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How to use detention time constructively

What employer would sanction overtime without a clear idea of the work to be done? And yet teachers and pupils clock up hundreds of hours of overtime every week with little thought of the outcome.

This waste first came to my attention years ago when I overheard a fellow teacher, on the penultimate day of term, saying: "Well I suppose most of 3M will be in detention again tomorrow." When I asked why, she sighed deeply and explained that she'd held a detention every night that term and some pupils had always been there. She didn't appreciate me questioning why she did it since it clearly didn't work.

A few terms later I took up a post in a boys' secondary and soon realised I was expected after school to corral those pupils who already found normal school hours intolerable.

I resented having to punish myself when it was the pupils who'd failed to produce homework or who'd already caused me grief in class. On the other hand, I accepted the importance of everyone abiding by official school policy.

I decided to do something useful with the time that we were compelled to be together and divided my detainees into two categories: the boys who'd failed to submit completed homework, and those who behaved badly in class.

It was reasonable to presume that those who had not finished homework might need some help. Sometimes it is easier for adolescents to risk a punitive detention than to admit in front of their peers that they do not understand the work. I encouraged them to tell me what I hadn't explained sufficiently in class.

Most had considerable difficulties and I wasn't surprised that they preferred detention to battling in their own time. After the first week of this kind of detention, those who had no real difficulty soon preferred to complete homework at home. And I felt that the hour of overtime for both pupils and myself was well spent.

Pupils in detention for bad behaviour were detained on a Wednesday.My aim for this hour was to do the kind of activities which make young people feel better about themselves.

The first pupils for this new-style detention were surprised to find themselves being asked to recall their greatest achievement. They wrote 100 words about it which they kept as an aide memoire while they talked about it to the group. Some remembered a winning goal in a junior school football match, or talking to someone famous.We did similar exercises each week and there was never a shortage of ideas.

Some pupils found it easier to behave than attend these demanding sessions; others found it more difficult to change but the sessions did help diminish their bad behaviour.

Parents will soon not be able to reject detention, so we must make sure that all this extra time and effort is used effectively. Boys who lacked confidence in their ability to complete French homework at home, asked me if they could come to detention to do it. Perhaps we should be holding weekly homework clubs in some subjects instead of retrospective detentions when work is not done.

Children told me they sometimes misbehaved in order to be put in detention. When I asked why, they said it gave you a chance to talk to teachers. It seemed they craved adult attention, even if it was adverse.

Any useful intervention with troublesome and troubled chidren must raise their self-esteem rather than reinforce their feelings of powerlessness and futility. Sometimes this might mean taking risks and appearing to turn the other cheek.

So be it, if this means a better use of the thousands of hours spent on detention.

Jane Lovey is a support teacher and visiting lecturer in special education

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