I have been reading about the way some of the newly converted academies are highlighting their strict discipline policies – zero-tolerance on uniform, standing up when an adult enters and so on.
All this talk of discipline, apart from bringing back some uncomfortable memories, reminded me of one of my favourite books. Called The Papers of AJ Wentworth, BA, and written in fact by HF Ellis, it purports to be the memoirs of a gently incompetent public school master. The running joke, beautifully constructed, is that though confident of his expertise, Mr Wentworth is constantly and unknowingly wound up by his pupils. Here he is with IIIA.
‘This morning,’ I said to them, ‘we are going to prove that the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.’
‘Is that a likely thing to happen?’ Mason asked.
I told the others to be quiet and asked Mason what he meant.
‘I mean is a right-angled triangle likely to have a square on its hypotenuse?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you, Mason,’ I said.
Read it and enjoy. Just returning to it for this article became a major distraction.
In truth, the teacher who could never keep order figures in all our memories. Do they still exist, though?
This interests me greatly, because throughout my teaching career, half spent in urban secondary schools, discipline often seemed to be an issue. For one thing I wasn’t naturally good at it. In one of my first teaching jobs I was constantly teetering on the edge of total meltdown and beginning to look at other ways of earning a living.
Eventually, though, I learned how it was done. It wasn’t easy, and it took a long time, because in the way of things as they were then, I had to do it all on my own. So although the secondary modern school in which I taught early in my career was regarded as well-disciplined, that really meant each teacher, operating independently behind a closed classroom door, ran a totalitarian regime based on sheer terror. If you couldn’t operate like that – I tried and was found wanting – you were, not too put too fine a point upon it, stuffed.
In those days, if you couldn’t keep order, rather than being offered advice and support, you were simply written off as weak.
In fact, that was how teachers were classified – there were strong ones, feared by the children, and weak ones whose classrooms were noisy and anarchic. The strong ones talked about the weak ones, sometimes in whispers, usually in terms somewhere between pity and incomprehension.
Come into the staffroom showing battle fatigue after a double period with your most dreaded class and somebody was always ready to say: “Well, they never give me any trouble.”
What’s really remarkable, looking back, is the degree of acceptance of it all by the school leadership. The head knew perfectly well who were the strong disciplinarians, the iffy ones and the broken reeds. But that was assumed to be how it was, and the leadership worked around it, allocating classes, duties and responsibilities accordingly. You simply did not put down Mr Meekly for History with 8Z on Friday afternoon. That was a job for Ms Crunch-Vengeance, queen of the dinner queue.
Surely it isn’t like that now? If a school of today claims to be well-disciplined then it applies across the board, does it not, right down to the far end of the huts?
If it is so, and who am I to doubt it, then the difference lies in the way that behaviour, in recent years, has ceased to be an individual sink-or-swim affair and has become a whole-school responsibility. I’ve actually heard senior leaders say things like: “It’s our job to ensure that every teacher can teach without disruption or unnecessary interruption.”
It’s the “every teacher” that matters in that sentence. The expectation is that there will be not just a written behaviour policy to show to the world, but frontline support – what the military call “boots on the ground” – to make sure it works.
When I was having my bad experience all those years ago my needs were quite basic – practical advice from a mentor, someone to observe my teaching, a reliable source of emergency help, unfailing support with disruptive individuals, a personal development plan. Above all, I wanted reassurance that the aim was to bring me aboard rather than watch me walk the plank. Not only did I not get that, but I had no way of knowing I needed it. I thought it was all down to me. I made it. Many did not.
However, today, in any decently run school, I trust that all those support measures are in place. Of course there are always individual exceptions, teachers who are difficult to help. So that may be why sometimes, if I am shown around a school as a guest, I occasionally become aware of a raised voice and a suggestion of tumult from behind a door.
It that’s you, don’t worry, for I have been there.
Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary, middle and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship.