Take courage, and then take charge

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Maintaining discipline is tough, but a firm, stern start will set youon your way. Reva Klein finds out how new teachers cope.

The revelations of the day-to-day horrors of the Ridings School must have sent a shudder down the spine of every teacher in the land. Even given the particularly difficult pupil population of that school, the reporting of widespread breakdown of order, of routine violence against teachers and each other, of demoralised staff who were resigned to a workplace out of control, has come to represent the worst case scenario of all schools. And for newly qualified teachers, it is the stuff of nightmares.

There is no question that the issue of discipline is the biggest concern of new teachers. While most feel confident about their skills in teaching their subject in well-organised and creative ways, many will lose sleep over how to handle a lippy child, or what to do about a physical challenge while retaining their dignity and professionalism in front of the class.

As Pat McDonnell, acting headteacher at a Cheshire primary puts it: "Often newly qualified teachers have high expectations and lots of enthusiasm. Then little Johnny decides to throw a paper plane in class and they're dead. "

While mercifully few teachers will be faced with a full-blown Ridings, where both policy and practice were dysfunctional, most trainees and newly qualified teachers will have to be prepared for the little Johnnys of this world, along with a certain amount of bolshiness and rudeness, before they succeed in establishing their authority.

Take Sophie Hewett, in her first year of teaching in what she describes as a positive, supportive school. "When I first started, it felt like a lot of my work was concentrated on sorting out discipline rather than teaching my subject." Sophie, a textiles teacher, is no heavy. But neither is she a wimp. The school where she teaches, a large comprehensive in west London where she did her teaching practice, has a good mentoring programme for new teachers and a clear-cut behaviour policy. Even so, cracking the discipline issue was a priority that she set herself from the beginning. She is glad she did. "I set out feeling that if I had control and a good environment in the classroom, I could get on with the task," she says. "So I was determined, even from the beginning of teaching practice, to go in being strict."

Her bottom line was the need for order and calm. But like most new teachers anywhere, those two aims appeared elusive at first. "As a student and as a newly qualified teacher, I felt at the beginning that the pupils were testing me. They thought that new teachers wouldn't know the discipline code and would try and get around me."

Sophie's pupils delighted in old favourites like ignoring her, in a bid to either intimidate or anger. Either way, they hoped, she would lose face in front of the whole class. Luckily for her, Sophie knew the score. The school has a warning, report and send out system: if a child creates a problem in class, rather than struggling to deal with the disruptive individual and sending the rest of the class into either limbo or a spin, the child is sent out after a verbal warning and a report, so that teaching is allowed to resume quickly.

Because she was confident in the support structures that existed for teachers dealing with discipline problems, she was not afraid of being strict with them because, in her words, "I knew I could follow it through".

By the end of her first term, Sophie was feeling more relaxed and able to soften the strict disciplinarian persona. "Sometimes, in the beginning I would hear myself speak and I'd think 'who is this witch?' Now I can relax a bit, but it has been hard work finding a balance and to reach the stage now where the kids like and respect me and do what I want."

While her PGCE course at the London Institute of Education was good, there was only one lecture relevant to discipline. For a theoretical as well as practical base her "Bible" was Michael Marland's book, Craft of the Classroom.

Being in a school where there is a well-oiled behaviour policy and disciplinary system will have made all the difference to Sophie's experience. New teachers need to know what the rules are and how to enforce them. And they also need a named person, preferably with a lot of experience under their belt and from a different department, who they can turn to for help and advice.

Caroline Lodge, former headteacher at a large comprehensive in Islington and now working with the Institute of Education's school improvement team says: "For new teachers, it's often frightening to be seen to be not managing. It's important that they can feel they can talk to their line manager and, if possible, a mentor. They need professional discussions to learn alternative ways of working."

She is concerned about the impact of the recent spate of big discipline cases in the media. "I'm worried about inexperienced teachers being influenced by some of the very negative, 'kids are the enemy' propaganda. It's important for them to remember that most children really do want to learn and that the majority of classes in this country are run well."

How to stay on top

* Remember that you are the teacher, you are bigger than your pupils (in age, at any rate) and that they are there to learn from you.

* Children expect you to be well-planned and to be firm. They want boundaries.

* From the outset, make sure that children know the behaviour policy and understand it and are aware of sanctions procedures.

* Avoid reinforcing negative behaviour with negative attention. While a child should be reprimanded when it breaches the rules of classroom etiquette, it should also be praised appropriately when it follows the rules. Part of classroom management is rewarding good behaviour, which includes behaviour that is relatively good.

* Be consistent in your approach to all the children in your class.

* Avoid becoming fixated on little niggling things a child may do for attention. By responding, you are confirming that this is how you get attention, no matter how negative it might be.

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