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Classroom Chaos


John Simkin
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Roger Graef is executive producer of Classroom Chaos that will be shown tonight at 8pm on C5. He wrote about the series in today's Guardian.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,...1471060,00.html

If we saw a group of unruly teens taunting a hapless lone adult in the streets or on a bus, we would be seriously concerned. If the youths started to vandalise the place, we might call the police. It's classic antisocial behaviour. We would certainly not walk away. Yet that's what many teachers face day after day in schools around the country. And we leave them to cope on their own.

As their classes spiral out of control, teachers face at best indifference and rudeness, at worst taunts and threats and indeed chaos. It's a grinding, soul-destroying experience that drives many good teachers to tears at home. Too many quit teaching altogether.

The worst sufferers are the 15,000 supply teachers. Thrown in at the last minute to replace teachers who are ill, have quit or are away on training, they are the shock troops of the education system. Supply teachers are often expected to teach a subject they are not trained in to children they do not know - without vital knowledge of the special needs or disruptive ones. They are cannon fodder.

All this is on vivid display in the undercover film Classroom Chaos. We filmed in half a dozen schools around Britain chosen at random by the supply teacher agency. A former teacher using the pseudonym Sylvia Thomas heroically endured this ordeal to provide weight for teachers' long standing lament to be taken more seriously. Sylvia says that, with rare exceptions, all she was doing was crowd control.

Her experiences have been described in the weekend press and already attracted poignant cries from the heart from full-time teachers on the Observer blog. Successive reports and teachers' unions bear out the widespread nature of this problem. It sounds like a profession on the edge of a collective nervous breakdown.

Let's not mince words. What we've seen is nothing short of an ongoing scandal. These schools are not failed inner-city sink schools but Ofsted-approved institutions with respectable academic records. How can real learning go on if the level of disruption seen in our film is normal?

The implications are serious. If these schools produce such behaviour - and good exam results as well - we should not be pleased. We should question what the pupils actually learn. The primary lesson is that authority has passed from the teachers to the children; that a few disruptive children can destroy any attempt to keep order. Is this what we want tomorrow's citizens to learn?

That they pass exams means only that - they have learned how to pass exams. Whether they regard learning itself as a rich experience to be treasured throughout their lives, I doubt. Sylvia is one of many teachers who blame current levels of disruption partly on bad parenting and poor discipline at home. Parents who themselves disliked school undermine efforts by siding with their unruly children. Some threaten physical violence, while the children threaten to sue.

But Sylvia and others see the deadening of teaching itself as a central cause. They cite centrally prescribed lesson plans and formatted classes, curriculum and content as so restrictive that the excitement of learning and following threads is eradicated - along with the teacher's authority and sense of value. Is that what education has come to?

The theme that runs through the film and the responses to it is one of immense sadness and frustration. Although they wish the most disruptive children to be removed to special classes, few blame the pupils. They are merely filling a vacuum to keep themselves amused. And it can change by filling that vacuum with energy and close attention.

Headteachers such as Haydn Evans in Sir John Cass school in east London have changed the school culture by being out there to greet the pupils when they arrive, demanding they walk quietly between classes and observe the classroom codes, and locking the gates at lunchtime to stop bunking off. They get the respect they pay the pupils. Personal engagement is what is needed instead of merely ticking boxes as they come to school and pass their exams. But it takes optimism of the heart as well as the head.

Listening to the complacency of politicians of all parties about school league improvements only emphasises their distance from the daily destruction of the social contract in classrooms, corridors and playgrounds. All politicians lament the decline of civility and the rise in antisocial behaviour in the streets. But they leave hapless teachers on their own to be humiliated instead of inspiring their pupils. We are betraying the teachers and our children. Attention must be paid.

