Why all teachers need moments of quiet

The voices in education are incessant. Is it any wonder that teachers crave tiny gaps of silence, asks Jo Brighouse

Woman with finger on her lips, indicating quiet

The classroom was bathed in silence. The moving of pens, turning of pages and my footsteps on the carpeted floor were the only sounds to be heard. 

Everyone was writing, heads bent low, pages filling. 

I love watching children write. After the input, the talking, the modelling, I love the part where they’re left alone to have a go without any disturbance (if you don’t count me ranting in their ear about how “a lot” is actually two words). 

This term I’ve been sharing my knowledge of advanced spelling with a new cohort. 

New postcode, new school, new class. I love it. I love it because it’s quiet: a calm school. 

Either calm or not

From my (admittedly very limited) vantage point, schools are either calm or they’re not. I think you can tell pretty much instantly. 

By calm, I don’t mean silent or oppressive – just with a sense of order. You can see it in the way children move around the building, the way they speak to adults, the way they come into assembly. 

Children in calm schools get to run and talk and shout, too. The secret lies in how quickly you can bring this back to quiet. 

A wise teacher once told me: “Behaviour management isn’t about getting them to work in silence. Any idiot can control silence. Only a good teacher can control noise.”

You soon get to learn the noise levels you are happy with: a hum of working chat, patches of silence interspersed with lively discussion, an animated listening noise for story time.

Then there are the other levels: the cacophony of wet playtimes, the insidious mutterings during an explanation, the roar and screams of 30 children getting carried away with bench ball in the hall.

Pockets of quiet

Some days I find myself craving silence. I think teachers need quiet in their lives more than most people. After a week in the classroom we are sick of the sound of our own voices

While in other jobs people can go hours without talking or being talked to, we don’t have that luxury. 

If you have your own kids, it’s inescapable: you move seamlessly from children bickering and bombarding you with questions to children bickering and bombarding you with questions.

The phrase “I can’t hear myself think” has never been more apt. You come to love the gaps: being alone in a car as you drive home; sitting in a silent classroom, ploughing through a pile of marking.  

Children need these pockets of quiet too. For many of them, school might be the only place they hear silence.

It takes practice though. Group silence isn’t an easy thing to orchestrate. It’s unnerving. It makes children giggle and shuffle and fight a desperate urge to make noise.

'The perfectest herald of joy'

But, once you’ve pushed past this, it is, as Shakespeare wrote, “the perfectest herald of joy”. 

For in that silence, what thoughts may come? What cogs turn and catch? What synapses fire and connect? 

The trick is knowing how long to give them. Too much and they lapse into boredom and disaffection, too little and the thoughts are unfinished. 

Sometimes, however, the noise of the classroom is infinitely preferable to the noise from outside.

In teaching today, there’s a lot of conflicting noise: from school leaders, from Ofsted, from curriculum reformers and social media and anyone else who cares to pontificate on education.

Compared with this cacophony, maybe being left alone to teach is as close to peace and quiet as we’re going to get.

Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym for a primary teacher in the West Midlands. She tweets @jo_brighouse

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