January 26, 2008

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.



  1. You forgot one of the favourite targets of this type of pupil…..the teacher!

  2. An enjoyable and pertinent article.

    But I am concerned about a teacher who can’t spell ‘stationery’! Stay behind after class, oldandrew, and write it out correctly twenty times!

  3. Thank you ‘OldAndrew’ for raising this topic. It does sound as if you have experience of working in one of our ‘higher end’ great British state schools, judging by your examples of items that are thrown from one end of a room filled with our country’s next great professionals (more commonly known as a under-funded, vandalised and generally dirty classroom). I specialise(!) in EBD ‘schools’/PRUs and make my best attempts to encourage KS2/3 ferals to successfully put a non-sharp object (blunt pencil) in their hands in order for them to have a go at independently writing their name. Following my unreasonable demand being carried out, pupils make an executive decision to take a break from heavy learning by throwing whatever objects are close to hand (for the obese, the object needs to be within arms length). Pencils, pens, blu-tack etc. thrown would indicate to me that an outstanding lesson had taken place. Objects such as scissors, craft knives, hole punches, chairs, tables, lever arch files and smaller pupils (not an exhaustive list) are not so easy to make out that you haven’t noticed. When people or windows are broken as a result, I have to pretend to give a damn by maybe calling on my ‘walkie-talkie’ for our security patrol to move the offending (& offensive) ‘learners’. If I’m very lucky, it will be the entire group, which leaves the rest of the day for me to clear up the mess and then engage in PPA related activities (e.g. calling my G.P to arrange for the anti-depressants to be doubled up/selling the idea to the surgery of being prescribed valium).

    Ring any bells with anyone?

  4. “But I am concerned about a teacher who can’t spell ’stationery’!”

    One of these days somebody will manage to correct a spelling mistake without making a facetious comment in the process!

  5. I once made the mistake of using dried navy beans as Bingo markers when we played that game to review for a test. Some boys who share a lot of classes together kept some of the beans and threw them in the class AFTER mine. I got a phone call from that teacher, asking me if I used dried beans last period.

    That particular period has not played Bingo since, and of course the class complains that “we never do anything fun”. Gee, I wonder why?

  6. On the subject of facetiousness, I think it goes with the territory. I was a teacher myself, once, thirty years ago, but I’ve almost made a full recovery. Unfortunately, like malaria, the education disease never really goes away. ;)

  7. The most pertinent point you make is that of behaviour like this appearing trivial, or even mythical, to a teacher who has never taught in what you call a tough school, and I call a hellhole. Then there’s always the unspoken suggestion that you are only teaching in a hellhole because nobody else will have you.

  8. Thank you for participating in the Carnival of Education.

  9. Ah, apparently the every-popular “hornets” haven’t made it to the U.K…my students don’t need much paper to create a throwing object. They simply take what they have, even if it’s only half a sheet of notebook paper, and fold it into a triangular shape over and over again until it’s about 2 cm on each side…these fly wonderfully, especially if one can get a hold of rubber bands to shoot them even further. As for staples, we’ve had a few miscreants take them, straighten them out, and use them as projectiles blown out of a click pencil.

  10. We had a variety of cactii at school. The thorns were about an inch long and quite straight. If you took the ink tube out of a ball point pen, you could use it as a blow dart. The tip of the thorns contained a bit of poison, so they hurt like hell when you got one in the back of the neck.

    Squirting acid into each others pockets during chemistry was also fun – the acid would eat through the pocket lining, and all your stuff would fall to the floor.

  11. I have seen all of this – and more! Thanks for taking the trouble to write about it. It seems that the normal and defining human ability to defer gratification simply bypasses a lot of folk. It could all be stopped of course, with a well thought out system of sanctions. Or do you think or fear not?

  12. And of course SMT say all this is the teachers’ fault for having boring lessons or no discipline.

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