Varieties of vigilance

Why are you writing on the floor, you idiotic five-year-old with an attention disorder? Take a tablet and sit up straight." Bill Rogers knows more than most what you may want to say to an off-the-wall child, because he's been there too. But he also knows that asking a child why he or she is doing something and getting apoplectic about the countless low crimes and misdemeanours committed in the course of a school day will put you on a hiding to nowhere.

He is an international freelance education consultant from Victoria, Australia, whose approach to behaviour management - a mix of Basil Fawlty, Joyce Grenfell and Ben Elton - makes his guidance as entertaining as it is indispensable.

Anyone who has been in education as long as he has (as both primary and secondary teacher, and as consultant to the Ministry of Education in Victoria, as well as to the Elton committee in Britain on discipline in schools) must have something to say. And the most important thing, he says,is his mantra to teachers, strung-out or not: "Teaching Is Not Your Life".

In numerous books on teachers' stress and behaviour management, and in his many seminars, he offers an admirably common sense, eminently practical guide to remaining human while not only managing a classroom but inspiring children to learn.

Humour is his vehicle, driven by a quick mind and a flair for drama that has his teacher audiences roaring with laughter as they nod in recognition of the behaviour he sends up. His brilliance as a performer is in moving from cool professional advice to acting out scenarios showing how we are all capable of childish, petulant, snotty responses.

Here is one of them. "There's a great temptation when you're confronted with a mother coming in f'ing and blinding to say, 'You get outta here, you bloody cow'. Ooh, just once to be able to say that . . . We should never blame ourselves or the kids we teach for being angry. But we should avoid sarcasm and abusive language. We need to be able to defuse combustible situations."

A central plank of his approach, based on years of teaching and classroom observation, is that teachers have two ways of responding to their class. There are those who are manic vigilants (sic) and those who exercise relaxed vigilance. The manic vigilant will leap on the smallest disturbance and make a song and dance. Their constant harangues desensitise the recipient and nothing is achieved, save the venting of spleen.

Rogers offers a personal experience to illustrate how relaxed vigilance works. "I had a kid in class who was looking at a girl instead of working. I came up to him and said quietly, 'You're not working. What's the problem?' The boy said: 'My head's full of love thoughts.' I asked him, 'Do you know what my job is?' He said, 'No'. So I sketched a drawing that had on it LT)WT. He said: 'What's that?' I said: 'My job is to move you from love thoughts to work thoughts'."

A manic vigilant might have handled the situation by shouting, "What are you looking at?" to which the boy would defensively say, "Nothing". The teacher would then respond by moving the lad away from the object of his desire, which would result in his continuing to feast his eyes, but from a different vantage point. At best, nothing is accomplished; at worst, it is counterproductive, since the boy will resent it. But Rogers' gentle way of dealing with the lovelorn pupil communicates that he doesn't disapprove of the love thoughts, but that they need to be put on hold while the boy does his work.

Bill Rogers' point is that there are primary and secondary behaviour issues for every problem. "Teachers often get embroiled with secondary behaviour, which is a smokescreen for something else. If you're going to respond angrily, it should be about issues that count, not about flicking rubber bands."

Being a humane teacher, he says, is about being respectful to students. He gives an example of a young man he hears swearing out of frustration. "Instead of coming at him and saying 'you filthy child, how dare you use that language in my classroom?' there may be a case for ignoring it.

Or you could make a joke, to take the tension away." He stresses the need to assess the context of the outburst before charging in. It's the kneejerk reaction to things such as swearing or pushing or talking in class that create explosions and leave everyone feeling grumpy and drained.

Language and voice are all-important in dealing with disruptions. Where the manic vigilant will respond to a bunch of boys jostling each other in the corridor with: "Oi, you five, get over here now! ", the relaxed vigilant will modulate the reaction: "Hey you five, could I see you a minute?" The anger is taken out of the command and it allows the teacher and the boys a minute of take-up time, one of the components of Mr Rogers' basic principles of discipline (see box).

The guidance he gives is aimed at mainstream teachers whose classes include children who are occasionally disruptive as well as those with emotional and behavioural difficulties. In other words, they are for teachers in schools everywhere.

"These strategies are universal," he says. "It's corrective management that doesn't confront kids unnecessarily. Teachers can be assertive," he says, smoothing down his teddy bear necktie, "but in ways that avoid embarrassing the kids."

He tells the story of a colleague who was faced with a boy walking into her classroom holding a machete. "She locked eyes with him and said quietly but firmly, 'I know you don't want to hurt me or anybody else in the class. ' He followed her out of the room and a potentially catastrophic situation was averted."

Of course, it's one thing to know that you should keep cool and another thing to actually do so. That's where training comes in. Mr Rogers is the first to admit that it's not easy, but then neither is it easy to be in constant conflict with a class that doesn't respect you because you over-react.

The bottom line, he says, is how you look at the job you have been given."If we have to run education like we do with 25 or 30 in a class, let's do it more humanely. Let's stop being control freaks. Your job is not to control kids. It's to teach them and to get them to want to learn."

Behaviour Management: A Whole School Approach by Bill Rogers is available from Scholastic Australia, tel: 0061 243 283555

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