One glance quells a rebellion

8th November 1996 at 00:00
With unruliness among pupils so much in the news, it is instructive to watch how Mrs Jenkins, universally agreed among the children to be the strictest teacher in the school, manages her class of 31 seven-year-olds.

She hardly ever raises her voice, which is attractive, low-pitched and musical, but she does project it well and, at times, forcefully. She is quite tall and, if need be, stands up to quell incipient rowdiness. She doesn't so much glare as shoot stern glances at misbehaving pupils. And she has a way of saying a miscreant's name which freezes their blood. When it comes to more extended rebukes, her most common tone is "more in sorrow than in anger" though she can also pull out a pretty compelling "I expected better of you than this". Above all, she holds firmly to the line. There are never any exceptions allowed to classroom rules: rubbers must always be returned, chairs moved not pushed in, quiet observed on the carpet, work placed in the correct pile.

But the classroom is not a kind of Colditz. Far from it. It is, under her guidance, a place of almost Sicilian respect. We listen to each other. We wait our turn. We do not say bad names to others which we would not like said to us. We enjoy each other's work, so much so that we might give it rapturous applause (though "Just clapping, please, none of that funny cheering. Shall we clap them again properly this time?") We show and tell and gravely elicit the truth about objects: "Are we quite sure it was worms who made these holes in the bark? Did you see them? No, we can't be sure, but we can guess it was small insects, can't we? Has anyone seen similar small holes made by insects?" There is no occasion, good or bad, when we think "it doesn't matter, just this once". Or, as Mrs Jenkins points out, "We can't really talk when someone is spoiling it for us by talking in the corner, can we Frankie?" Everything on the walls, displays of children's work and posters, has this same grave and dedicated quality. It has all been discussed, noted, reiterated. Everything in the children's books is subject to this scrutiny. "I think you can do better than that" ,"I know you can do better than that", "Is that really the best you can do?" are frequent comments. As are, "Brilliant", "very good", "I can see you have tried hard with this," and "What beautiful work." Children who are praised glow and sparkle, for praise from Mrs Jenkins is real praise. The Sicilian ethic only works because she keeps her side of the bargain. She praises highly when praise is due. She recognises effort. And she always expects more.

The class does contain some unruly pupils and some low-achieving ones. Mrs Jenkins simply can't accept bad behaviour and she is very reluctant to accept low achievement. She bends her steady glance on two of the giggliest girls who are used to getting their own way by prettiness and charm and they glue their eyes to their work. She explains what she wants to one of the slowest boys and he carefully follows her instructions to the letter, producing a detailed observational drawing and text to match in a quarter the time it would have taken him last year. "You did well," she reassures him and he gives his slow beam. And with attention-seeking Frankie, she is impervious to both his babyish cuddliness and his furious tantrums. She refuses the bait. At present this is making him sulky, for he would rather have any amount of attention than do his work, but the only way to get Mrs Jenkins' attention is to work. She comes to school to work and so ought the children.

Objections can be made to this. It is not huge fun, though it is hugely satisfying. It progresses at the pace of each child, but it is not so much child-centred as class-centred: the greatest good of the greatest number prevails. And it is not spontaneous; it is planned, thought out, accumulative. But if we want to have pupils who do not hurt each other or the teacher, who respect their own and others' work and who have a sense of a greater good than their own pleasure, we have a lot to learn from Mrs Jenkins.

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