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I was unaware of the extent of the problem of disruptive pupils until it began to affect my own daughter in the early 1980s when she was around 14 years of age. I had noticed a steady decline in her spoken English at the time. OK, teenagers often speak in their own sloppy code in order to gain street-cred, but when I looked at her English exercise books I was horrified at the appalling standard of her work and the poor standard of marking by her teacher. When I quizzed my daughter about this she said that virtually no teaching was taking place in her English classes. Her teacher was faced by a barrage of disruption from the moment she entered the room and never managed to gain control. I found this hard to believe and, as a parent governor, confronted the headteacher with what my daughter had told me. His reaction was to dismiss my daughter’s accusation and to spring to the defence of his member of staff. My daughter insisted that she was telling the truth and – without my knowledge – smuggled a cassette recorder into one of her English classes and recorded the whole lesson. When I listened to the tape that my daughter presented to me I was horrified. It was truly Classroom Chaos.

I was not sure what to do next, but my wife made the decision for me and contacted the LEA – without mentioning my daughter’s tape recording, of course. The LEA sent in an inspector to observe the lessons of the teacher in question. As a former secondary teacher myself, I thought my wife was being a bit tough, but her argument was that the teacher in question was probably getting no satisfaction from her job and could not have been a happy person, and would be better off seeking alternative employment.

The teacher was eventually dismissed, but the headteacher was furious concerning my wife's action, and it left a very bitter taste on all sides. My daughter’s English subsequently improved and she passed her GCSE a couple of years later. It’s a pity, however, that the teacher who could not control her classes was not given more help at an early stage – but maybe she just was not cut out for the job.

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The key piece for me in Roger Graef's article is:

Sylvia and others see the deadening of teaching itself as a central cause. They cite centrally prescribed lesson plans and formatted classes, curriculum and content as so restrictive that the excitement of learning and following threads is eradicated - along with the teacher's authority and sense of value. Is that what education has come to?

That just about sums up why I wouldn't go back to teaching in the UK.

I've just been doing an in-service training day for teachers in Sweden called "Is teaching and art or a science?" My thesis is that teachers and learners are much more like artists than scientists, and that learning empirically has to come before reasoning about what has been learned rationally. However, I prefaced my remarks by saying that this wasn't a comparison between Britain and Sweden - in my view Britain abandoned trying to get pupils to learn empirically when the National Curriculum was introduced.

Edited by David Richardson
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Graham

I know you probably didn't mean this, but it worries me that you appear to be putting the entire blame on the teacher and none on the badly behaved students (and/or their parents) and the lack of ability teachers have to apply any meaningful sanctions on students. Also, many teachers eventually become defeated because of system and managerial support, but have to struggle on because of family,housing, finances etc by which time it is often too late to leave teaching at an age when there is still a good chance of finding another job with a similar income.

Unless the teacher was unwilling to help herself, which seems unlikely, then I believe it's management who should be sacked for allowing this to occur, but how often does that happen?

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Graham and Jean raises too important issues. (1) What can be done about a failing teacher. (2) What should the reaction be of a parent when it appears that the teacher is incompetent?

I trained in a school in a tough urban area (1977). Around 25% of the student population had a desire to be disruptive. I spent my first two weeks in the school watching experienced teachers in the classroom. The vast majority were able to cope with these difficult children. A small percentage were clearly incompetent and in their classroom most of the students joined in this disruptive behaviour and very little teaching went on. This appears to be very much like the situation described by Graham.

My first teaching post was in a rural comprehensive. Here, less than 5% had a desire to be disruptive. Although an inexperienced teacher I had little difficulty keeping them under control. The same was true of other recently trained teachers in the school. However, it was soon drawn to my attention that some teachers were having problems. The teachers did receive help from senior members of staff and for the advisory staff. In some cases the teachers improved. However, in one particular case, the problem remained. He could not control some of the most delightful children I have ever encountered. He knew his subject and should have been in his prime. The problem was his personality. He found it impossible to impose his authority on others. Yet he continued to teach at our school. I would have definitely complained if he had been teaching my child.

