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Rising to the challenge of turning chaos into calm

When her voice failed, along with pupil discipline, Marian Rae discovered music could be used as part of a strategy to bring harmony to the classroom

You've not been shouting at other people's children have you Marian?", my doctor teased as he peered down my strained throat."Well there's 29 of them continually shouting out," I replied, lamely trying to justify my lack of voice. "I feel I should be making at least as much noise as they do!"

I left the surgery disheartened; there was nothing the doctor could do. I'd have to look to myself in order to find a cure for my strained throat, and the doc was right. I had to admit I was something of a "shouter outer" myself. Two weeks into my first year of teaching and I'd lost my voice through over-use and it wasn't just my vocal chords which were under strain. Raising my voice was neither achieving the desired behaviour I hoped for from my pupils nor helping me to enjoy my new role.

I have an optimistic approach to life, I was excited about beginning my career in teaching, I'd worked hard through my training and done well, so why was I finding establishing myself with my new class so difficult?

I needed to re-think my approach. The main message from my four years of teacher training was that positive reinforcement was the key to good classroom management. I had already introduced a range of positive behaviour strategies, I was trying to remain upbeat and had supportive colleagues, yet I was still finding it a challenge to achieve a calm, ordered and purposeful working environment.

The great thing, however, about being a newly qualified teacher is that the McCrone agreement has created the opportunity for probationers to develop professionally by providing us with regular time away from the classroom each week. Going on a probationer's course entitled "Learning Sanity in the Classroom" a few weeks into the new job provided reflective opportunity, and indiscipline was one of the main issues under discussion.

Course leader Andy Vass started his presentation by reinforcing that the reason we were finding our classroom so challenging was simply because it is stressful to settle a large class of children into the routine of school-life in a small, often cramped and ill-equipped room.

Consequently, children who have enjoyed the freedom of the summer holidays are often restless during the first few weeks of term. I felt reassured that my angst was justified and that exasperation and exhaustion were shared emotions amongst the newly qualified.

I would, however, describe my class as somewhat further down the "unsettled" scale than just "restless". My 20 boys and nine girls of P4 stage, were lively, chatty and reluctant to settle down to the routine of classroom work.

I recognised that if it wasn't going as well as I'd anticipated, then it was ultimately only me who could alter the situation. Consequently, the course empowered me to focus on classroom management strategies and look at the practice of other teachers working with children at the same stage as my class.

This proved helpful. The P4 teacher I shadowed for a day helped me realise that she faced similar challenges and gave me lots of ideas.

I also spent a day at Harmeny School for pupils who have emotional and behaviour related issues. Classes at Harmeny are no larger than six per teacher, with full-time classroom assistant support. This means that the children do receive more individual time and attention, but I found the staff's caring and personal approach encouraged me to think of my classroom from the children's perspective.

They had a new teacher they knew nothing about and who had ambitious expectations of them. I didn't want to lower the expectations, but I decided on some strategies which could support the class towards the purposeful working environment I was aiming for.

As my class generally favour the creative subjects, I listened to the children's complaints of a lack of choosing time and no colouring-in and responded by introduceing "brain break" jotters. On completion of set tasks the children have the option to free draw in these books, and I have art and drawing books available for them to access in order to increase confidence and drawing skills.

We also have an additional "reward" gym time for a quiet classroom during which we play team games to help strengthen the class rapport.

I have also used music. This has proved popular and the class have been exposed to a range from classical and opera to movie theme tunes and popular music. This seems to offer "invisible discipline" as the children work with more focus and purpose when the music is playing and quietly singing along while on task prevents private conversations.

Another strategy has been to lighten the curricular load by focusing on the personal search aspect of religious and moral education. For my class, this has involved establishing personal "thinking journals" in which children engage in tasks that allow them to reflect on their lives at school and at home. These books provided me with some real insight into my students'

interests and personalities.

Parents also enjoyed looking at the children's "thinking journals" during parent consultation sessions held at the end of the first term, and they provided some interesting talking points and shared laughs between myself and the parents.

I'm trying to offer a positive role model so it seems appropriate to illustrate this principle in my own practice - the more I reflect on what I'm doing and try to demonstrate a pro-active response to daily challenges, the more enhanced my relationship with the class will be. I am learning - and my class is too - in terms of the curriculum yes, but we are also learning about each other.

I am learning, too, that being responsible for the education and well-being of 29 children is not a cosy thing. It involves committing myself to the children and that does make me feel vulnerable, and I go through highs and lows each day. In recent weeks, however, I think the children have sensed and responded positively, to the emotional and personal effort I put in, and as it happens my vocal chords are returning to normal as well.

As a result, I have found that harmony does occasionally break out in my classroom, and I think, along with the support I've received from my mentor and probation manager, I have the staff of a school with almost the same name to thank for that, and, of course, a doctor who encouraged me to examine the "shouter outer" within myself.

Marian Rae is in her second year of teaching at South Morningside Primary in Edinburgh.

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