Sweet charity

10th January 2014 at 00:00

Everyone loves a bad guy. I learned that as a newly qualified teacher watching my first cross-country run. It had been raining, the sky was phlegmy with clouds and the course had been churned into liquid mud by hundreds of stampeding feet. But the students made good time. Once past the finish line, they were given their reward: a mug of hot chocolate.

But not everyone competed so earnestly. Just as we were packing up, a few zombie stragglers appeared on the horizon. Dressed in baggy hoodies and woolly hats spattered with logos, they shuffled their way over the line. But rather than admonishing them for their tardiness, their teacher rewarded them with double hot chocolate tokens. It was my first experience of what's known in the trade as "keeping kids onside".

The theory is that by offering dispensations to the rowdier students, they'll become easier to handle. This just panders to poor behaviour - like giving the bully your sherbet Dip Dab so he leaves your packed lunch alone. But since it can improve the learning experience for other students, it's a tactic I've used.

Some time ago, I taught a GCSE revision session to a bunch of weaker students: 22 arrived in uniform while the 23rd turned up in a motorbike helmet with the visor down. It was their last official day at school. Should I squander their final chance to revise on a stand-off with a helmet-wearing twerp or ignore him? Doing the latter seemed a small price to pay for an uninterrupted lesson. Nowadays, I'd be more assertive. I'd drip-feed him Cadbury Heroes as long as he lifted the visor.

Teaching is full of instances where we tolerate the intolerable in order to broker peace for kids who want to learn. As the documentary series Educating Yorkshire revealed, teachers routinely placate students who explode into their classrooms squealing over slights to their tango tans, their choice of phones or the risible length of their skirts. Rather than throw oil on burning indignation, we simply sue for calm.

"Keeping kids onside" can turn into a competitive sport. The league leaders chirp "He's always been good for me" with faux-innocence. It's a perfect example of what Castiglione, the medieval arbiter of good taste, calls "sprezzatura" - also known as "studied carelessness". They'd have you believe that without any effort on their part, Jack the Year 10 Psycho sits humbly at the back of their class, cross-stitching his mother's initials. And maybe he does. If Hitler had been given enough unwarranted treats, he might have been a pussycat, too.

It's bizarre that handling hard-core kids is seen as a badge of honour. If you were doing your job right, they'd be camped outside your home with a laser sight trained on your head, not nibbling Polos off your palms. Still, it pays to be wary of the wildest ones. Polar bears look cute from a distance, but get too familiar and they'll tuck into your leg.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham, England.

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