Teaching battlegrounds

2008-12-03 00:00

As government schools close for the year this week many teachers will be heaving a huge sigh of relief at the start of a long break from unruly children.

If you thought teaching was a soft-option, half-day job with disgustingly long holidays, think again. As one seasoned teacher puts it: “Imagine dealing with 30 difficult customers all day long … at the same time. Few people in the service industry have to handle that.”

Teaching is a very different animal from the profession that Shona Mayne entered 40 years ago. Back then, the pupils actually thought that the teacher knew more than they did. They also assumed that listening to the teacher was the norm. After a hiatus of 15 years, Mayne was shocked to discover that her beloved profession had deteriorated into a battleground of titanic proportions. “I spent all my time and energy on discipline, and hardly any on good teaching.” Children swore at her, questioned her every decision, tampered with her possessions and displayed a general disregard for authority. Pupils answered cellphones in class and chatted on Mxit.

Mayne’s experience is supported by that of many teachers in upper-middle-class schools. Some have been verbally threatened and others have had their cars vandalised. One teacher even had a pupil defecate in her desk drawer. Many teachers are asking: is this the kind of behaviour that educated professionals should stand for? Pupils are very quick to claim their rights. Their anthem cry is “it’s not fair”. In a culture obsessed with rights, you have to ask if teachers’ rights have been overlooked in favour of the pupils’ rights.

Some more “old-school” teachers feel that the banning of caning signalled the demise of discipline in the school system, while others are conflicted about the issue and feel that it was abused and enforced with unnecessary brutality.

Jean Lamplough has been teaching on and off in both private and public schools since 1963. “There are definitely more behavioural problems now. I never approved of corporal punishment and never used it. But the general behaviour of boys was better because of the fear of it. Detention is used now, but the same names appear on the list week after week, so as a deterrent it is definitely not as effective.”

Robin Lamplough, a seasoned, retired history teacher from Kearsney College, says that in over 40 years, he has hardly ever used corporal punishment over classroom issues. “However, the alternative measures are, in my experience, laborious and generally unproductive. They are harder on the imposer than on the offender.” In order for detention to work as a disciplinary measure, a teacher has to give up his or her Friday afternoon or Saturday morning. Copious amounts of paperwork are involved in managing discipline systems of slips and demerits.

according to Robin, it’s not all bad. While he agrees that pupils are now more opinionated and less teachable, he also feels that there is a “refreshing openness” that did not exist before. He emphasises that parents need to be aware that their own attitude to teaching and teachers is constantly being conveyed to their children. Parents need to think about the effect this will have on classroom attitude and discipline. He adds that the presence of cellphones in the teaching context means that pupils are quick to report their immediate problems to anxious parents, especially mothers, without trying to resolve them themselves.

One method that does seem to be very effective is that of isolating problem pupils in time-out rooms. This system, or a variation thereof, is effectively employed at Kloof High School, Pinetown Boys’ High and George Campbell Technical High School. Colleen Lantz, a maths teacher with 23 years of experience, has taught at both Kloof High and George Campbell. “What I found particularly effective at George Campbell is that there is a full-time discipline co-ordinator. Pupils who are being very aggressive or disruptive are sent straight to the PLC (parallel learning centre) classroom.” Lantz feels that one of the biggest advantages of this system is that the teacher does not have to waste valuable energy and classroom time fighting with difficult pupils. It also gives an aggressive pupil time to cool down.

Karen Joseph, social worker and counsellor at George Campbell, says, “The PLC is open all day and is run by a highly qualified experienced teacher. Pupils are only sent there if they disrupt the class to the extent that learning cannot continue.”

Joseph feels that the system is much more effective than simply sending a pupil to stand outside the classroom, where they will inevitably get up to mischief or go walkabout. Pupils are usually only sent there for one lesson, but for serious infringements or when numerous teachers are complaining, a pupil can be suspended to the PLC for an extended period and the parents are called in. “Follow-up is the key to the success of this system,” says Joseph. “Records are kept.” This enables Joseph to determine if there is an underlying psychological issue or if there are problems at home. Kloof High School has a DFL (discipline for learning) room that runs on a similar principle.

