Hope against hope, all ye who re-enter here

8th July 2016 at 00:00

In a month dominated by football teams crashing out of the Euro and ancient unions crashing out of the EU, my mind turns to the opposite: re-entry.

Pupils, those pilgrims of the corridor, enter and leave your room on a daily basis, mostly by appointment. Pips, bells and chimes measure the tattoo of the school day. (Although I have seen schools here and there that dispense with such audible ironmongery – a black art, surely? How else is an honest teacher to roll out aphorisms like “The bell is for me, not you”?)

Some departures are more hurried; students often go for foul reasons, not fair ones. Sometimes this is on their own advice (and no one else’s) and sometimes it’s a banishing. Pupils leave our rooms for good reasons and bad.

My advice to all new teachers facing behaviour so challenging that it threatens learning is to get pupils out of the room, away from their audience and their stage, and into somewhere more private. There, emotions can escape like steam, hurting no one. Sometimes, a student not being there for now is the best way to make sure that they will be there in the future.

But what goes up must come down, and what goes out must go back in, under most circumstances. Unless matters have reached death-row proportions, most pupils will return from their mishaps and misadventures, and be back under your leathery, feathery wing. I’ve seen a lot of schools get this right; I’ve seen a lot of them get it wrong.

The first mistake, when a child goes back to lessons after a period on the bench, is often to keep it as secret as the assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound. Perhaps it’s happened to you: a pupil, long gone, returns 10 minutes into your lesson, often with a note, looking down at the floor.

You struggle to recall who he is, then remember – you thought he’d left the school. Then you realise, panicking that you have no space for him in your immaculate, beautiful seating plan. He points to a seat. “I can sit there,” he says. To keep the peace, you go along with the suggestion. Or, as I would call it, you appease.

Then the real issue becomes plain: he’s four weeks behind everyone else. So, mid-lesson, you’re looking for ways to keep him meaningfully occupied at a level that doesn’t exceed his capacities too much but also serves as a significant taster/starter/summary of the course so far. Oh, and he needs a book. And he’ll be mostly self-instructing, because you have to prep the rest of the class for their assessment next week.

You’ll be lucky if mere comedy ensues. Children sent back into classrooms like that are unready and so are you. No good can come of it.

What’s the answer? Treating the occasion as if it were serious and important, which it is. Re-entry into the classroom is one of the most difficult transitions to get right. It won’t happen accidentally, so don’t try.

First, schools need to inform all staff about re-entry dates. Better still, teachers could visit internally excluded pupils to help them stay on top of their work and focus on rebuilding expectations.

Besides that, there should be, if humanly possible, a reintegration meeting with significant adults to reinforce expectations. Done with gravity but with a positive spirit, this will signal to the pupil (and the parent) that everyone involved means business. That you mean business. They now walk on holy ground.

The classroom is a special place, full of wonders. No one gets into it without a pass. To the kids, it might feel like a leg iron, but you just gave them a golden ticket. One day, you hope, they’ll realise this.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71

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