Keeping the crew in line

10th September 2004 at 01:00
When Mrs Wetherby told her class that she was leaving at the end of last term she was briefly overwhelmed by the reaction. The spontaneous sighs of disappointment were as violins in some glorious, burgeoning rhapsody. She only felt this for a few seconds, though. As always, a far greater concern soon overtook the class. "Who are we getting next?" they asked.

Departing teachers tend to miss a great opportunity when this question gets asked. Mrs Wetherby was typical in feeling that she must reassure her young charges that the new arrival for September, Mr Dobson, was "young", "very nice" and "lovely".

Well-intentioned, yes, but these assurances did not help any of us who are still here.

When potentially mutinous pupils are sussing us out at the start of the school year, there is nothing better for keeping the ship's crew in line than to suggest that there may be dark storms ahead when they meet certain new staff. Far better for the departing Mrs Wetherby to have responded last term with a few shifty glances around her followed by a melodramatic, "I'm not prepared to talk about him."

That would have set young imaginations ablaze and paved the way for fellow staff gradually to disclose details of the new teacher. We need to depict the likes of Mr Dobson as a slightly unhinged figure with a reputation for being the hardest, meanest teacher in western Europe. "Never catch his eye - it unnerves himI In fact, 'Who are you looking at?' is the most open-ended question his classes ever get to answer."

Some elements might need to know that Mr Dobson has now almost recovered from his old obsession with weaponry and casual violence - a legacy of a gangland past. "But all that was a long time ago. Mr Dobson has severed all limbs, I mean links, with the gangsterdom which tarnished his early teaching years."

I once taught at a school where such a strategy was more or less an official part of the behaviour policy. Wayward pupils soon sobered up when they heard, "I think your new English teacher, Mr Madboy Molloy, will take a dim view of this if he gets to hear about it." Some staff took it one step further and created an imaginary deputy head, Mr Carter.

The warning of a possible visit to "Mr Carter's office" was the ultimate sanction, an invisible man in an unknown office proving to be the most effective disciplinarian in the school. He never left his office, of course - a not altogether unbelievable scenario in some schools. Pupils just imagined him. That was enough.

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