Book of the week

30th March 2001 at 01:00
GETTING THE BUGGERS TO BEHAVE. By Sue Cowley. Continuum pound;9.99

I sent a teacher I once knew a card with a photocopy of Sue Cowley's title and the simple message: "I saw this and thought of you". So, let me explain.

This teacher would grab the individual attention of any group of teenage students, however disruptive. The rest of the staff were puzzled, but it was in the days when people did not observe each other's practice, so they never looked in to see her technique. They merely listened and knew there was more to it than her simple observation that "perhaps they are tired by the last lesson in the afternoon, because they usually seem to be OK with me".

She was a drama teacher (Ms Cowley's background is also in drama) and, like art teachers, they can often reach pupils nobody else can. But it was more than that.

She was always accompanied by one of her many glove puppets. Each had its own personality. If the class had a bad reputation, she would take Sooty, a puppet with attitude whose unpredictable behaviour courted confrontation. When Sooty would suddenly appear from behind the teacher's back to shout "Bollocks!" at Year 9, the outraged teacher would ask: "What did you say?" A three-way interaction involving the students, herself and the disrespectful glove puppet would ensue. Sooty would even do some marking, though she never allowed his language to stray to quite the same extent on paper.

Ms Cowley's book put me in mind of Sooty and the many subtle techniques teachers use to achieve order. It is full of helpful hints founded on good analysis. We are reminded of non-provocative ways of changing seating plans and room layouts (planned to coincide with a new learning experience rather than in the heat of the moment); of seeing sanctions as a series of promised consequences, regretted by the teacher, rather than threats; of advice quietly spoken in private rather than shouted public threats.

The book is rich and realistic: rich inthe array of strategies and examples that work, and realistic in that it is based on vivid examples of how youngsters misbehave. So whether it is control techniques, or the balance between the individual teacher's efforts and the need for a whole-school consistent approach to behaviour, or the differences between meeting a class for the first time and encountering difficulties with a group over a large period, Ms Cowley has some illuminating and always useful ideas.

Impressively, she ends with vivid case studies of the same situation escalated or de-escalated. She does not bottle out. There are minor incidents of name-calling and major ones involving fisticuffs. They all sound only too real and her advice is practical, sound and interspersed with imaginative ideas that arrest attention. (I particularly enjoyed the description of the technology lesson which the teacher opens by eating from a can of dog food.) If I was head of a school always (unfortunately) discussing behaviour, I would buy a copy for all the staff (including support staff), arrange an Inset day and review the whole-school policies and practices to enable all teachers to observe each other's practice in a focused way. I would get the students involved too, establish a well-balanced rewards and sanctions practice upheld as consistently as humans can manage, and look forward to a less stressful future.

When I sent the card to the Sooty teacher, I was alluding to her technique in dealing with the biggest troublemaker. She would bring something in for him (it is nearly always a him) related to something he privately admitted to an interest in, and saying (privately): "I saw this and thought of you". It never failed.

Ms Cowley's book is a treasure trove of such ideas - some you will know, some you will have forgotten and some you will never have thought of.

Tim Brighouse is chief education officer for Birminghaml Sue Cowley shares her tips in First Appointments, page 8


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