I believe that the behaviour of around 30% of children has got steadily worse over the last 30 years. However, the vast majority are just the same as they have ever been. My concern is that the disruptive group is growing larger. I agree with David Richardson that government reforms have made things worse. I suspect, that the most important reason is the decline in the quality of parenting. Teachers also have to take some responsibility in this. From my experience, the percentage of incompetent teachers is also growing. I mainly blame the training these young teachers are getting. I don’t think they get the level of support that I got in the late 1970s. Another factor is that too many young teachers accept lower standards of behaviour from their students than used to be the case. I believe the main reason for this is that they themselves experienced a lack of respect for teachers when they were students in the classroom.

To sum up I agree with the action that Graham’s daughter and wife took to resolve the problem of the incompetent teacher.

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No, Jean, I didn't intend to blame the teacher entirely. She was at the mercy of incompetent management and pupils who should have been taught good manners by their parents. But I think she was in the wrong job anyway. Her knowledge of English grammar, for example, was not all that good either.

Discipline problems were the main problems that I faced as a trainee teacher in a London comprehensive in the 1960s, but I got little support from my educational college tutors who keep telling me that if I made my lessons interesting enough then I would not have discipline problems. Obviously they had never met kids whose sole aim at school was to create chaos. The head of department at the school where I did my teaching practice NEVER had discipline problems, but I could not bring myself to imitate his style. He would walk up and down between the rows of desks, pulling ears and thumping heads with a book whenever a child spoke out of turn. Occasionally he would pick up an unruly child by the ankles and hold him upside down until his face turned bright red. He handed out detention slips left, right and centre in every lesson.

Thankfully, my first job was in rural Devon where the children were respectful and well behaved. They stood up when I entered the classroom at the beginning of each lesson and sat down when I told them to. Teaching them was easy.

I watched the Classroom Chaos programme yesterday evening. The teacher was not very good at keeping control. She made lots of mistakes, but she was also dealing with very unruly and disrepectful kids. She did, however, make the same point as David: The over-prescriptive National Curriculum and mountains of missives from the DfES in the UK have killed initiative in the classroom. Teachers are no longer trusted to do their jobs. I would NEVER return to secondary school teaching in the UK.

I had a look at the National Curriculum website a couple of weeks ago - in a completely different context, namely regarding the curriculum for Modern Foreign Languages: http://www.nc.uk.net

This is what children are expected to have attained when they take their GCSE examination at the age of 16. I think this must be a joke. I have NEVER met anyone with a GCSE who can do the following:

Level 8: Listening and responding

Pupils show that they understand different types of spoken material from a range of sources [for example, news items, interviews, documentaries, films and plays]. When listening to familiar and less familiar material they draw inferences, recognise attitudes and emotions, and need little repetition.

Level 8: Speaking

Pupils give and justify opinions and discuss facts, ideas and experiences. They use a range of vocabulary, structures and time references. They adapt language to deal with unprepared situations. They speak confidently with good pronunciation and intonation, and their language is largely accurate with few mistakes of any significance.

Level 8: Reading and responding

Pupils show that they understand a wide variety of types of written material. When reading for personal interest and for information, they consult a range of reference sources where appropriate. They cope readily with unfamiliar topics involving more complex language, and recognise attitudes and emotions.

Level 8: Writing

Pupils express and justify ideas, opinions or personal points of view, and seek the views of others. They develop the content of what they have read, seen or heard. Their spelling and grammar are generally accurate, and the style is appropriate to the content. They use reference materials to extend their range of language and improve their accuracy.

I don't think the people at the DfES are living in the real world.

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Graham and Jean raises too important issues. (1) What can be done about a failing teacher. (2) What should the reaction be of a parent when it appears that the teacher is incompetent?

For number 1 it is vital that the poor sap under pressure is given appropriate support rather than aggressive management. So long as there is a willingness to change/develop (which of course includes the hardest thing - an acceptance that there is a problem), weak teachers can be improved.

People do not spring from the womb able to assert their authority or able to manage the learning of groups - it is itself a set of learnt behaviours.

