My career lesson: Laughter helped me negotiate better behaviour with my class

When Hillary Swerdlow joined a primary school in Liverpool, she found the teachers helpful and supportive and most of the children well behaved and eager to learn. There was, however, one class that had a reputation for being more than just difficult.


The situation    
In my second year I was given this class. Everyone who had taught these children sympathised but could not offer any advice on how to change the behaviour. It wasn’t that the pupils were low achievers. On the contrary, they all had ability but they were disruptive, highly competitive and arrogant. Two boys in particular were always competing for attention and distracted the others. Then, at a staff meeting, the head announced “Ofsted in two weeks”. My heart missed a beat. What was I to do? I prepared my lessons in detail, ensured the classroom was organised and the walls and windows were adorned with the children’s work and attempted to discipline the class, warning the children of the impending visit.


My mistake
The day arrived and I thought, or maybe I just hoped, that the class would behave. I mistakenly believed that the frenzied preparations over the past two weeks, and the tense atmosphere around the school would convey to the children the importance of the Ofsted visit. I had never actually discussed with my class the importance of co-operation, self discipline and respect for teachers and their peers. My first lesson went well because it was maths and the disruptive elements were in the top division and I had the middle group. They recited the times tables, were quick with the mental sums and listened attentively to the lesson, completing the exercise set. But no Ofsted inspector appeared..

The bell went and my missing children charged back in followed closely by a stranger who nodded to me and sat down at the back of the class. It didn’t take long for one of the alpha males to make a witty remark. The girls giggled and the competition came up with an equally funny retort. Others thought they would join in and I had to remind the class several times what their task was but all of the children were in an excitable state and not focusing on their work. At last it was playtime and I dismissed the class. The inspector was understanding and actually said he had never quite experienced a class like it. I stumbled downstairs into the staff room and told everyone about my lesson. Everyone was sympathetic.


How the situation was addressed
After the break and back in the classroom, I was just about to start my lesson when the door flew open and in stormed a male colleague. He yelled at the children that they were a disgrace to the school, that they had no respect for their teachers and that they had let themselves down. He ranted on for at least five minutes and then just left without saying anything to me. The children were stunned, their eyes wide open in amazement, their mouths agape. For a few moments there was total silence, and nobody moved or said anything. I tried to control myself as I felt a giggle about to escape from me but escape it did and I began to laugh. It took just a few seconds before the whole class was laughing as well. I tried to shush them as I was afraid my colleague might hear and I knew that he had just been trying to help me.

It took me a few minutes to calm my class. Then we began to have the discussion that we should have had at the start of the school year. We began with the present situation and why my fellow teacher had felt the need to reprimand them. I do believe the class began to appreciate that their behaviour needed to be more considerate, that other opinions should be respected and everyone should be given a chance to air their views. In the days that followed they were more respectful. They concentrated on their lessons, contributed in class discussions and their work was much improved. They weren’t perfectly behaved but I do believe that most of the time they weren’t bad.


What I have learnt
I realised that the issue of classroom discipline was important and should have been confronted much earlier. Right at the start, my class should have known what was acceptable behaviour. Shouting at children works just for the moment and they then see their teacher as a bad tempered fuddy duddy.  

So maybe laughter is a medicine. It broke down a barrier. The children saw their teacher, ME, as a human being. The discussion that followed the fit of giggles was productive. The children listened and we all learned from the experience.

Hillary has since retired from teaching and works at The Beatles Story as Education Officer. She and her colleagues are always laughing.  

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