Teachers and pupils cannot be friends

26th November 2004 at 00:00
There is a great deal spoken about discipline just now and about how everything is going to the dogs. How often have we heard this down the centuries?

As a teacher of 25 years' experience, although frustrated by bad behaviour in some students, I listened to the harbingers of doom with scepticism. It has all been said before: the younger generation has never come up to the standards of the older. The older generation has always had a virtuous and self-disciplined youth to boast about - little money, brutal teachers, no central heating, coffee bars the height of depravity and so on.

So I listened with no real concern. Things would come right. They are adolescents and they should be pushing the boundaries and seeking independence. That is in the order of things and, in the fullness of time, they will, like Mark Twain, realise that their parents learn a lot in the four years between their offspring being 17 and 21 years old.

But I am out of teaching now. I have time to reflect, and I see a generation that has become worse, that does need guidance, that is going to cause great problems in the future. And, no, it is not the younger generation; it is the older one. We are not taking responsibility for our youth. We give them little guidance or parameters by which to work. We are leaving them completely confused. We are scared to say "no".

As head of faculty I was carpeted by my deputy head because one of my students was frightened to come to school because she had missed her fifth coursework deadline and did not want to face me. I argued that she should be frightened. My deputy head did not agree: no child should be frightened to come to school. Well, yes they should if they have to face a teacher for the fifth time to say "I've forgotten." If I had put myself in that position with my headteacher, I would have been frightened.

We are shirking our duties. It is harder to haul a child up in the corridor for foul language than it is to pretend not to hear it, but then shock and horror should be demonstrated by all who are then involved with the student - pastoral teachers or senior staff. Everyone acts out the whole performance together and, at the end of it all, the student is aware that the word is not acceptable in school.

But it must be a whole-staff thing. It is no use if a teacher decides that personal popularity is more important than educating the whole student - and, alas, I have met too many of that type of teacher.

I am fortunate now to count some of my ex-students among my friends, but they were not my friends when I was teaching them. I was the teacher; they were the students. We both knew our roles and so there was a distance between us.

The thing is, we do not need sanctions for most kids. Most will operate under the basic rule of politeness all round. Parents will, generally, support the teacher provided they know what is going on.

I once had to interview a parent who had threatened me with violence because I had reprimanded his son. I made sure that there were a couple of rugby teachers on call before the interview. At first the dialogue was decidedly unpleasant and I was fairly nervous. By the end of the interview, however, we had both agreed that his son was a brat who refused to do any work and was extremely confrontational at home as well as at school. We decided to work on him together - a kind of pincer movement. Alas, much as I would like to romanticise, there was no great transformation - he is probably a grown-up brat now - but he did pass his GCSE English and his father and I parted the best of friends.

The people who should be taking up the cudgels (figuratively, of course) are senior and promoted staff. As a young teacher I looked on most of those men and women in suits with some awe and a great deal of admiration. They could do things that I could not do with adolescents. Students respected most of them and, in some cases, feared them. It was the rare student who would stand up to them.

Those rare students are still around and always will be, and there is little or nothing that we will ever be able to do about them. Special arrangements must be made for them. No, it is the run-of-the-mill mischievous kid who, without well-understood parameters, will turn into the disruptive pupil.

Courage is needed to ensure that that does not happen.

Jennifer Baker was, until recently, head of English in a large Lancashire secondary school. She is now a freelance

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