Is it ever right for a teacher to call a student an offensive name? When can one teacher blame another teacher? Is the education system secretly making teachers into unwittingly foul-mouthed scumbags who besmirch the reputation and honour of their students? I explore these questions in this week’s Fail Friday, that recalls another classroom blunder that began with good intentions.
It may just have been the university where I did my PGCE, or it may just be that times have moved on since I trained as a teacher over a decade ago, but one of my enduring memories of my early days doing my teacher training was that I learnt an awful lot about zones of proximal development, concrete-operational stages and Bandura and the poor old bobo doll that got beaten witless by a series of socially-apeing children – but not an awful lot of the essential practical tips that would save me from humiliation and insanity when I entered the classroom for the first time (like what to do if a student called you a thunderc*** for instance).
There was one exception to this. Once a week a charismatic Geordie teacher (whose name I have sadly and shamefully forgotten) used to come in and undertake guest lectures in positive behaviour management for all the PGCE students. I still use a great deal of his methods today. His philosophy centred around the sensible principle that it is best to avoid conflict, confrontation or time wasting arguments unless it is absolutely necessary. He had an arsenal of subtle psychological ploys, stock phrases and tics that used humour, distraction and redirection in order to get kids to do what he wanted. At the time he seemed like a supreme being to me; we watched videos of his lessons and he seemed some kind of half-warlock, half-illusionist who could pull harmony out of his sleeves, and yank focus by the ears out of his magic hat.
He also taught me the sentence that is the subject of this week’s teacher fail.
My first placement was at an incredibly challenging school in Bristol. The school was in special measures, but in many ways we were pioneers: we had a metal detector installed in the reception that all students were required to walk through in order to cut down on knife crimes; instead of dinner ladies we had two permanent on-site police officers; we also had a sophisticated CCTV system installed that helped to determine whether the three-times-daily fire-alarm set-offs were genuine or not before the fire brigade had to be called out again because Blair Cheesely couldn’t face his afternoon English lesson because his glue-sniffing high hadn’t worn off yet. Needless to say, if your behaviour management was weak then you were going to be meat to the lions.
And so every Wednesday, I listened intently, scribbling down my notes on how to control even the most chaotic, lawless and disaffected classes that the state education system cared to throw at me.
Now, one of the most common classroom conflicts is when you ask a student to stop doing something and they flatly deny that they have been doing anything in the first place e.g.
You: ‘David! Stop setting fire to Whitney’s pencil case’
David: ‘I wasn’t sir! I wasn’t doing anything!’
Even if David still had a flamethrower in his hands, was holding a detailed sketch of how to burn Whitney’s pencil case and was wearing a giant badge saying ‘I love fire’ then he would still refuse to accept that he had done anything wrong. However, the brilliant Geordie lecturer taught us a couple of seemingly fool-proof ways of countering the unfailing inevitability of children fragrantly lying about their actions. He argued that (other than in dramatic cases) it was more important what the student did next, than what they had been doing before. So, David’s pyromania could be left in the past, as long as his next step was to analyse which one of the Birlings was the most monumental shit, or why Crooks, Candy, Lennie and Curley’s Wife were not all that different after all.
Two little sentences would help you to do this. Both of the sentences would be used in reply to either the student saying they hadn’t/weren’t doing anything wrong in the first place, or if they said that their action was justified e.g. I was only talking because I was telling Lincoln to shut up because he’s a dick. Or something equally pleasant. The sentences were:
- That may well be the case and I’m not disagreeing with you, but now you need to …. (explain why Carol-Ann Duffy is so angry…discuss the uses of the sibilant S in stanza 2 of Dulce Et Decorum Est etcetera, etcetera.).
- That is probably true, and I’m not going to argue with you, but I need you to … (pretend that you like any of the poems in the anthology that are not written by John Agard).
Now this strategy was highly efficacious for me when I began using it. To every child who denied eating pencil shavings, lied about writing filthy limericks about the Geography department, or repudiated their involvement in the mass book burning of A View From The Bridge, I pulled one of those sentences out, like the unsheathing of a ringmaster’s whip, and got the seals to once more balance the balls on their noses. I couldn’t see any loopholes in it. At least not until Period 6 on one gruesome Friday afternoon with the paradoxically despondent yet hyperactive 11B3.
