Talking out of turn drives us up the wall

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
By now, you will have heard of the recent litany of antisocial behaviour perpetrated by teenagers. Becky Smith from Manchester was beaten unconscious and the assault filmed and circulated on mobile phones. Near Liverpool, a funeral cortege was attacked and the windscreen of the mourners' limousine smashed in. There is little reason to think that things are any better in Scotland.

Vigorous debate takes place as to whether there is any hard empirical evidence that antisocial behaviour has proliferated in the UK. But we need look no farther than our classrooms.

Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary for England, is clearly worried. Her task force, due to report in September, will encapsulate a zero tolerance approach to low-level disruption in classrooms, with the aim being to build a culture of respect.

Scotland, too, remains gripped in the discipline debate (TESS, May 20) with individuals reacting variously to the labels of "morons" and "nutters" which Alan McKenzie, past president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers'

Association, has applied to the disruptive minority. Generally, while there may have been some disquiet about the tone of Mr McKenzie's comments, support for the essence of his remarks has been high.

While driving to work and listening to the radio, I was alarmed by the comments of Professor Pamela Munn. She stated that she hoped that what Mr McKenzie had said would not undermine teachers in the classroom. All the teachers I have spoken to feel that it was Professor Munn's comments that were misplaced. What could she have meant?

Mr McKenzie was making the very valid point that, when it comes to discipline, "in the front line there are no real tools which work".

Teachers know this only too well and it's our helplessness to change this that is undermining, not the fact that Mr McKenzie pointed it out.

What perturbed me was Professor Munn's own comment about discipline. I believe I did hear her say that her most recently completed survey "saw teachers talking about increases in all kinds of behaviour, ranging from the relatively trivial of talking out of turn to the more serious such as violent incidents".

This demonstrates the problem. So-called experts categorise "talking out of turn" as relatively minor. Yet the cumulative effect of speaking out of turn is enormous. Like any classroom teacher, I have had my moments when I feel I am trapped in a dark world of endless noise. I'm not going to get into the minutiae of why this is so because, if you are a classroom practitioner, it is self-evident and, if you are not, you will think I am just engaging in yet another teacher rant.

Let's be clear. Physical attacks on teachers and mental intimidation perpetrated by pupils are the obvious wounds suppurating in Scottish classrooms. Often the measures to deal with these serious incidents are as well executed as the law will permit, although most people would like to see more recognition of the victim's distress and more responsibility demanded from the aggressor.

The pupil who can't or won't shut up represents a serious issue. He or she can easily disrupt a whole class on a daily basis. This is pernicious behaviour not to be minimised by a crazy sliding scale of disruption. I wonder what the educational psychologists think of all this? They are curiously silent.

It's quite easy to see a pupil on a one-to-one basis, knock up a report on the individual's problems and then tell the school that so-and-so needs careful handling because he has low self-esteem, issues with female teachers and, oh, please don't raise your voice in his direction, because that's the very thing to trigger his shouting out in class. Meanwhile, he can merrily disrupt the education of everyone else and that's apparently relatively trivial.

Professor Munn, ask the teachers.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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