Barking up the wrong tree

20th March 2015 at 00:00

When I started teaching full time in an 11-16 school, not even my kindest colleagues would have called me a natural disciplinarian. I'd look on in awe as more gifted teachers quelled minor riots with nothing more than a raised eyebrow.

That "giftedness" was disputed; "It's all a question, Jonny, of learning the right techniques," I was told. "Everybody's first year is terrible - then the kids get to know you and settle down in the second year." I wish someone had mentioned this to the kids I taught in my second year.

My head of department was a brilliant classroom manager. She was a former student who had chosen to come back to the school, and she knew the culture inside out. What was her method? It looked to me like hypnosis with a tiny hint of background threat. Watching her talking to a difficult student, I could see all possible conversations branching out into a huge tree, and at the end of every branch were the words: "Mary wins".

My tree had plenty of twigs that ended "student wins".

It's a mark of how desperate I was that while on playground duty I asked Alan, one of my students and a likeable rogue, "Why is it that you do everything Mrs Davies tells you to do, but nothing that I tell you to do?' Alan looked into my eyes, clearly as puzzled as I felt. "It's just that Mrs Davies keeps the act up, Sir," he said slowly, genuinely trying to help.

Thus it was sensible of me to make the move to a sixth-form college, where most of my discipline problems melted away. The magic phrase "they've chosen to be here" made all the difference. Those five words created a dynamic that suited me; we were adults together - we were on first-name terms - and everything flowed from that.

Of course, I still run into discipline problems occasionally; I've taught GCSE resit classes in my time, and they contain some decidedly rough diamonds. But mostly I'm blessedly free to get on with other things.

I've arrived now at a structure for discipline that works for me. It's broadly speaking a "three strikes and you're out" approach. If you're a pain once, you get a warning. Twice, and I move you to the front. Three times, and I ask you to leave. The curious paradox is that now I have this system and I'm clear in my own mind over how to apply it, it's not needed any more. The last time I sent a student out was years ago. Similarly, my old head of department had a hard edge to her discipline but she rarely needed to resort to it.

I'm not sure I believe in the idea of "breaking" classes. You hear about managers trying to "break" a rebellious employee, but let's call that what it is - bullying. I don't want to teach students I've remorselessly punished into a grudging silence, I want students whose energies are channelled creatively in an atmosphere of mutual respect. This doesn't deny the need for a framework, and there should be consequences for moving outside it.

When I started out as a teacher, I wanted the students to behave because I felt so awful when they didn't. Now I want them to behave because, if they don't, maths won't get learned - and that's the reason, really, that we're together at all.

Jonny Griffiths teaches at a sixth-form college in Norfolk

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