A simple card system can help to resolve conflicts, writes Peter Greaves
Your headteacher calls you to one side and says, "I've just had a call from a parent who says a child in your class is being bullied."
Your heart sinks - because nothing comes higher in a teacher's priorities than ensuring the physical, mental and emotional well-being of pupils.
In most cases of this kind, the problem could be sorted out in seconds - and certainly without the involvement of headteacher and parent - if only the pupil had told the teacher.
Cases of bullying often happen at lunchtime. It is the hour which teachers know least about and in which most problems occur. Inevitably, there is a reduction in the level of supervision at lunchtime, but not in the level of teachers' concern. And when pupils say the teacher "did nothing about it", the chances are that the teacher knew nothing about it, either. Certainly, the situation calls for improved teacher-pupil communication.
An effective way to keep the lines open between pupils and teachers during the longest breaktime of the day is the "lunchtime card".
In my classroom, it works as follows. At the beginning of the week, each pupil is given a small piece of paper with a space for the child's name, Monday's date and a box for each day of the week. As soon as pupils come back from lunch, they take the cards to their seats. Then, for five minutes we listen to some soothing music while a smiley-face stamp is handed around the class. If a pupil had a problem-free lunchtime the card gets a stamp.
If there was a problem, no stamp.
At the end of the five minutes, those who are happy put away their cards; the other pupils give their cards to me. My promise to the trouble-laden pupils is that I will find time in the afternoon to help resolve their problems. If that cannot be done quickly, I write a note home to explain the situation to parents.
You don't have to solve the problems then and there - pupils just want to know that something will be done. Handing the card to you allows children to hand over the problem, too, so they can cool off and classwork can continue unimpeded.
If problems involve a pupil from another class, a note can be sent to ask the teacher to send the child when it is convenient. If the problem involves a classmate, the two are probably friends and can sort it out themselves if they are given a short time, a quiet space, the smiley stamp and the instruction to tell you when the problem has been resolved.
Pupils can also fill in a "lunchtime log" in the five-minute quiet time.
They can record happy times using words or pictures and create a journal of goals scored, friends caught and games made up. When things go wrong, they can write about what happened, This makes it easier to cut through the nonsense. If the situation is serious, a child's own words are a powerful tool when taking a no-blame approach to bullying or when collecting evidence for further action should it be necessary.
Parents are enthusiastic. Knowing that there is a system in place that allows their children to tell the teacher helps to restore their faith. And when news of incidents does reach home, parents know that it is not because I "did nothing".
"Adam didn't give you his card yesterday but there was a problem at lunchtime," they will write, and the issue can be addressed without the teacher's competence being questioned.
Of course, incidents can be serious and only an efficient and well-enforced anti-bullying policy will earn parents' confidence. But when "bullying" is used to describe everyday problems, that confidence can be undermined and the reputation of the teachers and the school can be dented.
The lunchtime card makes it clear that for most pupils happy lunchtimes are the norm. But on days when there are problems, the card provides a simple way to let the teacher know.
This helps to ensure that the smile can be put back on the card - and back on pupils' faces - as soon as possible.
Peter Greaves teaches at Coleman primary in Leicester