Playful approach to a serious subject

26th November 2004 at 00:00
Classroom discipline is a frequent problem for probationer teachers - so who better to advise them than the pupils themselves? Elizabeth Buie reports

You're a new teacher, you arrive late in class on your first day, and what greets you? An unruly class, talking noisily. You say: "Sorry I'm late, but I was detained by the headteacher." The noise gets worse. You start shouting to restore calm, but the noise level just keeps rising.

Then, one pupil throws a pen-cap at you. It's too much and you storm out of the room.

That's one scenario for a probationer teacher. But there's worse.

You're taking a class just after break and you're aware that the pupils are chatting with some animation about an incident. Then, a pupil arrives late.

You ask where she's been and she replies that she's been at home during break -strictly against the rules. You tell her to sit down on her seat next to the girl who is normally her best friend, but she refuses. The other girl stands up and confronts her and within seconds they are brawling over a boyfriend. You try to get between them and before you know it, you've been assaulted.

It can and does happen.

Scene three: you catch a note being passed during a test, pull out a pupil from the class and, despite her protestations of innocence, send her outside. In your haste, you fail to listen to her denial of guilt and end up punishing an innocent party and preventing her from finishing an important test.

Next challenge: you're covering a class whose usual teacher is absent. You try to take the register and when you call out one name, five hands go up.

Another name, and six hands go up. You take a deep breath and decide to continue with the lesson. There then follows a sequence of pupils tapping feet, beating out a rhythm on the desk, swinging on a chair, in open defiance. You lose the plot and storm out of the room. Another round to the pupils.

These four scenes might be nightmare scenarios, but they're not made up.

When 11 pupils from Dunoon Grammar's S2 drama department acted them out for a group of 21 probationer teachers, they were dramatising incidents they had all witnessed or taken part in.

But this was role-playing with a difference. This was using pupils in the role of teachers - teaching new teachers what they should expect and how not to react. The pupils then showed the teachers version two - how they thought a teacher should have dealt with each incident.

Matthew Boyle and Rosemary Ward, quality improvement officers with Argyll and Bute Council, then invited probationer teachers to show how they would have dealt with each potential flashpoint.

As discussion bounced back and forth, the teachers began to explore new ground with the pupils - asking them what annoyed and upset them about teachers' behaviour. It would have taken a brave probationer to open him or herself up to such criticism from their own classes. But here they were on neutral ground.

Rohanna Irvine, the pupil who played the role of the new teacher, spoke for the whole group when she said: "It makes you think that the teachers respect you."

Natalie Boswell echoed her thoughts: "Usually teachers don't know how we feel about what they are teaching."

So where do some new teachers go wrong in the eyes of their sharpest critics?

"When you get a new teacher, some start off by saying: 'I'm the boss, you're going to do exactly what I say.' That's just like a challenge - you want to do exactly the opposite," said Kirsty Smythe.

And what kind of teachers do they respond well to?

The verdict was almost unanimous - those with strong discipline, those who could be funny, even sarcastic (though not hurtful or humiliating), teachers who are consistent and treat them fairly.

"After today, I think we now understand the teachers' point of view better.

I think we will change the way we behave and give them more respect," said Rohanna.

As for the probationers, they were hugely enthusiastic about the session, even suggesting that it should be incorporated into their PGCE year at university.

Dave Petrie, a probationer at Oban High, said: "You are talking to your customers. It was practical - we were up doing it and we were faced with people that we would be faced with every day when you have to stand and deal with it."

Alan Beresford, from Islay High, said: "On CPD inservice days, and at university as well, you are told what your expectations of the pupil should be, but you never have information from them regarding what their expectations of you are. That was why this was really good.

"It's a pity it was in November and not in August."

Advice from pupils:

* Scenario 1: Be less apologetic, get straight down to work. Use physical intimidation on noisy ones, eg stand over them. Take control as quickly as possible

* Scenario 2: Tell girls to sort out the problem by the next day. If not, you'll report them to guidance and the year head. Let them sit separately that day and don't let it escalate into a fight

* Scenario 3: Be more vigilant. Walk around so you can see the note before it's passed. Make the pupil sit at the side and do the test. Don't disrupt others

* Scenario 4: Tell pupils if they treat this like a music lesson, they can write a 200-word essay on Beethoven for the next day unless they settle down

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