Compassion, not fear

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
"Beat him, Sir!" Sadly, this was the refrain of the street children I spent time with in Africa two years ago. When they weren't fighting each other for street pride or scraps of food they were being beaten in the name of God by their religious instruction teacher. Worse, they were encouraging me to join in.

This was a difficult one. I didn't want to come across as an empire apologist there to civilise the natives, but the idea of caning children as young as three because they misbehaved or simply got the answer wrong seemed well, to put it bluntly, wrong. This isn't because I'm a tree-hugging, sandal-wearing liberal, but because it simply didn't work.

The children would get more excited, agitated and distressed and any attempts at restoring order would involve beating them some more.

I don't wish to be anti-Africa; that's not my opinion or my motivation for writing this. It's just that I am taken back to these memories as I teach my inclusive classes of five to seven-year-olds. I've had a few characters in my classroom over the years and I am far from sheltered from the harsh realities of teaching today. I and my colleagues have been bitten, taunted, sworn and spat at, hit, kicked and generally ignored. Of course this isn't acceptable - for myself, the other children or the child who is misbehaving. But nor is the increasing move to support "old school"

methods. The "tough on children, tough on the causes of children" approach might grab the headlines, but where does it leave those of us who are trying to engage meaningfully with the real issues?

Effective behaviour management involves being clear and consistent, making sure that all children are valued, praised and celebrated, that they have lots of fun when it's time for fun and work hard when it's time for work.

Does this always work with challenging behaviour? No. Is it idealistic? Yes. But what are teachers if not idealists?

The idea that the hand that spares is the hand that spoils is wrong.

Teachers face very real challenges, but our response has to be guided by compassion. The children I teach may not remember me in 20 years' time, but they will know that they were safe, secure and celebrated. They will have known warmth not disinterest, hope not indifference, respect not fear. If anything is going to teach these children to be responsible, assured citizens, it is that.

Thomas Billingham

Thomas Billingham is a supply teacher at an infant school in Milton Keynes

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