Lifelong disciples of Discipline

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Alan Smith trawls through teachers from his past to find a worthy winner of his Lifetime Contribution to Discipline award

Now that awards are dished out to teachers, it seems only fair that those who taught me their particular speciality should be recognised at last. Discipline was always a mystery to me. I found it hard to believe that kids would do as I told them. Why should they?

Looking back, I find it even harder to credit that my shabby tantrums and hard looks had any effect at all. I got away with it, though, for more than a quarter of a century. I used to have a panel of experts in my head, teachers from my past for whom calm and order came as a matter of course. When the going got rough, I would pretend to be them. But who would get my lifetime's Contribution to Discipline Award?

Big Jim was one. Violence wreathed in smiles was Big Jim's way. A boy called Hurley fell into Jim's hands one playtime. He had gashed his head while Jim was on duty. "My word, it was terrible," Jim told us. "Should have had stitches."

Jim cleared the hair from the wound and poured neat Dettol straight into the raw wound. "That made him jump," he told an admiring and grateful staffroom. It could be Big Jim.

Or Clint. Clint made me so afraid that I passed O-level maths. He was new to the school and we were ready to give him hell - until he entered the classroom. He had to duck and twist to get his head and massive shoulders into the classroom. He picked up the nearest boy and pasted him mercilessly.

It could be Slow Talking John with his pale, murderer's eyes. "Afternoons are best", Slow Talking would say, showing someone with ideas about creative teaching the error of their ways.

"I close all the windows, turn the heating up as high as I can, then I drone on about some boring nonsense - literature is always good, until they fall into a dull torpor. I can get them off to sleep sometimes. Good as gold." Now, that's a contribution to discipline if ever I heard one.

But all this is a bit old fashioned. They may, afer all, have found the gene that allows small women to control large adolescent boys.

Take Claire, for example. "Oh Jason," she would say in a voice that had in it Big Sister, Mother, Gran and Public Executioner. Jason, a shambling lout, would hang his head.

She would follow up by torturing him with spiteful flattery and with her endless reasonable, but unanswerable rhetorical questions. "A lovely young man like you, I'm so disappointed. We can't tell your mother about this, can we? She'd be heartbroken, wouldn't she?" Perhaps the award will acknowledge the contribution of guile. If so, then Taffy would stand a good chance of winning. Taffy was, is, one of those vibrating Welshmen who reel unstoppably around every school in the world. Before his first meeting with his new first-years, he knocked a small, invisible nail into his blackboard.

"You'll want to be careful of me," he told them when they arrived. "I'm a magician, I am." Thirty sneering faces. "I'll just take my coat off. Now then, there's nowhere to hang it up." A pause for inspiration, a finger pointing to heaven. "That's it. I'll draw myself a hook." And Taff drew a chalk hook through the nail in the board and hung up his coat. The kids were still giving him funny looks when they left school five years later.

What would the givers of awards find worthy in the disciplinarian?

It's a sad truth that a lot of teaching involves making people do what they don't want to do. What kind of advice is sensible or fashionably correct? How tightly to hold the arms? How long the detention? How many the lines? How intense the counselling sessions?

Does it make sense any more to stay at one school for 25 years, so that you know your patch, making your career in the classroom rather than in more lucrative niches of education, learning to like even dreadful pupils?

I hope so, though I'll bet that nowadays Clint and Big Jim would get the sack - and I'd fail my maths exam.

Alan Smith left teaching three years ago. He has published two novels.

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