In with a shout but not for long

15th September 2006 at 01:00
The cleaners are delighted. Sam, our new head of maths, has joined us after a long career in the army. Just what we need, they say. Someone fierce, authoritarian, who will accept no compromise.

He will have the children marching up and down, standing to attention. No backchat. Respect, clean shoes, everything.

Of course there is an element of humour in all of this, but there lurks an element of belief underneath. This is what schools need. A tough man with simple solutions, strict discipline that will scare the kids and make them behave, plenty of shouting and threats. Everything will be fine.

If only it were so simple.

The worry is that someone who fulfils such criteria is just a one-trick pony. When that trick stops working, what happens next? When they shout at Ethan and he shouts back, what else do they have? Big, physically imposing figures, the sort of teacher for whom my cleaners yearn, are effective for a while.

But if it really was the whole deal then our most successful schools would be staffed entirely by men with the physique of an outdoor privy. And of course it is not the case. For when the bullying fails and they are seen through, then all that is left is an empty shell.

A more complex mix is required. It involves personality, humour, sympathy, affection and knowledge. Shouting will work for a while, but the pupils will eventually get bored with it. We need conciliation, not inflammation.

It is not to say that teachers should be spineless. We all need to confront issues robustly at times, but it needs to be just a part of our repertoire.

And we need to do it on our own terms, where we know that it will make a difference. But we also need to deflect, to defuse, to distract. Respect has to be earned, it cannot be imposed. And we earn it by doing our job properly.

Schools depend upon teachers skilled in dealing with the many different facets of the people around them. The best teachers use their judgement to manage the behaviour of others. It is a particular skill that teachers have, and we should be proud to have it.

I feel sorry for Sam. There is more to him than the cleaners'

preconceptions. But they wait for him to re-establish old-fashioned values, the sort that never really existed. They want to believe in easy solutions - the sort that fear seems to offer. But in the long term you will be found out.

Ian Roe is a teacher in North Wales

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