Teaching comes easier to certain personality types but a 'way' can be found for most. If the teacher him or herself lacks flexibility or more importantly quick wits then there really can be a problem. For this reason I believe entry requirements for initial teacher training in the uK should be significantly higher than they are currently - academic qualifications are usually a fair measure of intelligence.

For number 2 I believe parents should always approach the school first - I am alarmed by the idea of students taking recorders into classrooms

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Andy writes:

For number 2 I believe parents should always approach the school first - I am alarmed by the idea of students taking recorders into classrooms

I did approach the school first - as a parent governor - but was assured by the headteacher and the head of English that everything was OK. Basically, I was given the brush-off. My daughter took the cassette recorder into the classroom without my knowledge or approval. This was in reaction to the feedback from the school that I passed on to her, i.e. that she was wrong in her assertion that her classes in English were being conducted by an incompetent teacher.

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I also trained in rough schools in South-East London (did my teacher training at Goldsmiths' in 1976-1977). I remember having to search 11-year olds for weapons - and always finding some.

When I started teaching as a qualified teacher it was at Dartford Technical High School for Boys. In my opinion, and at that time, the management of the school was chaotic. A weak headmaster had basically allowed the senior teachers to 'run' the school … but their contribution was largely to create a draconian set of school rules, and then sit around in the staffroom bemoaning the fact that they weren't kept to.

My first year was a trial … but there were enough colleagues who gave me informal back-up that I stuck with it. By the end of my third year, tricks like starting my first year of teaching's 'First Formers' (11 year olds) getting used being called by the first names, rather than their surnames, had seen to it that my classes generally behaved themselves, so that I could teach them.

However, that was in the days before the National Curriculum and before the micro-control of teachers' hours. We were basically expected to do what was necessary to create a good learning environment, so we put in the hours to run clubs, put on school plays, take the kids on outings, make sure that the sports events worked well, etc, without either having to account for them or being paid for them!

There was, of course, a national curriculum, as there is now - it was called the CSE and O and A level syllabus! However, the fact that I had fairly free hands to get my pupils to where they needed to go meant that I had a great deal of flexibility, which I don't think I'd have now. And, although I put in lots of hours organising extra-curricular activities, the bureaucracy I had to deal with during working hours consisted of marking the register … writing a report on each kid at the end of the school year (a couple of sentences each) … er, and that was about it. I had, of course, lessons to plan and tests to set and mark, but I also had the freedom to make those activities part of the pedagogical development of the kids and of myself.

I remember once, as a form teacher, having to deal with a situation where my 15 year-olds had been giving one of the science teachers a hard time. He had been a wonderful teacher in his day, but now he was old, and had a heart condition. This being Kent he received no help from the county, so he'd come back to school at the beginning of each term, try to work for three weeks and then be signed off sick until the beginning of the next term. His brother had just died of a heart attack and he had three years to go before he could retire.

What struck me there was that if you create an atmosphere of compulsion (for example by making a legal requirement for 15 year olds to attend school every day), then the only people with any real power to improve the working situation are the teachers (and their managers), since they're the ones with the power to actually change the working environment actively. What I told my class was that they had plenty of power to screw things up, but that that was a pretty pointless activity for them, even in the short run. However, the only way we could actively make their science lessons better was for the teacher to lead the changes … and that he couldn't do. And I didn't have the heart to try to make him do it.

I remember attending union meetings where the more conservative members would try to push the line that teachers should be 'professionals' (i.e. not complain about the cuts that Maggie was already making). I heartily agreed with them, and asked them what the professional behaviour of a surgeon should be if she were asked to operate in an unhygienic theatre with an unsterilised kitchen knife instead of a scalpel as a routine - to carry on, or to refuse? So why did we teachers carry on in a situation where our lords and masters were asking us to go against our professional judgement every working day?

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For number 2 I believe parents should always approach the school first - I am alarmed by the idea of students taking recorders into classrooms

The television programme was based on the idea of the teacher using a secret camera. This might be an act of dubious morality but it is very good at getting at the truth.

