The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, April 15, 2005

Our staff have been trying to work out how we can change the culture of the school to limit pointless infraction, the low level, long term reactive disruption and rudeness that tires everyone out.
The head noted that students individually like their teachers, want to please them and want to 'do well' in general - but don't have any real respect for education as an activity by itself, respond badly to authority if it comes from a stranger.

We've been struggling for solutions: how to make the kids take pride in a culture of doing the right thing.

More rewards? More sanctions? Stronger punishments?
(We're not allowed to exclude children these days, and they well know it.)
Stress community spirit? Try to inculcate a bit of pride in who we are? In our roles?

It's a long term problem in society as a whole, this lack of pride, lack of collective responsibility, ignorance of consequences; we won't find any quick fix solutions.
I was dreading the end of day hour long silent sponsored read with my feral eleven year olds. I wrote rules on the electronic whiteboard, and rewards also. Set up plenty of things to avert fractiousness, made sure bribes were placed in a prominent spot.
And still dreading it.

Hordes of four foot students clustered at the door - each individually cute as a cloth puppet, each wanting an individually tailored look, word, or hug as they fussed and spat out randomly selected questions or disagreements.

The student teacher next door marched up. One of my class had snapped off the handle of an umbrella, opened her classroom door and hurled the lump of plastic at her. Another post-mortem incurred.
I already have to deliver an extended guilt autopsy for the fourteen brand new reading books they had thrown out of the window last lesson.

Pulling the door to, a crate of pens and pencils had been kicked across the place, scattering grubby stubs of colours everywhere. The students sat, angelic round faces, all sweetly shocked, disclaiming responsibility or knowledge of what's happened.

Carmella, spotted at the neighbouring classroom's door seconds after the pink plastic missile had hit the student teacher, angrily denied any knowledge or involvement. She must have witnessed who did throw the missile, I countered.
It was 'somebody'. Useful. My imprecations to name the culprit were resisted robustly and at length.

Artie, as usual, was shouting. We're so used to operating at a level below his constant whine and screech, that it occured to me none of us were even noticing the words. He could be bursting with questions, opinions and complaints about anything. He's the sonic equivalent of the boy who cried wolf.
Any minute now, Tony would trundle in, late, grinning, and Artie would rack it up a notch, compete with the wider vocabulary of fresh swear words on display.

I quiet the pint sized rabble and explain that if they witnessed a rule being broken, then failed to identify the person who did it to staff, they are breaking an equally serious rule themselves.
Plenty of students at my school believe you shouldn't 'grass' on a peer, but they don't understand that even a criminal code of loyalty carries more responsibility than they're prepared to bear.

I try to counter this by explaining what 'honour amongst thieves' really involves. If you're willing to take on your reprobate pal's punishment, you've been loyal.
If you're not ready to do so, you're not only disloyal and weak, but guilty - of obstructing the course of justice.

Report the crime, or do their time.
Noisy indignation. Not to put too fine a point on it: uproar. Tony trundled in, grinning. Shouting at us without even knowing it. Carmella burst into tears.

Amongst the uproar, the ancient peeling tannoy crackled into intrusive, jagged life. All eleven year olds report to the hall to see a performance by Skorpio, the human beatbox. Now.


Except, by this point I was mad as hell, and I was not going to let them go.

The point of being an authority figure is that people need you to take on authority. Show them where the line is, and defend it.

Once they were quiet, ordered, had apologised, listened to the whys and wherefores of behaving differently toward their teachers and peers, out came four witness statements that exonerated the beleaguered Carmella, and identified the fourteen year old miscreant who bore real guilt.

The kids trooped out, late, dejected. Told off.

Except Tony and Artie. They didn't want to go see some boring poet. They wanted to get in trouble, please, Miss, so they could stay up here. T
hey'd rip something up if I wanted, if I needed a reason to stop them going to the hall. Eager to please.

"Don't you know what Skorpio is like?" I asked, closing my markbook. "He's a six foot six black musician with dreads up to here, who raps, who will teach you to beat box, and will make your life feel good."

I've totally confused him with Adisa. But it's enough, I used key words: Tall! Black! Man! Makes noises!
"Rah!" they squealed, suddenly bouncing, "I wanna see that!" Took off down the corridor at the speed of small hurtling things.

I wonder what it says about youth culture, the responses of these two small round underfed white boys. Sub-literate, nurtured by home circumstance into a culture of aggression, to the degree that few staff expect them to survive five years of state secondary school. The excitement and eagerness they display when offered time with a role model.

One thing Skorpio said to the children echoes in my memory: "I know you think your parents are aliens, and your teachers are from an even further away planet, but the minute you leave here, you'll change your minds. You'll see that they were the people who were trying to put you on the good path."

Put you on the good path. I like that.
I like not thinking of this day as one long reprimand.