Resisting the urge to bite back

24th July 2009 at 01:00

No doubt we were all shocked by the recent news that a science teacher has been charged with attempted murder of one of his students. Whatever the outcome of the court case, it seems the teacher, much liked by many of his pupils, had been subjected to extreme provocation and may have snapped. A number of teachers have said: "There but for the grace of God ... ".

Nothing, of course, can ever excuse an attack on a child, but few people understand the stresses that teachers endure. These days, you have to be a charismatic entertainer if you're going to survive in a classroom. And too frequently teachers suffer abuse from parents as well as from their offspring. Teachers are an easy target and they can't bite back.

Nobody wants to return to the days when teachers could whack children with bits of wood - I remember being caned at secondary school just for asking if I could borrow a rubber - but we have swung too far in the other direction. Children quickly assess what level of behaviour they can get away with, and if the leadership of a school isn't strong and the behaviour lines clearly drawn, trouble can erupt amazingly quickly.

I began my teaching career in the 1960s, in a difficult area of London. The parents had mainly manual jobs and weren't slow to give you their views on life. But provided you worked hard for their children, you had their respect and they would do as much as they could to support you.

In my first week of teaching, I was given some grief from a diminutive boy who could disrupt a lesson with effortless ease. When I mentioned it to his dad, he was summoned to his father's side and a finger was wagged at him. "If he gives you any more trouble, smack his bottom," he said.

And, when I became a deputy head, that's what I did with an exceptionally difficult boy in my first Year 6 class. He wanted to see how far I could be pushed, and I showed him. In fact, as the year went on, he realised I wasn't too bad a teacher and I became very fond of him. He never stepped over the line again.

Cut to 2009, and that same boy's behaviour would be explained away with all sorts of excuses. He needs anger management. He comes from a deprived background, so what can you expect? He has attention deficit disorder. He needs one-to-one attention. He needs to explore his feelings, so ignore him until he comes to terms with them.

Or - and here's a diagnosis to savour - he has ODD. What's that? Well, I recently read about a 13-year-old who terrorised people on his estate, set fire to everything he could lay matches to, was abusive to every adult he came into contact with and was ultimately referred to a psychologist, who said he had "oppositional defiance disorder". The cure ought to be dead easy, then, didn't it? Just ask him to set fire to things, in which case he wouldn't do it.

The children's behaviour in my own school - in a challenging environment - is extremely good. There are three basic reasons. It's an interesting place, the teaching is of high quality, and there's an insistence on good behaviour right through from the age of four. And sometimes, highly unorthodox ways are used to get it. When a new nursery child spent his time running around kicking others, I popped him on top of a filing cabinet in the corridor and said if he was going to carry on doing that, I would leave him there all day. I can't imagine what the educational psychologists would say.

But I do know that since then he's been fine.

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email:

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