Honesty is best policy

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Advice for seasoned practitioners

Ever heard of AJ Wentworth, BA? A fictional schoolmaster, Mr Wentworth was the central figure in a long series of gently funny - and still popular - school stories created in Punch magazine in the 1930s and 1940s, by Humphry Francis Ellis. The running joke is that whereas Mr Wentworth thinks he is control of his classes, it's plain to the reader that the boys are sending him up rotten.

"I at once strode to the desk to get my punishment book, but when I opened the lid a pigeon flew out, nearly knocking my spectacles off... I went white with anger."

For me, the stories make rueful reading, as I was never a natural disciplinarian. I managed, using learned techniques. And I had to solve my problems unaided. I had the feeling that any failings of mine were quietly welcomed by those who needed to see others doing worse than themselves.

That sort of disciplinary schadenfreude, once quite common, damages morale, undermines professional integrity and, ultimately, holds back children's learning.

It's not like that now - not in most places anyway. One of the most heartening changes in school life in recent years has been the way that in good schools classroom behaviour has become a whole-school issue. Where the problem's been cracked, it's been by applying a set of unified and consistent guidelines across the institution.

The last obstacle to making a policy like this work, though, is lack of honesty, and that's something that needs personal commitment all the way up the hierarchy. Teachers need to be reassured that they can be frank about which children, which incidents, which lessons and activities are giving them problems. This is where senior and longer-serving colleagues should be setting the example.

So when the behaviour policy'son the agenda then, as a worldly-wise veteran, be sure not only to offer advice but also to confess the areas where you could do with support. That way, the struggling NQT who feels defeated and isolated will be encouraged to speak up. A bit of honesty could well make the difference that will keep an uncertain colleague in good spirits and committed to the job.

AJ Wentworth, BA, by Humphry Francis Ellis (Prion Humour Classics, $15.99)

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