After the usual 15 minutes to get everyone to shut up (sorry, I mean to get the class on-task), the class had finally gotten down to doing some work. It was quiet, orderly and pretty much as tranquil as inner city Bristol ever gets. But naturally the silence was unceremoniously broken. Chezney (who is a girl, despite what you might think based on ‘I Am The One And Only), suddenly yelled out ‘SIRRR! Sam just called me a slag!’ I sighed, heaved in a heady breath of contempt and resignation, turned to Sam and said ‘Sam, can you leave the girls alone, stop calling them names and get on with your work.’ But true to form, Sam was already preparing his rebuttal, opting for justification rather than denial ‘BUT SIRRR! Chezney is a slag.’
I didn’t worry, because I had the magic sentence in my box of tricks. Sam may have played a solid hand, but I had the joker in the pack, the ace in the hole that I needed to bring him down. I had learnt the sentences like an automated answering mechanism. So confident was I in their effectiveness that no thought went into their delivery; they were simply robotically repeated in response to pressing button 1 (denial) or pressing button 2 (attempted justification).
So, Sam had called Chezney a slag, and had also effectively just told me that that was ok based on the grounds that it was true that Chezney was a slag. My reply to being told that Chezney was a slag was to say ‘That’s probably true, and I’m not going to argue with that, but now you need to finish writing your George’s diary extract’.
A collective gasp and then a hush fell upon the classroom.
Before I had realised that I had just tacitly agreed that one of my students was a slag, Chezney exploded, in an eruption of white-hot, molten teenage fury. There was disavowal, there were tears, there were accusations, but more than anything else there was more swearing than at the Tourette’s society’s annual general meeting. As she continued to remonstrate like a rabid Tasmanian devil, there was enough profanity spewing forth from her mouth to turn my walls brown. I was lost at sea; a broken man on a lonely piece of driftwood slowly drowning in a whirlpool of four letter words. Fortunately, before I started to cry/have a nervous breakdown/jump out of the window, she stormed out of the classroom.
I knew it wasn’t good. I just had no idea how bad things were going to get.
Before the end of the lesson, the head of department came to the room and took over the class because I needed to go down to the offices to see the deputy head. I trudged my lonely mile, my feet dragging me inexorably closer to the hangman’s noose. Was this going to mean that I failed the PGCE? That I would be moved schools? That I would never teach again? I got that horrible feeling, like every one of my internal organs had melted into slime and was now weighing down in the pit of my stomach like a cartoon anvil. It is the physiological manifestation of impending doom.
I opened the office door; sat there were Chezney, Chezney’s mum and the deputy head. A firing squad.
What happened next was like a cross between a Vicky Pollard monologue and the snarling of a dinosaur that has just returned to its nest to find you preparing an omelette with its eggs. Chezney’s mum spouted profane justifications ‘She only slept with Jason because it was a ****ing dare and she was too young to know better, and when she done it with Taylor it was because that bitch Pearl felt up her boyfriend at the community centre…’ This went on for a long, long time, as I sat there like a muted Jeremy Kyle shorn of all his powers to intervene in the railroad-crash lives of his mutated guests.
Eventually, it stopped. After sticking her middle finger up at me and telling the deputy head that she’d call the police if I ever taught her daughter again (pretty sure it wasn’t a criminal offence), she left, strutting out and slamming the door behind her like white-trash leaving the Jerry Springer stage.
The deputy head wore the look of a man who’d spent thirty years sifting through sewage vainly trying to find the wedding ring that he’d accidentally flushed down the toilet. It was a grim and pallid look; one that seemed to say ‘I care about this less than I care about the rates of epilepsy in Ivorian guinea pigs, and the only thing I care less about is the fact that I have to care about this because it is my job to care about this’. He asked me why I had said it, and I explained why – blaming the inspirational lecturer who hadn’t banked on me moronically repeating everything he said without giving it a second thought.
He sighed a deep sigh before mercifully telling me that I would be reassigned to another class, and even kindly offered not to let the university know about the incident – though I appreciate that this was because he probably would have had to have moved his titanic arse from his desk to the phone in the corner, and I was just not worth the bother.
So when you are learning your behaviour management techniques, remember that the classroom can never be scripted and try to engage your brain before you blurt out an actor’s lines. Otherwise you may well end up indirectly calling a sexually promiscuous 15-year-old a slag, and the trouble is, you will end up getting in trouble for it, regardless of whether it ‘may be true and you wouldn’t argue with it’.