‘Treat pupils like humans and they’ll behave’

A lot of the educational chat in recent weeks, in the media and in the staffroom, has been about a certain type of school disciplinary regime. The kind of regime where, if the allegations are to be believed, students are kept in line by a dehumanising set of procedures that would have looked extreme even back in the 1970s. The Secret Supply Teacher writes in Tes.

While I’m sure that most people who read about a school that purposefully humiliates pupils would be horrified, it does raise the perennial issue of how we should get the best from our students.

Proponents of the more disciplinarian methods will maintain that many students benefit from the firm hand and the iron rod (back when I was at school there were rumours that our head had an actual iron rod he would use on the worst kids…). 

On the flip-side are those who suggest children require something more flexible and collegiate to help them learn. Part of the problem is the students themselves rarely get to make that choice and once you’re in one system there’s not much wiggle room. If a student finds themselves in a school where the model of discipline doesn’t suit them, there are inevitably problems for all concerned.

A few weeks ago I spent the day in a school that seemed to have made the decision to move from one approach to another. This school had started the term with a new whole-school strategy that leaned decidedly towards the military end of the spectrum, and while it was by no means as extreme as some of the schools in stories that have been circulating recently, it clearly aimed to introduce a markedly stricter way of working. As an outsider, it was fascinating to witness the response of staff and students to this regime change.

The list of prohibited student behaviours was just as one might expect and included anything that might possibly detract from learning: talking, fiddling with anything not relevant to the work, fidgeting and so on were banned. The procedure for failing to adhere to the rules was simple too: two warnings followed by immediate removal from the lesson.

In theory this looked fine. The reality was somewhat more complex.

Things in my first lesson started well, but it didn’t take long for the subversion to begin. For about a dozen students, the entire focus of the lesson soon became how to rub right up against the rules without quite crossing the line. A good example of this is the cough or sneeze, which the smart kids know is hard to punish. It wasn’t long before the room sounded like we were in the middle of the flu pandemic of 1918. There was humming and whistling, toilet requests aplenty, and a lot of stationery items being borrowed with unwarranted fanfare and enthusiasm. If these students had put as much effort into their work as they did into messing with the system, they’d all be heading for top grades. As it was, the atmosphere was tense and combative.

Read how the supply teacher got on ‘Treat pupils like humans and they’ll behave’

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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