Remember, we would not have known that Lyndon Johnson covered-up the conspiracy to kill JFK without the secret tapes of his telephone conversations. We would not have discovered that Nixon attempted to cover up the White House involvement in Watergate without the taped conversations with John Dean. How nice it would be if Tony Blair taped his conversations with his fellow conspirators. However, as Lord Butler discovered, Blair ordered that minutes were not taken at these meetings. Blair has not learnt much from history, but he definitely knows what forced Nixon to resign.

Maybe it would be a good idea if all lessons were video-taped. I am sure it would result in an improvement in student behaviour.

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For number 2 I believe parents should always approach the school first - I am alarmed by the idea of students taking recorders into classrooms

Maybe it would be a good idea if all lessons were video-taped. I am sure it would result in an improvement in student behaviour.

Just so long as someone is watching or listening to everyone at all times I am sure all will be well in teaching and elsewhere. :rolleyes:

I am not sure that the TV program in question represents a valid picture of what really happens in classrooms.

I am certain that the research is not reliable. I am also suspicious of how such "research" is used by political groups and the media during an election campaign - rather suits the Tory agenda for education don't you think?

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Andy writes:

I am not sure that the TV program in question represents a valid picture of what really happens in classrooms.

I think it's a valid picture of what happens in SOME classrooms in SOME schools, and - from what I've heard from SOME colleagues - it can be a lot worse. How big that SOME is the question that everyone seems to be dodging. One of the points made in the programme - and this is based on official figures - is that an enormously high percentage of teachers perceive bad behaviour in the classroom as a major issue and a similarly high percentage of teachers report on personal experiences of very bad behaviour in their classrooms.

If a smuggled video camera helps raise awareness of the reality of bad behaviour in the classroom and the inability of teachers to cope with it and do what they are paid to do, then I am inclined to agree with John.

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One of the points made in the programme - and this is based on official figures - is that an enormously high percentage of teachers perceive bad behaviour in the classroom as a major issue and a similarly high percentage of teachers report on personal experiences of very bad behaviour in their classrooms.

I imagine that this has always been this way. As a profession we do seem to carry an awful lot of individuals who seem not to particularly like young people and thus are perhaps inclined to moan about them at every opportunity.

From personal experience I find managing behaviour in the classroom far easier than I did 15 years ago. If I smuggled a video camera into my lessons and made a TV program I'm afraid it would do nothing to further stoke up this Tory party inspired moral panic about the behaviour of young people. I believe also that these skills are transferable having completed a fair amount of outreach and support work in schools in more challenging circumstances than my own.

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Andy writes:

I'm afraid it would do nothing to further stoke up this Tory party inspired moral panic about the behaviour of young people.

I don't think that this is a party political issue. I have never voted Tory in my life - I have always voted Labour or (occasionally) Lib-Dem - but I am becoming increasingly concerned about the bad behaviour of young people, particularly as it affects me personally. When I moved into this formerly peaceful area of Berkshire, I was completely unaware of local young people behaving badly. Now we are confronted every evening with a group of youths hanging around on the corner of the local shopping precinct. Hanging around in itself is not a problem, but the group dynamics appear to operate in a way that has a negative affect on the group as a whole. As the group gets larger each evening, sometimes reaching 15-20, 2-3 members of the group break away, thieve from local shops and damage local property. My car has been damaged on three occasions in the last six months.

OK, I am beginning to sound like a grumpy old man, but our neighbourhood now has a problem that it did not have 30 years ago when I moved into the area. For me and my neighbours this is a 100% increase in youthful bad behaviour. I am intelligent enough to realise that a 100% increase for me and my neighbours is not a 100% increase nationwide. On the other hand, there are at least two other neighbourhoods nearby that are experiencing the same problem - and little is done by the local police to eradicate it. I don't think the way that I vote will make the slightest difference. I live in a constituency that has been staunch Tory for as long as anyone can remember - and they haven't managed to tackle the problem.

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