All too often, that shout is a cry for help

10th September 2004 at 01:00
To shout or not to shout? Kathleen Marshall, the Commissioner for Young People, is clear about her answer to the question. Raising voices to children undermines their dignity and is as bad as physical punishment, she says. As she warms to her subject, she adds that teachers should not be allowed to display any sign of anger towards even the most unruly child.

Professor Marshall's remarks sparked knee-jerk reactions from various quarters. One union representative was reported as saying "there are times you have to shout at a pupil", while the chairman of the Campaign for Real Education was reported as stating that "shouting is absolutely vital if (teachers) are to keep any sort of discipline".

No doubt staffrooms across the land rang to similar reactions. Yet, behind the predictable sabre-rattling, many individual teachers privately would agree with Professor Marshall. To my surprise, I am one of them.

It depends on what we mean by shouting. Uncontrolled, eye-popping screaming by a teacher at individual pupils or whole classes should have no place in a school. It's bullying. It's also demeaning, not only for those on the receiving end but for the teacher too. Have you ever watched a teacher who's snapped and launched into a full-throated rant? Have you observed the ugliness of face and gestures?

Perhaps, like me, you have been that teacher and recognise the self-loathing which overcomes you on regaining control. Uncontrolled shouting benefits no one. There are only losers.

Raising the voice is a different matter and the distinction between the raised voice and out-of-control shouting is central to the debate. A teacher fulfils many roles but above all he or she is an actor, the classroom is the stage and there is an audience of 30 children whose emotions and intellect are engaged and played upon just as much as in a professional theatre.

For the teacher, the daily performance is longer than any three-act play and the audience reaction swifter than an overnight review. Some members of the audience may even show their disapproval of a below par performance.

The actor's skills include the subtle use of facial expressions: a frown, a lift of the eyebrow, a stare, a tilt of the head. The teacher's voice is part of the same repertoire. Pitch, colour, articulation and volume vary and combine with body language to keep the classroom audience calm, attentive and well behaved.

Call centres employ actors and opera singers to train workers in the best use of their voices. Similar courses are becoming available for teachers.

The only surprise is that it has taken so long when vocal and other acting skills make such an important contribution to our classroom success.

The calculated raised voice is one small item in a teacher's vocal repertoire. Uncontrolled screaming or shouting has no place there. Whatever it may achieve with regard to pupils will be short-lived and due to momentary shock and horror. Perhaps it is a teacher's cry for help.

This is where Professor Marshall loses support. Her tone gives no indication of any understanding of the difficulties. The poor behaviour of some children is the most serious problem facing schools today. Normally well-behaved children are tainted by it, encouraged to join in and their concentration is spoiled.

Teachers are regularly abused and insulted. They are not confident of support despite umpteen working groups and initiatives and they believe that anyone in the world outside of schools has forgotten about the realities. They're right. Professor Marshall's remarks and tone confirm the gulf between our leaders and classroom teachers.

Uncontrolled shouting brings no long-term benefits. In the short term, a shouting teacher is giving vent to a cry of exasperation. What a pity that Professor Marshall can't hear it.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary, Perth.

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