Hillcrest High School employs a variation on this system to good effect. Vice-principal Peter Victor says that the isolation room method had to be abandoned as it used up too much manpower. “An effective alternative, however, is having the pupil follow the head of department (HOD) around. The pupil will sit in my office while I’m working or in the classroom while I’m teaching. Work is sent to him or her every lesson. The pupil is isolated at break as well. This is the worst punishment, as for many pupils school’s purely a social situation — it’s about mixing with your mates.

“Sometimes the pupil is a little Grade 9 pupil and he or she has to sit in on my matric class where he or she is not the cool kid anymore, and the seniors aren’t impressed by his or her antics. This positive peer pressure helps to pull him or her into line,” says Victor. “This system is effective on two levels, because the HODs can get on with their work and pupils realise that they are not as bright as they thought, and that they actually need the teacher.”

Mayne describes how she had one pupil begging her to take him back into her class after a few days of this method of discipline.

Another Hillcrest High teacher, Suhanna Moodley, is also strongly in favour of this method. “It’s not fair to let one pupil violate the right to education of the other 28 pupils. As a grade controller, I will withdraw these pupils from classes and have them shadow me, but I’m very strict about them keeping up with their work. Most of these pupils weren’t working in class anyway, so they get much more done when I’m on their case.” Moodley feels that another positive is that she gets to know each child’s case individually. Parental involvement is preferred. This method of discipline is only employed when more conventional methods, such as Friday afternoon detentions or Saturday schools, have proved ineffective. “It’s not just about babysitting or punishment,” says Moodley. “It’s about reforming their future behaviour. Consistency is the key to good discipline. The pupils need to know that the procedures will be followed.” Moodley adds that although corporal punishment was a quick and effective method of discipline, it was open to abuse. She remembers being caned for cracking her knuckles in class. It seems that the price teachers have to pay for alternative methods is more manpower, hours and administration.

According to Lantz, another challenge that teachers have to face today is that of understanding the generation gap. Respect is no longer automatically given to a person in a position of authority. Respect has to be earned. Pupils are over-familiar. They want to be your friend on Facebook and won’t hesitate to ask personal questions about your dating life or make comments on your clothing. “The pupils have a sense of entitlement. I’ve been asked why they should have to wear a uniform if I don’t. I’ve also been told, ‘My father pays your salary’.” According to Lanz, pupils start from a place of mistrust in authority — the peer group is all important. Pupils will trust you if they perceive you as a friend, but this makes it difficult to maintain disciplinary boundaries.

In his book, Mind the Gap, South African business consultant and strategist Graeme Codrington examines the characteristics of what has been dubbed the “Millenial Generation” — children born between the eighties and early 2000s. “They are confident, don’t treat them like kids. They’re so confident they’re almost arrogant in their insistence that you don’t talk down to them,” Codrington says in his book. “Millenials need to respect the individual intrinsically, not the title, position or rank. They expect people to work for that respect.” Does this generational shift signal a change in the way classrooms need to be run? It certainly poses a dilemma for the teacher.

• Linda Filmer is a part-time teacher, as well as a freelance journalist.

Challenges in the classroom

• swearing.

• disregard for authority.

• cellphones.

• Mxit.

• threatening, aggressive and disruptive behaviour.

• some disciplinary measures are laborious and hard to impose.

• respect is not automatic.

• over-familiarity.

• sense of entitlement.

Info age challenge

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a teacher today is to interest the pupil in the subject. In an age of information overload, constant audio-visual stimulation and instant gratification, holding a teenager’s attention is not a skill, it’s a downright gift.

They view the media and the Internet as authoritative sources. Books are not employed in research. And if there isn’t a film version to accompany the Shakespeare play, why bother? Pupils yawn their way through fascinating educational DVDs that previous generations would have killed for and sleep through class because they know they “can get the notes”, a luxury that the pre-photocopy generation did not have. The old “talk-and-chalk” style of teaching is, therefore, no longer effective and teachers have to come up with increasingly dynamic and interactive lessons in order to maintain attention, and thus order.

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