more if they are wearing tights. As PE teachers we need to adjust our lesson planning each child’s individual learning style.
First we must identify their learning style. The most effective way to discover what physical abilities somebody has (a method we hope the Olympic selectors will switch to in the near future) is to give them a multiple-choice questionnaire about what they like doing, and then getting them to colour in a bar-chart. We can then split them into different classes based on their learning styles.
So for instance, in the old unscientific days we would have taught children to run the hundred metres by using the traditional method of getting them all to run for a hundred metres. Now we know better and can get them to run one hundred metres in a way suited to their individual learning style:
Students with a Running-Really-Fast Learning Style: These students will run from one end of the track to the other in the traditional fashion.
Students with a Lifting-Heavy-Things Learning Style: These will be expected to grunt heavily while running and have to carry a medicine ball.
Students with a Jumping Learning Style: students with this learning style will be expected to leap from one end of the track to the other.
Students with a Ball-Games Learning Style: These will be expected to dribble a ball while they are running, and will be encouraged to go faster by the other students running up behind them and making sliding tackles.
Students with a Running-Long-Distances Learning Style: These students should mainly follow the traditional method, but the track will be located three miles away from the school.
Students with a Dancing Learning Style: They will be expected to run with a backing of Salsa music and will be expected to pirouette on the starting block.
Students with a Swimming Learning Style: This is a difficult one to organise, but we hope to be able to flood the athletics track before they run it.
Students with a Playing-Darts Learning Style: This is close to the traditional method, but the students will drink three pints of lager and eat a packet of pork-scratchings before they start.
Once these innovations have been followed by all schools across the country I confidently predict Britain will have unprecedented Olympic success. Our only worry is that they may be unsympathetic to the Dosing-Yourself-With-Anabolic-Steroids Learning Style our experts are currently researching.
“How lucky you English are to find the toilet so amusing. For us, it is a mundane and functional item. For you, the basis of an entire culture.”
Von Richthoven (Adrian Edmondson), Blackadder Goes Forth, 1989
Simple, insignificant things become complicated at tough schools. You are constantly supervising dozens of students who have no social or moral restraint when it comes to causing harm to others or thwarting the purposes of the school. Something as insignificant as allowing a student out of the classroom to go to the toilet becomes a potential threat to learning which has to be evaluated, dealt with and, more often than not, justified.
There are several reasons why teachers can’t just let students answer the call of nature:
- There is often a problem of internal truancy. Students who should be in lessons stay in the corridors. Sometimes they play games or attempt to intimidate passers-by. Every so often they disrupt lessons by running in to classrooms or reaching in and switching off the lights. Often they write graffiti or look for things to break. Any student allowed out of lessons risks swelling their ranks.
- There are students who will ask to go to the loo every single lesson. This is not an exaggeration. At my school students have to ask at an office for a key to let them into the toilets. One of the women working in the office reported seeing the same girl five times during the average school day. (And no the girl didn’t have a medical complaint other than a severe allergy to school work).
- There are classes where up to half the students will ask to go to the loo. In some year groups asking to go to the toilet when they are presented with hard work has become an automatic response. Once one child has asked the many others will also ask. Sometimes many will have notes from their parents claiming a medical condition.
- There is an ongoing problem of toilets being vandalised. I mentioned before that school toilets are unpleasant. Much of this is down to vandalism or actions that have been taken to prevent vandalism (like removing all soap or paper towels).
For these reasons most schools advise teachers to refuse to let students out except in emergencies or where they have a medical note. Sure enough, most requests can be refused without a problem, as the child never really needed to go. However, there are always going to be children have a genuine need who may be at risk of “an accident” or who will be unable to work unless they do go. Inevitably teachers end up with a set of rules and regulations of their own invention to govern who does or doesn’t go which they explain to their class. (By “teachers” I mean people who are actually trying to teach. There are people employed as teachers who will often let large groups of students out of their lessons for half an hour or more without really caring). My rules are as follows:
- Students will wait until a part of the lesson of my choice. Partly this is so they don’t miss important explanations, but also students often lose interest in going after a few minutes.
- Each student will only get out once in every half-term. This really cuts down traffic. Many students are embarrassed to ask or fear the corridor dwellers and so it is often just a small proportion of students who will ask without first seeing anybody else let out, so after the first couple of weeks you hardly have to let anybody out.
