Godfrey Holmes remembers one little word to sum up all he knows on the unsung art of classroom discipline. As the boxer rests between rounds, so the weary, war-torn teacher rests between lessons. Each teacher temporarily stands back from the fray - wondering whatever to do next.
Here is a battle plan, based on the helpful acronym AMENDS : Alterations Movement Excuses Noise Diversions Silliness.
Although I was told about AMENDS by a wise headteacher at a secondary modern, it can just as easily be memorised by primary school teachers who stay with one single class for most timetable slots most weeks of the year.
A is for Alterations. Likely alterations facing the average school-child are: change of room; teacher is away; it is examination time; or half the class is out of school on structured activities.
Not all alterations can be prevented by the teacher herself. But being prepared is half a solution. Sometimes the teacher has a chance to put furniture right in the lunch-hour, or even before school starts in a morning. Then there is the opportunity to consult the stand-in rota at assembly, rather than having it sprung on the teacher at 10 minutes to 3 in the afternoon.
Certainly the last thing a teacher wants or needs is for the pupils themselves to announce an alteration. That gives them a head start and allows greater disruption of any plan.
M is for Movement. Lots of movement before and during a lesson is inevitable, but is it essential? Movement-oriented academic exercises, group-work, role-play, drama, scientific experiment, cookery and painting all contain elements of risk - more so when there are no clear instructions about who should move table and when.
Just as theatrical producers build in instructions about coming in and going out, so the well-equipped teacher can invite movement at her convenience, not that of some pupils - who will always delight in wandering round class like desert nomads.
E is for Excuses. Most children are experts in the art of the completely plausible excuse: "The dog ate my homework;" "We all over-slept this morning, so there was no time to find my exercise book;" "My rugby shirt is still waiting for the wash;" "Mr Sawbridge asked us to stay behind for 10 minutes to count all the test tubes". . .
Excuses are problematic, because they cannot easily be contradicted. If a teacher does dismiss an excuse, she opens herself to parental reproach and anger that a dear child has not been believed. One way round excuses is to read them out from a pretend script before they are proffered. Another way is inviting all excuses to be scribbled down and placed in the excuses box on leaving the classroom!
N is for Noise. Some noise is necessary and instrumental in the classroom. But most teachers know the difference between the noise that aids a lesson and that which destroys it.
Most teachers, especially at the outset of their teaching careers, also get hung up about noise. Therefore shouting at pupils about unnecessary noise (thus increasing that noise) takes up the best part of any lesson, with bad feelings all round.
One solution is to speak very quietly, or to place quietness and calm as a first priority in the lesson. Nobody is expecting hands on heads or delayed lunches, but a majority of pupils might welcome a peaceful atmosphere. Equally, that quiet can last into painting, acting, and experimenting.
D is for Diversions, or distractions. Diversions, like excuses, come speedily, and in triplicate, especially when pupils are getting bored. "Please Miss, Albert looks very pale. Shall I take him to the nurse?" "Sir, there seems to be a runner outside who's tripped over a hurdle;" "Next Sunday's Father's Day. Can we discuss dads and what makes them happy?" Diversions do not even have to be relevant to the subject under discussion. Moreover, the most effective diversions have an element of authenticity: Albert really is pale; the games lesson outside really is dangerous; and the question of paternity really is relevant to the wider study of sociology. Naturally, a few diversions are unavoidable, like the fire alarm going off, or an inspection for head-lice. Then it is the job of the teacher to put a boundary round that diversion and, if possible, to save it taking the place of the entire lesson. One teacher, ever-anxious to forestall distractions, mounted a right-hand motorcycle mirror on the corner of his blackboard.
Finally, S is for Silliness. Although silliness might enter into Movement, Excuses, Noise and Diversions, it properly demands attention all to itself. Most pupils will be silly if given half a chance. IHowever,silliness is often sheer silliness, not malice or truculence. The silliness exhibited is partly to reduce tension and to amuse the peer group. Every class needs its clown. If nobody came forward to be the jester, he would have to be invented.
Silliness is best combated with a light intervention. It's a bit like noise. Too heavy a response amplifies the problem. Social psychologists call the process "negative reinforcement". The more a teacher is visibly annoyed, the worse the perceived antisocial behaviour will become.
The worst response to silliness is sarcasm. That definitely alienates the peer group. Errant pupils must always be given a way of saving face - a way out. So if a silly pupils is continually taking centre-stage, why not invite him to make an unscheduled contribution to the lesson: something throwing him slightly off guard? Or develop a silly interruption into a serious point: "Thank you, James, if we were to put this person in prison and throw away the keys, what would we do if there had been a mistrial?" AMENDS will not help every teacher all the time. But AMENDS can be seen as a type of gearbox. The teacher in the driving seat recognises that she is moving out of Movement gear into Diversion gear. Top gear is Noise, but not for too long. Time to change down. Time for a smoother ride.
Godfrey Holmes is the author of Truancy and Social Welfare, Boys' and Girls' Welfare Society, Schools Hill, Cheadle, Cheshire, SK8 1JE.