Too hot to trot in the discipline dance

19th September 1997 at 01:00
Darren Rowbottom!" Only teachers can speak those two words in 199 different voices and intonations, covering menace, intrigue, anticipation, congratulation, curiosity. Really versatile teachers can even signal the kind of moral outrage normally reserved for severe cases of grievous bodily harm, and that just for dropping a sweet paper.

In various research projects I have analysed several thousand lessons. I have also taught "difficult" primary and secondary classes. I thought I was a dab hand at keeping order, but I seem to have missed a trick or two, judging by one local authority course on the subject.

Apparently teachers were given advice on discipline, which stated: "You can use long, slow, sweeping gazes: for example looking out of the window, or looking dreamily at a display, or sweeping your eyes across the children with a gentle smile. Be still and use slow and soft hand signals to hush or calm behaviour that's out of sync with the tone of the movement."

Now I have to confess I have not actually given such techniques a serious try. This must be because I hate dancing. It all sounds too much like the "slow waltz", which I learned to detest when, at the age of 17, I used to go along to the local dance academy to learn what was euphemistically called "ballroom dancing".

Beetroot-faced teenage lads were dragged along the parquet floor, feet all over the place, muttering in unison, "Left two three, right two three, round two three, back two three". Callow youths like us had had little arts education at the time, beyond art and music lessons and an avid read through Charles Atlas's You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine.

Our tutors were taffeta-encased pink (keen apprentice) and blue (old bag) Barbie dolls. As we clumsily demolished a slow waltz, lovingly played by Mantovani's tumbling strings, one of the blue-tulled Gauleiters would call out hopefully, "Try to float like a dream". We members of the acne brigade were scarred for life by the slow waltz trauma.

So when it comes to discipline, I can only "look dreamily out of the window", or "sweep my eyes across the children with a gentle smile" to the accompaniment of Mantovani, and even then I'm likely to be "out of sync with the tone of the movement".

Nor was some of the other advice in the same teachers' course much use to me. "Draw happy faces on the blackboard". Er, I don't think so. Improving achievement by "dropping marbles in a jar" was another hot tip. This arresting trick has not yet penetrated my repertoire, I am ashamed to admit, but I ought to give it a proper trial.

"Right then (plink). Pay attention (plink). OK (plink), settle down Year 9 (plink). I want to improve your achievement (plink plink). Darren Rowbottom! (plink plink plink). Put that fire out NOW! (plink plink plink plink plink plink)."

The difficulty with the "bag of tricks" approach to discipline is that it addresses symptoms instead of causes. A teacher with weak control could be advised to strip naked, stand in the waste-paper basket and sing Ravel's Bolero in a high-pitched wail. This might silence an unruly class for a second, but it would not cure problems of poor personal relationships or inappropriate work, even if the teacher caught pneumonia.

Skilful classroom management, a far wider topic than "discipline", underpins effective teaching. One American summary of several hundred research projects concluded that classroom practices were much more influential on pupils' learning than local or national policies and that, within the heading "classroom practices", it was classroom management that seemed to bear most strongly on how well they achieved.

Our studies of classroom management show that most discipline problems, in primary and secondary schools, consist of noisy chatter or illicit movement.

There is little "serious" misbehaviour, barely 2 per cent of the incidents we analysed. In primary schools, we found that seven to nine-year-olds were less well behaved than other age groups.

The difficulties often occur because of inappropriate work being set, or inconsistent application of rules. Unless these fundamental problems are addressed, there is little point in teachers learning a set of "techniques" which simply give brief respite from the mayhem.

Approaches to classroom management reflect the context in which they occur. Some teachers are perfectly capable of managing idiosyncrasies, such as "looking dreamily at a display", which others would find comical or ineffective.

One teacher I knew used to shout "Fire!" from time to time when he wanted complete silence. He was a much-beloved character, so he got away with it. Anyone else would have been carted off to the Kenneth Baker Rest Home.

Another teacher had an arresting way of coping with excited pupils getting changed after playing football, and not listening when he asked them to collect their valuables. "Anyone claim these watches before I stamp on them?", he would call out. It worked every time.

Trying to make one teacher's idiosyncrasies work for everybody is not the way ahead. I for one shall continue to develop my own approaches. No dreamy waltzes, no gentle smiles. Not for me the Victor Sylvester or the Mona Lisa solution.

No marbles dropped into jars, either, as they might think I've lost mine if I did. No "happy faces" drawn on the blackboard, since I usually score at age five on the Goodenough "Draw a Man" test. I once drew my daughter a picture of a feather. She thought it was a sausage.

But play an old Mantovani record and I might just react to the tumbling strings. "Right, two three. Listen, two three. Let's look dreamy, two three. Yawn, two three. Zzzzzzzzzz, two three. Who are those men in the white coats, two three? Why are you lacing me into that jacket with the straps, two three? Put me down you fools, two three."

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