Swot!

1st October 2004 at 01:00
One of the most common causes of low-level disruption is pupils egging each other on to misbehave. Peer pressure can become a particular problem during the teenage years when being accepted by the group and "saving face" assume importance for young people - especially boys - who are developing emotionally.

This week Susan Coles, an advanced skills teacher in the north-east, explains how she confronted the problem in a GCSE class, and, overleaf, headteacher Mike Kent, local authority adviser Liz Henning, sixth-former Meg Shakesheff and psychiatrist Raj Persaud join the debate. You can share your experiences with the Friday forum by going to www.tes.co.ukbehaviour.

We're not telling you how to do it: we just want you to tell us how you've managed a particular kind of behaviour on a particular day.

There's nothing quite like inane laughter in the classroom to get right under your skin. It's the laughter born of the acts of giddy adolescence - farting, making faces, whispering indecencies - that can ignite a bout of hysterics like a trip-switch.

Billy was good at hysterics. His two friends, the lads he stuck to like a shadow, would entertain themselves during lessons with some act of mild profanity and he would be off on a tide of giggles with maddening disregard to the lesson in process. Susan Coles, his teacher, would wait for Billy's mirth to subside and then carry on with her tasks, finding some other opportune moment to take the boy to one side and quietly explore the whys and wherefores of his behaviour without further disrupting the learning of other pupils. But it bothered her, and Ms Coles, an advanced skills teacher, wasn't used to being bothered. She would wake up on a Monday morning with her mind full of how she was going to teach that Year 10 class. "I'd think 'Oh God, it's that group today'." She would go into school early just to make sure her lesson was thoroughly prepared and that everything was in place.

Billy and his friends were part of a GCSE graphics set at Biddick sports college in Washington, Tyne and Wear, an 11 to 16 school of around 1,200.

The group were nearly all low achievers, bar one or two, so Ms Coles felt her approach had to be much more structured than usual; she had to plan more carefully for "enormous differentiation". And she had to cope with Billy's indifference. His homework, when he did it, was little more than a few scribbles on scrap paper retrieved from his pockets.

Ms Coles let him know in forthright terms that this was an "insult to intelligence". She was troubled that a child who had opted to do art should lack motivation to such an extent. It was a challenge she rarely has to face as she has a track record for enthusing pupils with her own passion for the subject.

"Billy's two friends were dominating but more intelligent. They too found the work difficult, but they could meet the challenge whereas Billy found the going tough and welcomed distraction," she says. "He was part of a group of boys who didn't think it was cool to be a 'swot' and in the end was put on early study leave because of other problems around the school."

Billy's disruption in art went on for about four months of a two-year course. At the beginning Susan Coles set the boys apart, but they tried even harder to attract each other's attention. So then she sat them together again, but began a concerted campaign to break up the group dynamics by giving Billy lots of individual help.

She found out what his interests were, talking to him whenever she met him in and out of class. "He was very interested in cars. I don't know anything about them so I would get him to talk about why this particular design of car was good or bad. He had a brother in the army and he wanted to join up himself, so when I saw him about the school with his two mates I wouldn't just say 'hello', I would stop and engage him in conversation, ask him about his brother or whether he'd seen Top Gear on TV. That was deliberate so that he had to let the other two walk on without him."

When Ms Coles took the GCSE students on a trip to the Baltic arts centre and Millennium Bridge in Newcastle upon Tyne, and to see Antony Gormley's Angel of the North sculpture in Gateshead, she made sure Billy was in her group, away from his friends and, again, kept him talking. That was a turning point.

"Billy had never been to Newcastle before," she says, "though he would never have admitted to that. He was just so excited and was asking questions all the time. When we returned, we worked on designing a set of postcards based on the Angel, and this time he really worked at it."

Ms Coles pressed her advantage at this point. Taking Billy to one side she asked him: "Am I always here ready for the lesson? Am I always well prepared?" Billy's answer was yes to both. Well, she argued, surely he could spare her one hour of one evening a week to make an effort with his homework. Billy agreed and stuck to the commitment.

Slowly his work improved. In fact, he started to take pride in it as he could see that his file, which records the processes of work, was better than his friends. "He even started to show them what to do." Billy ended up with a D in GCSE graphics when most of his other grades were Fs. Susan Coles was satisfied that in the end he had gained from the course and developed self-respect. She made sure that Billy's mother was consulted throughout. "She was fantastic, because she was also worried about his laddish behaviour. She would buy him all the equipment he needed and he would leave it all around the school. But eventually he became really proud of his art file."

She does not believe that you can let go of behaviour such as Billy's. It must be resolved. "If you give up trying to resolve it, you're going to hate those two hours every week, and if you're watching the clock you're not going to get the best out of the other kids. I didn't dread having to come to school to face this group but I was uneasy that I could never predict the outcome of a lesson, so I made sure my planning was spot on."

Susan Coles has been teaching at Biddick since it opened in 1980, joining the staff as head of art in her mid-20s after a stint in Sunderland.

Biddick, she says, is "truly comprehensive, a real social mix" drawing from Washington's professional and working classes, from private and local authority housing. Many staff stay a long time, some have returned after working in other schools. There is high motivation, a lot of "forward thinking".

She says she's passionate about her subject. "I derive such pleasure from art that I cannot believe other people do not. That is where I start from as a teacher. I love coming to work." Her teaching style, she says, draws on this enthusiasm and has always been non-confrontational. "I have not raised my voice in living memory. I am very careful about body language. I do not wag fingers or stand over people; I do not invade pupils' space. If anybody is causing disruption I will go over to them and sit or stand alongside them until they calm down and talk to them about the problem as I see it and then ask them what they are going to do about it. It takes longer, but it pays off.

"In this department all the teachers stand at the door and greet the children as they come into the room. At the end of the lesson we stand in the corridor and see them out, saying goodbye and asking pupils if they've enjoyed the lesson.

"I never start talking to a class until I have total quiet and will stand and wait until it is quiet. It always happens. It's like a domino effect. I do really believe that if you give respect you will get respect back."

Teachers at Biddick are encouraged to contact parents when things are going well for a child. Susan Coles sends little postcards on an ad hoc basis when a student has done something good. "It only takes a couple of minutes and parents really appreciate it. They're so used to being contacted only when things are going badly."

Friday magazine is offering every reader a free copy of Elaine Williams's TESsurvival guide, Managing Behaviour (worth pound;2.99). Simply collect eight of the 10 tokens that will be printed in Friday throughout our series. Details of how to obtain your copy will appear in a few weeks'

time. You can find token 2 on page 3

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