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‘Three Top Tips from Tom’ will be updated weekly with the best advice and tips on behaviour and classroom management.

Tom Bennettis the TES adviser on behaviour and a teacher at Raines Foundation, an inner city state school in Tower Hamlets. He regularly supports teachers on TES through our behaviour forum and monthly newsletters on behaviour.

J’accuse- how to deal with pupil accusations

Have you been watching Educating Essex? If you’re unfamiliar with it, I suggest that you IMMEDIATELY pounce on your computer and download the bejeezes out of it, because it’s fascinating, even if only as a kind of fairground mirror to our often mundane careers. In it, one of the teachers is accused by a surly pupil of assaulting her, and a predictably countless number of irretrievable hours are wasted proving that she was, essentially telling Porky-Pies in order to deflect blame from her own incivility. This time, the poor teacher dodged a bullet. But we all exist in a state of perpetual vulnerability from the rigours of a false accusation, and the horrible reality is that such allegations, so easily and carelessly made, can have lifetime repercussions on our careers. So how do we minimise our exposure to the Spanish Inquisition?

  1. Try never to walk alone. My very first piece of advice I was given on my first day of teacher training (in a girls’ school) was ‘Have a door propped open at all times.’ Added to this was the advice that I should never allow myself to be the only adult present in a situation with a single pupil, especially if it was a disciplinary situation. All it takes is the vicious idea to pop into someone’s head that there is mischief to be had from making imaginary claims about your conduct, and in a heartbeat the fantasy can be taken seriously by people with power over you.
  2. Authority in the classroom is essential, but authority doesn’t imply anger. Most teachers can pull off a useful trick- they can appear slightly angry with a class, without feeling a drop of it in their hearts. Notice the word ‘slightly’- when I wish to convey some level of extreme disappointment (helping a new teacher quell a rowdy classroom, for example) then there are many colours on your emotional palette to convey. I go for ‘disappointed, surprised and just a tiny, tiny bit angry.’ I think the word ‘cross’ conveys it. But that’s a long way from feeling angry, or bellowing at them, or telling them how awful they are as people. Never, ever, even in the heat of a moment, tell a class that they’re horrible, or vile, or disgusting. For those thinking ‘Of course not, who would?’ may I remind you that when the blood is up, and tempers are frayed, sometimes for some, these descriptors trip out very easily indeed. And no matter how much you regret them, out they remain.
  3. Know your own rights. Teachers ARE allowed to make contact with students in the right contexts; it would be ridiculous to have a no-contact policy, because what happens when two kids are leathering each other? Most parents would expect the school to get involved if it saved someone’s face from a drubbing. Tapping a student on the shoulder ISN’T assault. In fact, teachers are allowed to make use of ‘reasonable force’ in order to prevent a crime (a theft, a real assault), or to prevent substantial disruption to a lesson - so believe it or not, you can physically bar students from entering a room, for example, if they are tearing a lesson apart (although I wouldn’t want to test a judge’s interpretation of reasonable too much). Basically you don’t need to get your knickers in a twist if you brush past someone, or gently escort them somewhere. Just remember to be gentle, mannerly and dignified, and you should be OK.

We live in a world where, famously, many children are aware of their rights, but not their responsibilities. Its just as important that we’re aware of ours.

Good luck

Tom

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