In your face, on your nerves

27th October 1995 at 00:00
Children can make life in the classroom a misery. Mike Fielding discusses how to handle the mickey-takers.

You'd think that with television bringing all parts of the globe into our sitting rooms, children would be immune to differences of accent or personal style. Far from it, as both Nick and Glenys found at the start of their careers. Nick took his long hair, dangling earring and pronounced Cockney accent into a rural school and was shocked by the way children copied his speech. "It was real mickey-taking," he says, "and not always very pleasant. "

Glenys had a similar experience. She is Welsh and developed a real phobia over certain words which boys in her class picked up and mimicked. "I became very self-conscious," she says "and for a while wondered whether I'd done the right thing by coming into teaching."

Because they are good teachers and strong personalities, both Nick and Glenys overcame these difficulties within a fairly short time. Children began to enjoy Nick's irreverent style and to recognise that Glenys was a teacher who really cared about them. But their experience emphasises one of the less well-known pitfalls for the new teacher. Children can be cruel. They also, sometimes, take a fiendish delight in testing the new teacher's resolve. Consequently any fairly obvious aspect of personal style or mannerism is likely to be exploited.

There have been cases where extreme goading in this way has led to illness and resignation.

More common is the kind of exaggerated interest in what a teacher is wearing, where she lives, what she does in her spare time which can, sometimes, be very close to harassment.

We all have mannerisms - verbal and physical - which, in the teacher's exposed position as (usually) the only adult in the class, are easily spotted by children.

Most are unconscious, for instance the constant repetition of "Yeah?", "OK?" or "Right?" which many teachers use as a means of checking the class has understood an instruction or idea. Waving arms about, rubbing hands together, flicking hair back are all habits which can be seized on and, when children are feeling vindictive or mischievous, derided.

Other potential targets are clothes, hairstyle, beards, jewellery and anything else which, in children's minds, stands out about an individual teacher.

How should this be handled? Most important is to distinguish friendly interest from rudeness.

The boy who always notices when I'm wearing a new tie or have had my hair cut has no malicious intent; the one who mimics the way I say "Now. . !" probably has.

But even friendly interest can become a nuisance when it's repeated too often, and it can take time for a new teacher to discover what is acceptable within the ethos of his or her particular school.

Dealing with this kind of intrusiveness is an essential step towards good classroom relationships.

Children are sometimes surprised to discover that teachers are human beings with feelings and pointing out quietly to an individual how hurtful you find his repeated comments will sometimes stop them.

As in most situations, laughter can be a good antidote to discrimination. By recognising your foible and joking about it you can disarm your critics. One of Nick's strategies was to teach his class a lot of rhyming-slang words and get them to use them in classroom discussion. This required them to attempt a Cockney accent like his and they ended up laughing at each other.

Glenys, on the other hand, diverted unwelcome attention from her accent by introducing children to the Welsh language and gaining their interest in her home area.

Whatever the strategy (and if the taunting continues unacceptably, this may include involving senior staff) it is essential that such behaviour is stopped. Not just because it can become debilitating for the teacher, undermining her authority and confidence, but also because children must learn to understand and accept that people are all different and entitled to behave and present themselves (within certain limits) in whatever way they please.

Also, there are aspects of difference which people cannot change - Nick's and Glenys's accents for instance; facial features; disabilities; skin colour.

For children to be allowed to hold any of these up to ridicule without correction is to encourage them in perpetuating stereotypical views of the world and believing that prejudice is acceptable in the public arena. And that is anti-education.

It is not just self-interest but the education of children which requires new teachers not to accept attitudes and approaches which make them uncomfortable.

But remember, too, as Nick says, "You've got to be able to laugh at yourself a bit in this job. A good laugh will usually get the kids on your side."

Mike Fielding is principal of the Community College, Chulmleigh, north Devon

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