- Only one student is allowed out of the room at a time for any reason. This is common sense but ignored surprisingly often. I make sure to apply it even if the student already out of the room is outside for another reason (like they walked out in a tantrum).
- If there is a medical reason I expect to see a letter signed by the child’s form tutor and if it occurs more than once then I will report it to the child’s year head. Amazingly some medical complaints vanish when faced with this obstacle.
- The child must have been working properly before they leave. It is telling that this sometimes works as a good incentive to get students learning.
- Students are never allowed out in the first or last ten minutes of the lesson. This is when the largest number of students will be out and about in the corridor and when they are most likely to disrupt other lessons.
Now this is just an example of how teachers have to plan in order to function as teachers. Equally complex concerns and routines affect every aspect of classroom life from lending equipment to setting homework. This kind of intellectual development should be advertised as a reason to go into teaching. No wonder the Teacher Development Agency has adopted the slogan: “Use your head, teach”. Of course, the possibility exists that years of having to treat a trip to the loo like it was a potential crime against humanity has not made me use my head but has actually made me lose my mind. Perhaps the next time Jade asks if she can go to the toilet ten minutes after the end of break then I will use my head as something to bang on the wall until I pass out.
It is somewhat debatable as to whether detentions have much effect. However, where they are ineffective it often has more to do with wider issues about the school.
Non-Attendance. This is one of the biggest problems with detentions. Bad schools have bad detention systems. Teachers often have no way of getting kids to turn up and no support when they don’t turn up. With a centralised system, detentions are often cancelled for arbitrary reasons or due to parental interference. It’s an every day event for a teacher to be told, on giving a detention, “I won’t be doing it”.
Students Who Don’t Care About Detentions. In all discussion of punishment (even when referring back to the days of corporal punishment) somebody will claim there are pupils who continue to misbehave regardless of how much they are punished. Every school I’ve ever worked in has had students who would get detentions every day. However, contrary to the claims that they have “got used to detentions so it isn’t a deterrent any more” very, very few of those students actually turn up and do those detentions. In tough schools there are large numbers of “outlaws” who owe thirty or more detentions and simply never do them. This comes down to SMT not doing their job, failing to exclude or isolate students who simply cannot behave in a learning environment. The number of students who actually attend detentions every day for a month is miniscule.
Lack of support from Management. It’s a fact of life in tough schools that teachers who set lots of detentions will be put under pressure to stop. Of course SMT never put it that bluntly, they never say “What are you doing enforcing school rules? Don’t you realise that we don’t care what kids are doing?” it’s usually far more patronising: “Have you tried other strategies for behaviour management?” or the quiet word with a line manager: “There seem to be a lot of detentions in your department”. Of course, SMT’s hostility to teachers setting detentions is mainly to do with the fact that it creates work for them, either in overseeing a centralised detention system, or dealing with referrals for students who refuse to attend, or who tell teachers who give them detentions to “Fuck off”. The best technique for dealing with managers who interfere with your detention-setting is to create extra work for them in response. Asking if they can observe your lessons, requesting to speak to them at length about the discipline policy (with your union rep present), offering to co-operate with anything they suggest but not actually changing what you are doing in the process, tend to work best. At the very least if you admit that you are in need of further help with classroom management you might get a couple of days off for a training course.
Lack of Time. In a lot of schools it would be physically impossible to give out the number of detentions indicated by the discipline policy. Even a smaller number aimed at enforcing a fairly minimal standard of good behaviour may still be impractical. The usual problems are teachers having to organise detentions themselves, lack of places in the school to hold the detentions (which won’t be repeatedly interrupted by other students), after-school meetings and problems with behaviour in detentions that make it difficult to have more than one student in detention at a time.
So with all these problems it can be difficult to see the point of setting detentions. But the pay-off is never with the insane kids, it’s never with your worst classes, it’s never with management. It’s with the troublesome, but not actually insane kids, the disruptive but not actually abusive classes, and it’s with the parents who actually want their children to learn and are willing to tell the school they want their child in your class because that’s where they will get to learn. There’s few things more satisfying in teaching than having a gang of kids back away from whatever act of destruction or intimidation they are engaged in when you get out your notebook, or having somebody else’s Class From Hell go silent when you have them for a cover, simply because even kids you don’t recognise know exactly where they stand with you.
(Oh and the one thing that is even more satisfying than having the above happen is when it happens in front of the member of SMT who told you your large number of detentions must show you are having trouble with behaviour management.)