Never forget BDSI

12th January 2001 at 00:00
MANAGING CLASSROOM BEHAVIOUR: from Research to Diagnosis. By Chris Watkins. Institute of Education, University of London pound;7.95. Order on BEHAVIOUR MANAGEMENT: A Whole-School Approach. By Bill Rogers. Paul Chapman. pound;17.99. CRACKING THE HARD CLASS. By Bill Rogers.Paul Chapman. pound;16.99.

Teaching still feeds off the myth of the hero educator, that special individual who arrives at Dodge City High, saunters through the classroom doors and effortlessly quells the riotous class. From To Sir With Love to Hope and Glory, there's a prevailing sense that discipline is something mystical, something you've either got or you haven't. When you're an NQT, that can be an unnerving thought.

These three books challenge that view and demonstrate very convincingly that pupil behaviour can effectively be managed and shaped. It is a question of skills and techniques rather than some genetically-inherited talent. The optimistic message is that we can actively create a productive ethos, rather than constantly react to a spiralling decline of behaviour through ever-increasing sanctions.

That, at least, is the theory.

Chris Watkins's pamphlet is exceptionally useful for the way it synthesises research on behaviour and shows how to apply it. Chris Woodhead's comment about never encountering a useful piece of educational research is effectively debunked by this publication.

Watkins quotes studies about what successful teachers do ("In schools with low levels of disruptive behaviour, class teachers are not encouraged to pass problems on to senior staff. In well-disciplined schools, teachers handle all or most of the routine discipline problems themselves"). He provides a context for poor behaviour, highlights systems and approaches that have been shown to work, and challenges some of teachers' long-held views.

Suddenly, you realise, you've been getting it all wrong. Take this fallacy:

"If we try to diminish a behaviour by mild punishment and it does not prove effective, the logic is to try more severe punishment. In other words, one is led into a fallacious escalation, rather like the postcard notice: 'the beatings will continue until morale improves'."

In a profession where we have so little time to reflect, we frequently resort to past actions and gut response. Watkins's slim volume challenges many of these and I found it genuinely invigorating - the basis for a major overhaul of my own assumptions about behaviour management, the starting point for discussion with pastoral team leaders, and a catalyst for a more enlightened framework for a ehaviour policy. I wish I'd had a copy when I started teaching.

Bill Rogers is the modern guru of discipline. Some people tell me they find his tone off-putting - a mixture of the evangelist and politician. I enjoyed both books and found Cracking the Hard Class especially interesting. Mind you, you can't go far wrong with a title like that.

Rogers brings a bracing mix of pragmatism and idealism to the topic. He urges us never to forget BDS - bad day syndrome: "we'll shout on some days, we'll lose (actually find) our temper, and we'll say the wrong or inappropriate things. We can cope with BDS, as can our students, if we're adult enough to acknowledge, apologise (where necessary), learn from it and move on."

He reminds us that in a naturally stressful job like teaching, BDS is always possible. Don't feel guilty about it.

He also demonstrates how language can powerfully shape the discipline of a class, phrasing questions and comments as an expectation of good behaviour rather than a condemnation of bad. My own initiation into the lore of the classroom was "gain control of the territory", so with any class I still ask students to open windows, switch off lights, turn down the heating. The subtext is: "I'm in charge."

Bill Rogers has similar advice. With a very difficult group, before standing at the front demanding silence, he circulates, talking to students individually, learning names, making positive comments. When he wants order, he's already done the groundwork, can name individuals, and bring them to heel.

Most of the people I talk to in schools - whether NQTs or long-established teachers - are worrying about discipline at the moment. Even normally calm schools are experiencing a striking degree of turbulence. It's easy to resort to old-style thinking in our responses, or to give up and whinge that discipline was always better in the past. Many of us, at the start of our careers, simply replicate the teaching styles we remember from our own schooldays.

These three books offer much healthier, more practical solutions; a set of strategies rooted in the real world, which offer a promise of helping us to regain the agenda and shape student behaviour rather than simply react to it.

Writing this on a Friday night at the end of a stressful week at the end of term, I feel oddly uplifted by all three books. There can't be a much better tribute.

Geoff Barton is deputy head at Thurston Community College, Suffolk. He also teaches on the PGCE course at the school of education, Cambridge University out for good Behaviour.

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