Pete Davison: Crime and Punishment

Posted on October 3, 2011 by

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It’s been a while since I told a story from my past life at the chalkface, so I feel it’s about time we fixed that with another real-life tale of What Teaching is Really Like.

I worked in three schools (not counting those I did supply teaching in) during the course of my teaching career — two secondary and one primary. One of the secondaries and the primary were in what could politely be termed “somewhat deprived areas” while the other secondary was right on the border of an aforementioned “somewhat deprived area” and a very middle-class town — the sort of place that has shops that sell nothing but fabric, and tearooms rather than branches of Starbucks, that sort of thing.

All three of them, regardless of location, and regardless of age group, had Problem Children. You could often preemptively tell a Problem Child from the names on the register — generally speaking, if a child was male and called Jordan, female and had some obscure misspelling of a relatively normal name (Kaylee, Abbygale, Rooth) or of either sex and in possession of a completely made-up stupid name (Peaches, Infographia, Cubblers) they were likely to be a Problem Child. Sometimes you were pleasantly surprised — girls named Jordan often ended up being quite nice, and when you got your hands on a new class you often didn’t know the sexes of the pupils, particularly if they had stupid names — but more often than not you’d run into a Problem Child sooner or later.

One particular Problem Child I encountered in the primary school in which I taught had a relatively normal name and, ironically, was one of the brighter kids in the class. But my God he was an asshole. He’d answer back, he’d yell at the teacher, the teaching assistant and his peers, and he’d frequently storm out of the room if he was pulled up on any sort of inappropriate behaviour. When parents’ evening came around, I spoke to his parents about his behaviour — particularly the violent side of things — and I was told that they had simply told him to react to anything he saw as “unfair treatment” by striking back. “If someone hits you,” said the dad, “you hit them back.”

There’s not much you can say to that, really, even with all the Anti-Bullying Policies and Zero Tolerance Initiatives in the world.

Then there was a Problem Child I came into regular contact with during my time at the first secondary school at which I taught. He, too, was an asshole, and this time with no redeeming features whatsoever — i.e. he was a dimwit as well. Again, he’d be aggressive, sweary, belligerent and completely resistant to authority. And again, there was no support from the parents.

“My mum says I don’t have to come to detentions,” he told me upon receiving a detention for being a cunt (obviously not the exact wording I used on the form recording said inappropriate behaviour). “So I’m not coming.”

He didn’t come.

With many of these children — particularly in cases there was no parental support for whatever reason — it was pretty much impossible to instill any sort of discipline in them. There was nothing that they feared. They didn’t fear detentions because they just wouldn’t turn up. They didn’t fear the wrath of the teachers or senior staff members. And they didn’t fear exclusion because that just meant time away from the school they hated so much. There was little to nothing that could be done to discourage these little grotbags from acting like complete bellends.

The teacher training guides would say that punishment is not the way to go — that positive reinforcement is, in fact, the way in which they best learn what behaviours are appropriate and which are not. The trouble is, taken to the extreme, you end up with the ridiculous sight that many schools indulge in — primary schools in particular — which is the weekly Celebration Assembly. Here, the whole school gathers and a selection of children from each tutor group are called up one by one to come to the front and receive a certificate. These certificates aren’t necessarily for academic achievement — and, indeed, usually aren’t. No, these certificates are frequently awarded for “playing nicely with the other children” and “sitting in a chair for over half of the lesson” and “not hurting anyone”. All of those are genuine examples, by the way, unlike the names I gave earlier, most of which were made up.

Now, while it’s nice to celebrate the fact that little Cockbag, who never sits in his chair for more than 5 seconds and loves punching everyone in the neck, actually sat down and completed two maths questions in the last week, it completely devalues the entire concept of “rewards” for everyone — teacher and pupil. When I was at primary school in the late 80s and early 90s, we were rewarded for good work in class or special achievements. Go and colour in a square on your rocket. Have a gold star. Show the class what you’ve done. No-one got a square on their rocket, a gold star or the opportunity to show the class what they’d done for successfully sitting in their chair for more than fifteen seconds at once.

I wonder what on Earth the solution could be. It’s pretty clear from what I saw that the one and only thing that the Problem Children feared was humiliation in front of their friends and peers — something that undermined their “authority”, for want of a better word. So perhaps some sort of Inverse Celebration Assembly would be warranted, where the headmaster solemnly called out the names of the worst offenders each week, brought them onto the stage and forced them to do the Dance of Shame while everyone else pointed and laughed. Anyone who refused to do the Dance of Shame would be fed to the goldfish kept by Class 2, who had developed a taste for human flesh ever since Barry Jenkins kept his hand in there for an entire period for a bet.

But then that’s probably some sort of human rights violation, isn’t it?

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