Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit: Non-stop talkers

15th October 2004 at 01:00
How do you get behaviour right? It depends on your character, the character of your pupils, the nature of your school and of the incident. But there are common threads, ideas and solutions. In the Friday forum we're asking you to share your experiences. We're not telling you how to do it: you're telling us how you've managed a particular situation. This week, the pupils who you hear before you see; the ones who talk for the sake of it.

Manchester mentor Vanessa Thompson describes how she tries to channel these chatterboxes' energy into work. Head Mike Kent, LEA adviser Liz Henning, sixth-former Meg Shakesheff and psychiatrist Raj Persaud also comment.

Contribute by visiting the behaviour chatroom at www.tes.co.ukbehaviour

Pupils who talk the talk; the wall-to-wall chatterers; the non-stop natterers; the ones who simply won't and don't know when to shut up. They are the burgeoning band whose so-called low-level disruption is sending teachers' stress levels soaring and driving them out of the profession.

At Cedar Mount high school in Gorton, Manchester, pupils, teachers and inspectors say the "chatter syndrome" is the single biggest barrier to effective learning. Vanessa Thompson (pictured), who has been a mentor at the school for two years and who is now embarking on teacher training, knows the talkers well. Her job has been to support children on the verge of exclusion and try to guide them back on to the rails. They are the ones she hears before she sees. "You can hear them down the corridor before you even get to the classroom; the ones who like to be loud; their voice above everybody else's; the ones who talk for the sake of talking."

Vanessa Thompson sees her job as turning that talk, which can be perniciously undermining of classroom order, into something that makes a positive contribution to the lesson. She makes it her business, she says, to try to see the learner behind the talker. "They've got a lot to say and some of them are bright and talented. But it's easier to talk than to work, it's more fun to play the Pied Piper, to be the one that everyone listens to rather than listening to the teacher.

"One Year 8 boy was making things hard for a new teacher. If he put the energy into his work that he was putting into talking all the time, we would be getting somewhere. When you listened to what he was saying, there was real intelligence there. And that's what I told him. I said, 'You've obviously got a good brain by the way you talk. I'd love to see some evidence of that on paper.' Every time he stopped talking and made an effort to work, I'd praise him. I'd go up to him and say: 'Look at that, that's great. We want more of that.' Little by little he began to produce something worthwhile."

Gorton is a deprived multi-ethnic area of Manchester with a lot of drug-related crime. Children come to Cedar Mount with levels of attainment well below the national average. Ms Thompson, a 37-year-old black woman, was brought up in Gorton and still lives there - and knows the culture inside out. She says the consuming nature of the life many pupils live out on the street means that education is a low priority. It's a culture she wants to help to change.

She went to art college and ran a fashion business for many years, but recently completed a degree in criminology and contemporary culture at Manchester Metropolitan University, part of which looked at education policy and involved mentoring. She is now training to teach citizenship at Cedar Mount.

"I grew up where these kids are growing up; I know where they are coming from," she says. "They just don't understand that school is there for them.

"I once heard a talk about pupils who live such confrontational lives at home, bringing themselves up on the streets, that they can't countenance being told what to do when they come to school, that they don't know what they are there for. In my home, education was everything. My dad, a joiner, used to say to me, 'You've got a brain, use it. Forget about your colour, and get on with it.' A lot of these pupils don't have that. I want to give them that drive."

Ms Thompson says that often the chatterers have no idea how disruptive they are being; neither have their parents, who sometimes cannot comprehend why their child is in trouble. "I'll hear them say, 'Me kid's talking, so why's that a problem?' Some of the pupils I first mentored challenged me to sit with them through lessons for a day to see what a hard time teachers were giving them. 'You don't know what it's like for us,' they would say. All I could see was what a hard time they were giving their teachers. But I did get a glimpse of how intelligent some of them were. When they had a mind to, they could give good answers to questions. That's what you have to harness.

"I take the line that they are talking over and above the teachers because they want attention; they are saying, 'I am here, listen to me'. I don't say, 'Shut up', I say to them, 'Yes, you have a voice, and you should be listened to, but you have to say the right things in the right places.' I try to turn round what they have said towards their work.

"I might say, 'You like the sound of your own voice. What have you got to say about this particular topic?' In one class recently I was sitting near a table of kids who were talking through a reading lesson and I said to the teacher, 'Over here, this one wants to read out loud.' The pupil said, 'I didn't say I wanted to read,' and I replied, 'Oh, but you talk so well, you'll be good at it.' He had a go and he was good."

Ms Thompson laughs with her pupils and thinks it's important to be approachable, but she's not there to be friendly. She is there, she says, to provoke them into learning. One girl confessed to her that she preferred to have a chat and a laugh if she couldn't do the work. "I asked her why she had not asked the teacher for help. I asked her whether she thought her teacher had wanted a job where there was always confrontation? I said, 'Your teacher is here to give you knowledge, not a fight. You need the knowledge that's in her head. Go and see her after the lesson.' She did go, and apologised, and her attitude improved."

Ms Thompson believes that her pupils have to be challenged constantly to look at the big picture so they understand the everyday reason for being in school. She regularly asks them what they want to do with their lives, why they think they are in school, and tells them that the street is easy, but that school is the real and rewarding challenge.

She explains to them that she lives in Gorton, that you can live there and still have ambitions away from the street. She has proved this by taking pupils she mentors to her lectures at university. And it works. She says a significant number of them pull back from exclusion, improve their attendance, go on to study in further education. She attributes this success largely to the support she gets from the school's leadership.

Guy Hutchence, the headteacher, took over this 950-strong school four years ago, after two schools merged. There was a high turnover of staff - 37 per cent were on supply - and GCSE results were rock bottom. Although Cedar Mount is in special measures, inspectors have praised Mr Hutchence's tenacity and vision in moving the school towards a learning culture.

Attendance and punctuality are improving and, by recruiting staff who are committed to working with challenging pupils, "people who want to be here for these kids", like Vanessa Thompson, he is hoping for change.

"Ninety-nine per cent of the kids here are delightful," he says. "They just need a chance."

Among other initiatives which are proving effective, pupils have to line up outside classrooms with coats and bags off and, once inside, stand behind their chairs until the teacher signals they can sit down. The idea is to promote order and to cut out the chatter. Last year, Cedar Mount was the most improved school in Manchester in the value-added tables.

Vanessa Thompson says Mr Hutchence has been her role model. "I watch him, I listen to him. He talks with the children as fellow humans, he doesn't talk at them or down to them. When I first arrived, he was outside in the drizzle with pupils on the playground and I thought, 'This is different, this is special'. They think he's fantastic. I can explain by his lead example that the school is there for them, not against them."

She says it is a drip-drip approach, constantly encouraging, constantly explaining what school is about. One of the boys she mentored, who was "very, very bright", liked the fact that she thought he was intelligent.

"He could talk over and above everybody else, but underneath he wasn't confident, so I kept up the support. One day he came up to me and said, 'I can do the quiet, Vanessa, I can do the quiet when I want to.' He ended up getting merit stickers for his work, merits for his class. He's now at college. He's in with a chance."

Friday magazine is offering every reader a free copy of Elaine Williams's TESsurvival guide, Managing Behaviour (worth pound;2.99). Simply collect eight of the 10 tokens that will be printed in Friday throughout our series. Details of how to obtain your copy will appear in a few weeks'

time. You can find token 4 on page 3

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