'Do as I say or I'll eat you'

19th November 2004 at 00:00
It can be a daunting experience learning the ropes in the classroom. Teenagers have a habit of finding your weaknesses and playing them for all they are worth. When you're new, you might as well have a large neon L-plate hovering over your head. So it's not surprising when newly qualified teachers are on the look-out for that sure-fire technique for dealing with bad behaviour. After all, how do other teachers manage? Don't be deceived. For most of us, the respect of pupils is hard won.

Most of us learn from other teachers. One of my favourites, Nick, is a tall Nigerian with a bellowing voice to match. He has a way with children. He bears down on chatty individuals, banging a metre rule on the desk. "Get on with your work, you miserable specimen," he bellows in a thick Nigerian accent. The children have no doubt who is the boss.

Unfortunately, Nick is not in vogue these days. The role model we are meant to aspire to is the behaviour management consultant. His training course is more like an evangelical service and His promise is to save us all.

He comes equipped with a magic bag of tricks that, if used, can control even the rowdiest class. He insists we all do what he says, and that unbelievers are the root cause of our problems. He despises aggressive and negative teachers, and argues that they damage children.

The aggressive teacher may control his pupils, says the behaviour management consultant, but he just passes problems on to everyone else.

Behaviour specialists always come armed with a special phrase. Peter, a consultant from the Department for Education and Skills visited my school not long ago. His phrase was: "I want you to choose to..." Peter told us to repeat this with every request and pupils would be disarmed, his logic being that it doesn't give them any room for argument. By demanding that the child chooses to do the right thing, it is difficult for the child to argue back. He says that the child should be praised whenever he does what you want. It's a "positive reinforcement of acceptable behaviour codified in a simple set of rules" approach.

This is all well and good as far as it goes. But how does it help us to stretch pupils? In order for teachers to remain positive about pupils'

progress, the implication is that we must demand less of them. If that's not disconcerting enough, Peter's approach is a direct adoption of animal training techniques. He even called it puppy training. This kind of behaviour management might be suitable for airport security guards or the police at a football match, but is it what we aspire to in the classroom?

The most fundamental assumption behavioural psychology makes is that human behaviour can be understood without acknowledging that we are conscious beings, which is problematic if you believe schools should be concerned with development of the intellect. The difference between Nick and Peter is that the former believes he has something to tell the children in his class and that is why they should listen to him.

In the end, it's not a matter of being aggressive or being positive. The pupils soon work out if you are serious about teaching them. Have the conviction that your subject has something to offer young people - that's what's important. There are no magic tricks to convincing pupils of this, just hard work. It helps to have a sense of humour. After a while the kids see the funny side of Nick when he threatens to boil and eat them.

David Perks is head of physics at Graveney school in Tooting, south London

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