The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Monday, September 27, 2004

So ... the chaos theory has me thinking. In the midst of a week of incidents of 'rushing', gang violence, spilled tempers and showdowns, I want to use this place to zip through an issue that's been bothering me. Is there a crucial ingredient in dealing with the inevitable presence of school chaos: inner city secondary school bad behaviour?
The government says the presence of advanced skills experts in your school.
(We already have advanced skills teachers - they observe me every week; we already have representatives from beacon schools - they observe me every week.)
The unions say increased rates of pay - effectively danger money.
(Subject shortages and fast tracking makes teaching a competitively salaried job these days; I get paid more than most of my inner city contempopraries in jobs with degrees and a few year's training - less than a lawyer, admittedly - but I really don't think there's a desperate need for more money.)
Headteachers say increase our ability to exclude pupils permanently for violence.
(Which ignores entirely the issue of the devastating rates of exclusion amongst black boys; or the question of favouritism. I haven't seen many schools in inner city locations where status doesn't come into play here: a supply teacher smacked in the mouth by a child will be a very differently resolved incident to a senior teacher answered back by a child.)

I say: space.

The space to calm down and treat a child as a child, to give them behavioural options, to help them manage their sometimes overflowing, unstoppable anger.
The space to reflect on the indicators - the reasons - for a fight or for the behaviour of a child who told you where to stick that homework. If we run from lesson to lesson to lesson without break, there's very little give in the timetable, which leads to very little give in us.

I can't deal with your desperate cry for attention, because I'm busy preparing for his.

A senior teacher returned two recalcitrant snarling demons taking infant human form to me this morning, still swearing and cussing, and turfed them back into my class with an explicit instruction to follow it up with a break time detention, an hour's detention on Friday, a formal report, and a phone call to parents. She then turned and marched sharply off.
My first response was unprintable. Added to the parents' evening and three meetings this week, that's five nights working later and later, becoming more and more exhasuted, because the timetable doesn't allow me the space to deal more flexibly with these boys.

These boys who were acting up because they'd been asked to write, and were afraid. Who feared getting off to a bad start with yet another adult, so found it easier to behave in a way that guarantees my behaviour is predictable, guarantees my rejection. Who had forgotten books and were angry with themselves, didn't want to waste their work, or mess up a book that looked too clean and white. Or who felt understandably aggrieved and concerned about their brother's court case today.

A detention or a pink formal referral slip doesn't solve these things.
Instructing me to lose all the gaps and corners that currently fuel my energy for the day doesn't solve these things.
In fact the loss of whatever tenuous hold on reality I still retain only serves to put me into the foullest of moods and become ever more draconian, ever less sensitive, and more confrontational.

One fifteen minute break in the horrifically dramatic boom-and-bust cycle of moving groups around the building for no real rhyme or reason is enough to stop this.

To allow me to place a calming hand on the arm of a child who's shouting or bullying rather than bite their head off. To speak softly to the eighty students beating a smaller child, and allow them a minute to remember to be individuals. Or kneel to speak to a furious boy who needs to calm down. I need space, to be calm enough and wise enough to give them space.

Ultimately, behaviour in inner city schools can only be improved by a flexible, responsive combination of the solutions listed above. I know which one I choose.