Tackling trouble

16th December 2005 at 00:00
Paul Blum continues his advice for new managers with tips for handling classroom confrontations

It's the end of a long term. It's dark and cold in the mornings and the evenings. Christmas is coming and the teachers and pupils are tired of each other and inclined to be snappy. Calls to the emergency rota rise as confrontations increase. As a member of the leadership team, you are called to the trouble spots.

The most common call-out is a pupil refusing to leave a room. Nine times out of 10, the appearance of a third party can break the deadlock, but to be sure of success, the key is to enter into such confrontations, in a non-confrontational way. Don't stride up to the recalcitrant pupil shouting, "Your teacher has asked you to do something - now get on and do as you are told!" Instead, ask them to come and talk to you outside, preferably sitting down beside them or bending down next to their desk to give them this instruction in a low voice, so they won't lose face in front of the class.

On the very few occasions when a pupil has continually refused to leave the room, I've explained quietly that I am going straight off to contact their parents to ask them to take them home. This always has an effect, in so far as the pupil has finally accompanied me or stormed out of the room and run off. One way or the other, we have a result in that the pupil is finally out of the lesson. Psychologically, the class have seen one teacher come to the assistance of another teacher and back up their decision. The departure of the pupil can be messy or clean but it has to happen, if the teacher wants it to happen.

Once out of the room, I will spend at least five minutes listening to what the pupil has to say for themselves, one to one, in my office or at the very least in a quiet part of a school corridor. I have the luxury that the classroom teacher does not have: the time and space to listen to the problem properly, rather than in a busy lesson. In these situations , I sympathise with the pupil as far as is possible and then try and get them to show empathy for the difficulties the teacher was having.

Very often, a teacher has over-reacted to what a pupil might have said or done, but the angry pupil hasn't appreciated that their individual lateness to the lesson or non-compliance with a simple instruction was the last of many irritating interruptions and the one that broke the camel's back. In the calm of my office, away from the audience of class mates egging them on, many naughty pupils accept what you now explain to them.

As a senior manager in volatile pupilteacher scenarios, you must become sensitive and skilled atde-escalating situations that are already charged with anger and confrontation.

You must learn how to unblock gridlock and produce a result by which both sides keep their dignity. Teacher and the pupil alike need a compromise brokered which creates a "win,win" situation.

If the teacher demands that a pupil has to leave a lesson, then the pupil must go. But afterwards it is important to bring the two sides together to negotiate a situation in which they can work together again. This can be done by the senior manager or delegated to a head of year or form tutor, but one way or another mediation is often necessary.

In lesser disputes, I advise pupils to work out a solution for themselves.

The suggestion is that they should have a proper talk with the teacher at the end of the day, when he is not surrounded by a difficult, noisy class.

I believe that pupils should go alone (so there is no provocative peer group to perform before) and take the lead and apologise for the specific things that they know they did wrong.

Such an apology can be heartfelt because it avoids saying sorry for everything that went wrong - some of it the teacher's over-reaction. Taking the initiative, I suggest to the pupil, will almost certainly put the teacher in a conciliatory mood.

Paul Blum is a senior manager in a north London secondary

Key points

* Senior managers often have to resolve confrontations between teachers and pupils.

* Ideally, the two adversaries should resolve their differences before the next lesson without pupils watching.

* Late into long terms are the most difficult times.

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