21st century teaching is a punishment exercise

'IMAGINE being placed in a hostile environment and being expected to complete a seemingly never-ending series of gruesome and apparently dangerous tasks. No, not the latest reality TV show, but teaching in the 21st century.

While there are those who see the Robin Williams film Dead Poets Society as an accurate reflection of education, there are teachers who sometimes feel the reality more closely resembles a cross between St Trinian's and Silence of the Lambs.

I've been a full-time teacher for a year but have experienced both points of view. My background is in industry and commerce but, having reached my mid-30s, I decided that I wanted fresh challenges. I decided to take the plunge and enrol at teacher training college. Now, having completed the college course and coming to the end of my probationary year in school, I'm still having my doubts.

The two words which are repeated over and over in the recruitment campaign for teachers are 'challenging' and 'rewarding'. In the short time I've been a teacher, I've experienced both although not in equal measure.

When I found out which Edinburgh school I was assigned to for my one-year probation, I was told 'good luck' by one colleague who knew the school by reputation. His view was that it was a 'sink' school, stuck between the catchment areas of two more successful secondaries.

Very often the pupils' behaviour seems to reflect this. In the first few months there I was witness to a number of incidents which have led me to reconsider my choice of teaching as a profession.

A constant annoyance for teachers is a type of pupil (mis)-behaviour we refer to as 'low-level disruption'. This includes frequent talking, refusing to listen or follow instruction and general non-aggressive indiscipline. With some classes this seems to be almost continuous. In most subjects it can be irritating for the teacher and leave pupils educationally disadvantaged. In my subject, Craft, Design and Technology, it can be dangerous.

When instructing pupils on how to use sharp instruments or electrical machinery, it is vital that I have every pupil's full attention and yet there have been many times when I've had to stop a lesson because some were busy chatting among themselves. Many pupils seem to believe they can bring a playground mentality into the classroom and that the teacher is incidental. I have actually had a pupil chastise me because I had the audacity to interrupt her conversation with a pal during one of my lessons.

But if low-level disruption was all teachers had to worry about we would be a much happier bunch.

In the short time I've been teaching I've been hit by flying objects twice, once with a pen and the other time with a rubber. On both occasions the pupils excused themselves by claiming they were aiming for someone else!

In the 'old days' the perpetrators would have been belted; an immediate and quantifiable response from a teacher. Now I had to fill in a 'referral form' in triplicate which in turn is passed on to the department's principal teacher who in turn passes it on to the admin office who pass it on to the relevant member of the senior management team (SMT).

Eventually, the form is returned to myself with the punishment issued by the SMT to the pupil noted. On both these occasions the pupil in question was 'spoken to'. Hardly a deterrent.

Mind you, flying stationery is far from the worst thing that has been launched across my classroom. One third-year pupil was so angered that I had dared to tell him to tidy up at the end of a lesson that he swung a lathe gouge (a sharpened tool similar to a chisel) so hard that the blade flew out of the handle, across the room and embedded itself in the wall.

The action, which might have killed someone, was dismissed by the pupil with a shrug of the shoulders and a throwaway comment of 'I didn't mean it'. His punishment was to be put on a conduct sheet on which teachers note a pupil's behaviour. The same pupil had previously waved a chisel in my face and constantly acts in an aggressive manner. And yet he is still in my class.

But these types of incident aren't isolated. A female colleague has been pushed down a flight of stairs by a pupil. Others have been hit, spat on and threatened. A recent report revealed 34 attacks every day on teachers and other staff in Scottish schools, with 36 of those per year actually requiring hospital treatment. Astonishingly this makes teaching almost as dangerous a profession as the police force.

Depressingly, the main penalty which a teacher can issue to a pupil is a punishment exercise. But, ironically, this creates more paperwork for the school than it does the pupil, especially if the pupil refuses to do it and staff are left to chase up the exercise.

A pupil will very often just not bother doing it and, if this happens then they are simply given another chance to complete it. If they still fail to do it then as a penalty the pupil is issued with a (you guessed it) punishment exercise. The whole process is futile and infuriating for staff. It is a major problem for teachers that they have virtually no effective punishments at their disposal.

Indeed, there are some in education who are looking to eradicate all forms of punishment from schools and replace them with "sanctions". According to some educationalists, it is inhumane to punish pupils and it would be better for all if pupils were sanctioned, which would allow them to reflect on their "inappropriate behaviour".

Discipline is a dirty word and should never be imposed on pupils. Rather, teachers and pupils should jointly manage conflict through 'agreement frames and validation'.

Pupils who previously behaved badly were, it would appear, actually suffering from 'oppositional defiance disorder'. Orwell must be spinning in his grave.

Politicians have launched policy, proposal and plan, each one adding to teachers' workloads and making it more difficult to deliver effective teaching practice. Pupils' rights are championed in the guidelines of various programmes but, at the same time, children have been absolved all of their responsibilities, eroding teachers' influence in the classroom.

One example of how other professionals are failing teachers by undermining their authority came during one parents' evening. A pupil was attending along with his social worker and my colleague was discussing what the pupil would be doing in the subject in the coming year.

The indignant social worker interrupted and said: 'You don't dictate the curriculum - you negotiate!' My colleague pointed out that this might create a small problem come exam time, when the pupil's unique syllabus bore no resemblance to test papers.

The teacher also explained that he had well over 100 pupils and it would be ridiculous to negotiate with each or any of them as he would have no time to actually teach anything. That aside from the fact that teachers have to teach the national curriculum laid down by government.

Social inclusion has seen specialist schools for those with severe physical and mental health issues close and the pupils placed in mainstream education. It has been a disaster, with teachers expected to identify and deal with a huge range of medical conditions but without having received any substantial training.

Teachers just aren't receiving the backing they need. When the Scottish Executive was questioned about the 36 teachers hospitalised as a result of pupil attacks, a spokeswoman dismissed concerns by asserting that only a 'tiny minority' of staff had been injured. What has happened to our society that the safety of teachers is so cheap?There is no single answer as to why school discipline has been eroded so much. Family dynamics, changing values and society's standards in behaviour may provide some answers. All of those are out with the control of schools.

However, one thing that can be done is for local and national authorities to provide teachers with full and unconditional backing. Only then can teachers hope to claw back some of the respect from pupils they once had.

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