Smacks of desperation

19th July 2013 at 01:00

I've just read about a policeman who was trying to stop teenagers wrecking public property. When he received a torrent of verbal abuse from one of them, he lost his temper and forcibly manhandled him. It was a moment of rashness that cost him his job.

Teachers will sympathise. Many have to deal with children who are determined to be difficult but just occasionally a teacher will step over the line. And then the principal has to decide what to do about it.

I remember a particularly difficult eight-year-old who had spent the afternoon with me. Instead of going back to his classroom at home time, he wandered into the hall, where a play was being rehearsed. The child began to fool about, interrupting the performance. The teacher put up with this for a while, and then in frustration pushed him firmly into the corridor. The boy deliberately fell over, banged his shoulder against the wall and feigned tears, pretending the teacher had punched him in the back. Frightened because there had been no witnesses, the teacher assumed his career would shortly be in tatters. He informed me about the incident immediately after school.

Within minutes, the mother appeared at my door, accompanied by granny. The mother was livid. A teacher had assaulted her son and she was going to the police as soon as she had finished with me. What's more, the law demanded that I suspend the teacher immediately, and she would accompany me to his classroom to witness me doing just that. It occurred to me that she was probably right but I told her firmly that I had no intention of suspending the teacher, and that if her child wasn't such a thorough nuisance we wouldn't be in this predicament. For a moment, I thought both mother and granny intended to attack me.

I have no idea whether they talked to the police, but since the pair of them were well known to the local force I suspect they hadn't dared. Nevertheless, the teacher spent the next fortnight in a state of nervous tension, expecting the law to turn up.

When I began teaching 50 years ago, an abusive boy in my new class of 10- to 11-year-olds was determined to give me as much grief as possible. After three days, I'd had enough and I smacked his bottom hard, three times. It hurt, he was shocked, and the rest of the class was grateful because they were fed up with him. He had wanted to see how far he could push me, and he found out. Far better, the boy eventually found that he enjoyed my lessons and I grew to like him.

Now, I'm not advocating a return to whacking children with sticks or indiscriminate slapping, but there are many children these days who are seemingly impossible to control and, sadly, young teachers coming in to the profession expect to be frequently challenged. There will be constant dialogue with parents of difficult children, letters on file, telephone calls, sleepless nights for the teachers and "experts" called in to suggest remedies for the various syndromes students may have. In the end, exclusion may be the only remedy. But exclusion is no solution.

In dealing with poor behaviour, we have lurched from one extreme to the other over the years. And, I fear, actually solved very little.

Mike Kent is a retired headteacher of a school for children aged 4-11 in England. Email:


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