Be strict, fair, kind and funny

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
Many pitfalls await the new form tutor, not least the temptation to becomeover-familiar with pupils, warns Gerald Haigh.

Stanley, now a senior teacher in a big school, cringes when he recalls his early days as a form tutor in a comprehensive.

"I was earnest, eager and well intentioned, two weeks short of my 24th birthday, with four years' teacher training behind me. I was appointed by a kindly head who looked like the older Spencer Tracy. My head of house resembled Patricia Routledge." His head filled with advice, Stanley felt fully equipped to start his career. With his tutor group, all went well - at first.

"They were quiet, polite and compliant. I was filled with joy. I wore my pride like a poppy. Patricia Routledge had surely noticed how good my pupils were, and mentioned it to Spencer Tracy."

Within two weeks it became clear that Stanley was a victim of the honeymoon effect. "The tutor group had been observing my anxious earnestness, confusion, and fawning interest in them with amused curiosity," he says.

When Stanley started teaching in the early 1960s, the new comprehensives were noticeably bigger than the schools they replaced - and their timetables often meant pupils changed classmates almost every lesson.

From the start, efforts were made to provide smaller units of pupil care. The usual one was - and is - to divide the school administratively into "houses", or year groups, each with its own head. Within these are forms or tutor groups - units of 20 or so pupils in the same year who meet together with a tutor for registration and for a weekly form or tutorial perio. The tutor's task is to keep an eye on the group's progress, field personal and work problems and foster a feeling of group identity.

In big comprehensives, most teachers, sometimes including senior managers, are form tutors, on top of their programmes of subject teaching. They usually stay with the same tutor group as it moves through the school. The tutorial role is important, but it is quite different from teaching a specialist subject in a lesson with clear objectives.

For that reason, many teachers dislike it, seeing it as a distraction. And there is often no training in tutorial skills, and little guidance. But the job has to be done. And if it is not done conscientiously, pupils will become resentful and the tutor period will be counter-productive.

Stanley had made the classic new teacher's mistake of being too familiar, too soon. It is easier to fall into this trap with a tutor group than it is in a subject lesson. The tutor group system is based on good personal relationships, so even an experienced teacher moving to a new school can make what is a basic misjudgment.

Inevitably, the children in Stanley's tutor group started to misbehave. And, as always, one pupil stood out, and still looms large in his memory.

"David was a tormentor," he says, "cleverly playing with my pathetic attempts to remain in control, stinging me at every opportunity." Once he understood the problem, Stanley could pull things back. But it took time and great effort.

Now, Stanley feels grateful to David. "He forced me to ask questions instead of pretending to know all the answers."


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