Spoilt by petty rules

25th October 1996 at 01:00
Today I gave the naughtiest girl in the school a Pounds 5 note to buy a Kit Kat. She came back immediately with my change - Pounds 4.72. In a drama club of 40 children I let them use my purse as a prop. After an hour it was returned to me with all the money still there.

After school we had a staff meeting. It was reported that children were forgetting books and returning to class to knock on the classroom door to ask to fetch them. The issue was fiercely debated with many staff finding it unacceptable that children should "get away with" forgetting a book.

I find it hard to equate these two views of the children. On the one hand, given a little trust, they have proved themselves worthy of it. On the other hand, by committing the sin of forgetting a book, they have brought the anger of adults down on their heads.

Have we got the whole idea of "discipline" upside down? In our school, we spend hours working out strategies for moving children around the building. Which way they line up, which doors they use, whether they are allowed to put trainers on at break, where they eat their breaktime toast, are all arduously mapped out and contravention of these rules is punishable by breaktime detention.

Having created an environment where children jump through hoops more or less to order, we find ourselves dealing with a growing amount of unpleasantness, bullying and rudeness. There is little sense of trust and friendship between the children themselves and staff and pupils. This breeds a feeling that our children are "difficult" by nature.

But does this unpleasantness arise from repression of natural exuberance? Surely, they feel they are constantly being monitored? Their every move is watched. Walk the wrong way or forget your book and you will be pounced on. Teachers become enforcers of petty rules and relationships break down.

Is there not a case for starting from the opposite end of the discipline spectrum? Allow the children access to classrooms, trust them to walk sensibly around the school. Expect that they will be dressed properly and in the right place at the right time. I believe most children will happily conform.

Then out of the relaxed and friendly atmosphere, without constant conflict over equipment, trainers or running in corridors, important issues can be tackled. Bullying and rudeness will not be treated on the same level as forgetting a pen.

Most children arrive at school well-dressed, well-equipped and willing to conform. Not because we have a mass of petty rules to make these things happen, but because they and their parents wish it. Those that do not comply may not comply under any regime. At least we will have given them every opportunity to learn and practise trust and personal responsibility.

The writer is a woman teacher in the South East

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