Carla MacCallum

The art of ‘shushing’ to manage pupil behaviour


A well-timed and authoritative ‘shush’ is a vital tool for behaviour management, says Carla MacCallum. But it must be handled with care, warns the school librarian – as she reveals how she has developed a range of ‘shushes’ for different pupil situations

The art of 'shushing'

It was sweet little Sophie from Year 10 who taught me the value of a particular kind of “shush”. She asked me, in front of the class: “Miss, what do we need libraries for when we have Google? And why do you want to be a librarian with all these books around you all day? You’re not such a bad-looking woman!”

I responded with an exaggerated, comedy “SHUSSSSHHHHH!”

The class burst into laughter. And I realised: by tapping into traditional and ceremonial librarian practice, and using it in a playful context, I had made them see me – and the library – in a different, more positive way.

From there on, I embraced this particular kind of shushing with pride and humour as a weapon to disarm and diffuse the misrepresentation of libraries as anachronistic institutions and of librarians as bitter, po-faced, shushing maids. It turned out that mimicking and mocking the prejudice reduced the bias I faced.

The modern-day school librarian requires a Swiss army knife of shushes. School libraries are very different beasts to what they once were. Today’s libraries are under pressure to provide a quiet space conducive to study, as well as endless services and activities to support education, foster a love for reading and boost information literacy. Alongside the traditional lending of books and provision of online access, school libraries are offering classes and workshops, and hosting clubs and society meetings, as well as being a place to meet friends, study, read, play, be inspired, unwind and decompress.

Striking the balance – knowing when and how to demand quiet, as opposed to lively participation from students – can be daunting. Librarians all dwell on the same dilemma: “To shush or not to shush, that is the question.”

I’d suggest it is more complex than that, though. It is more like: “To use this shush or that shush, that is the question.”

Let me explain.

In an international school like mine, which has a student population of more than 50 nationalities, speaking different languages, shushing becomes a kind of lingua franca. “Sshh” is used in just about every language.

In English, we can trace its origins to the Middle Ages, when it was uttered more as a “huisst”. The very similar Scottish word “wheesht” suggests that it was probably also used in Anglo-Saxon Old English. The placing of the index finger on the lips possibly originates from the Christian tradition of benediction, as it is significantly documented by Pre-Renaissance paintings. Everyone understands a shush.

Shushing is also far more effective and dignified than threatening the class with administrative interventions and sending notes to parents. Shushing has a soothing effect on students and helps to restore a serene learning environment. The “s” is a high frequency sound known to have a calming effect both on children and adults.

However, without a well-thought-out plan and the development of a pedagogical theory of shushing, you can run the risk of stripping this mighty class-management tool of its strength and rigour. This is what led me to develop a number of different shushes for use in specific situations.

Here are the three shushes that I use most and that you might like to try, too.

1. The good librarian-student relationship shush

This is performed as a gentle and steady shush, though it also involves an appropriate level of assertiveness. It can be achieved using an erect posture, and the appropriate tone depending on the particular level of noise to be contained. Place your index finger on your lips. The key element here is self-confidence. This shush can be used to manage a low-to-medium disturbance in the library, but its success rate is directly proportional to the librarian’s ability to use it to maintain the right level of dominance on students over a period of time. This isn’t a shush to use frequently simply so you can feel good about yourself. It should be a well-timed, well-placed shush. You don’t want to give colleagues and students reason to believe that you chose to work in a library only to shush people.

2. The culturally responsive shush

This shush is performed in different accents, playing with timbres, registers and voice volume to create a sound evocative of different languages. It can be employed by students: they can be assigned shushing responsibilities on a rota to assist the librarian in restoring peace and quiet. In this manner, students can showcase their cultural differences in terms of when a shush is used, increasing their sense of inclusion. Sadly, international schools are not completely immune to episodes of narrow-mindedness and parochialism. A final well-placed use of this shush can shut down coronavirus hysteria and similar episodes of sad misconceptions.

3. The mindfulness teacher-librarian shush

This is a very peaceful shush to encourage students’ focus and self-regulation. It should be performed in a mantra-like manner. The librarian’s posture and self-awareness are key – calm your mind and align your body. The success rate depends on the age of the students; it usually suits younger library users better. Should the headteacher pay a surprise visit to the library, be prepared to advocate for the educational value of the “shushing chant” and account for why your Year 7s are sitting on the floor in the lotus position.

Like many good things in life, my aptitude for shushing came unexpectedly, like a bolt from the blue. When I utilise my skills outside of the library, shushing people in the most random situations, I can see the surprise in their faces.

“Let me reassure you,” I tell them, “I know what I am doing – I’m a professional librarian. Please shush.”

Carla MacCallum is middle and high-school librarian, university and career counsellor, and exams officer at Rome International School

This article originally appeared in the 13 March 2020 issue under the headline “Be quiet and let me teach you the art of ‘shushing’”

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