Stay in control

27th April 2001 at 01:00
What techniques can teachers call on to keep order in the classroom and reward pupils at the same time? Gerald Haigh reports.

Jim Ravenhill, a senior teacher at Coundon Court school in Coventry, sometimes punishes members of his Year 11 English group by setting them forfeits. "Forgotten your English anthology, Robert? Come to the front and sing any Spice Girls song."

There's a built-in problem here, though. "If you don't watch out," he says, "they hide each other's books so as to enjoy the results."

Not everyone could get away with this. But then Jim Ravenhill has 30 years of classroom experience. His relationship with students is built on a mountain of mutual respect, and his classroom control only remotely depends on anything other teachers would recognise as punishment.

That's clearly the ideal. When consultant John Robertson researched his book, Effective Classroom Control (Hodder Headline, pound;16.99), he found that teachers with co-operative classes rarely had to use any types of punishment - "and the majority of teachers rated themselves as using them occasionally, which was also viewed as the ideal by most".

If that is so, it may represent a major cultural change from the days when beatings were routine, and every school had a punishment book. Only 20 years ago, a Liverpool teacher told newspapers that his school recorded, in one year, 1,800 beatings with an old tennis shoe.

Where does the less punitive atmosphere of today's schools leave the less experienced, or perhaps just less skilful, teacher when a pupil misbehaves?

Part of the answer lies in the change towards making discipline a whole-school issue. Where once the trend might have been to criticise the teacher who couldn't "keep control", schools have become increasingly collaborative and supportive. As Mr Ravenhill says: "Our head insists that teachers are supported by senior managers. The social structure of the school depends on it."

Within that framework, one of Mr Ravenhill's colleagues, geography teacher Elaine Garratt, who is four years into teaching, has learned to draw some boundaries around acceptable behaviour. The school provides her with sanctions - detentions, a system of upward referral - and she's prepared to use them.

After-school detention is the standard classroom-level punishment in many secondary schools. But because parents have to be given a day's notice in writing, it can fail with those pupils - impulsive, not interested in what happens tomorrow - who give the most trouble. As a result, some children are in detention all the time. "They'll say, 'Sorry, I already have one on Thursday, can I do it Tuesday?'," says Mr Ravenhill.

But there are other reasons why formal detention isn't always the most appropriate punishment. "If you apply the classroom teacher's ultimate deterrent straight away, it leaves you no space excet to refer the student upwards," he adds.

Inevitably, then, every teacher has to learn a repertoire of sanctions that can be applied quickly, and which fall short of invoking the school's official system. It's a bag of tricks that might start with hard stares and move into tellings-off and private chats after class. Always, it's balanced by rewards, usually in the form of merit marks or notes of praise to the year head. In many schools, this structure of admonishment and praise is closely codified - "if the pupil does this, you do that".

Pupils, though, are not all the same. "A sanctions system is inorganic, but it has to deal with human nature," says Mr Ravenhill. "For some, failure to achieve an award is sanction enough."

Elaine Garratt has learned that, for some pupils, being kept in at breaktime is more effective than being given an after-school detention - and because breaktime detention doesn't call for a letter home, it can be applied at short notice. But if a pupil doesn't turn up - always likely - the incident automatically escalates.

To avoid this, Ms Garratt has become adept at being in the right place when the bell goes. "There's one Year 9 pupil, for example, who I want to keep in," she says. "I know where he will be just before break tomorrow - I can go and get him if I need to."

It's a process that calls for determination and hard work, building up in the pupils an expectation that you aren't going to go away. Education consultant Ann Farr, a secondary special needs teacher in Coventry for 30 years, says: "Every year, I had a Year 8 bottom group; each time I said I'd never had a more difficult group. It took until Christmas to get them organised - explaining the classroom rules and saying that, however much they pushed, the answer was still 'no'."

It is, she explains, a draining business. "You are always putting yourself out. If I wanted children to come to see me at break or after school, I was determined that they would do it, even on days when I was tired and had had enough. You spend time on it, you don't have coffee, you don't have a break, you don't have lunchtime. At cost to yourself, you build up the structure you want."

That, she says, is where some teachers come adrift - failing relentlessly to follow up incidents, not finding the child who avoided you after class the next day.

Even after all that, though, every teacher has to accept that some children are difficult to reach - which is where the whole-school approach, up to and including the head, comes in.

"There is no perfect teacher who can satisfy the needs of all children," says Jim Ravenhill. "You learn enough tricks to satisfy most of them, but there'll be the ones who don't like my jokes, or my mannerisms, or my body language. I'm still likely to go home with the feeling that I'm failing with a particular child."

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