Hugh Reilly: How about a shout out for teachers?

Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry
Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry
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WHEN overt teenage discontent surfaces in a classroom, many teachers believe haranguing the pupil is worth a shout.

Screaming into the smirking face of the abuser has its advantages. First, violent exercising of one’s vocal cords can cower cardboard gangsters who talk the talk but find difficulty in perambulating. Second, it breaks the education ennui that sucks the life out of teachers and learners. Last, roaring at the top of one’s voice lays a bed for taking sick leave due to alleged mental illness.

As a young, inexperienced teacher, I bellowed with the best of them. With heightened blood pressure, it was almost an orgasmic happening. Had it not been for pesky council rules, I may have lit a cigarette.

I was a full decade into my teaching career when I finally worked out that shouting at pupils was generally a bad idea. For most pupils, it is comedy gold watching a chalkie suffer apoplexy or, to use Glasgow schools parlance, “taking a berkie”. Thanks to Sir’s loud words of mouth, his colleagues avoid making lunchtime conversation, fearful of having to send for the school defibrillator should he choose to relate the event that caused his discomfiture.

I eventually realised kids expected a bawling out, thus dug-in for the predictable verbal onslaught. Fortunately, I discovered from a fellow teacher, Big Barry, the power of silence allied to non-blinking eye contact with the aggressor. This minimalist approach proved to be very successful, causing much confusion and angst in the minds of those who determined to undermine my efforts to bring enlightenment to the masses.

Phil Beadle is a teacher, broadcaster and co-author of the recently published book Why Are You Shouting at Us?, written with John Murphy. He advocates learning from colleagues as to how to handle difficult pupils. While agreeing with the thrust of his argument, I would advise teachers to be careful as to whom they consult.

For example, in a conversation with a principal teacher of art, I asked him what strategies he employed to ameliorate the anti-education antics of pupils we both taught. A devout Christian, he replied that when he felt he was in danger of losing control of the situation, he would open the classroom windows and let the Holy Spirit enter. Quite aside from the redundancy of flicking open windows to allow a ghost to flit through the classroom, I was flummoxed that he seriously thought divine intervention could be a viable behaviour-intervention policy.

Another co-worker told me he had no issues with some of the bad boys. Passing by his room one day, his class of excitable rogues appeared to be re-enacting the Battle of Balaclava, a somewhat incongruous activity for a Maths class; clearly, no discipline, no problem.

Beadle states that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. I agree, but the sad reality is that staff feel they will be perceived to be incompetent – better to tolerate insults and loutish behaviour in the belief that, by keeping a lid on things, management will award them brownie points.

Rather than test the limits of my larynx, I usually resorted to sarcasm, or what I prefer to call acerbic humour. Pithy replies often received higher pupil approval than the original verbal abuse. With hindsight, I regret some of my more extreme comments, but a wounded, cornered teacher can be a dangerous animal. I recall a ned who, on one occasion, perhaps due to a second helping of beans, had mastered the skill of setting off loud methane explosions between his legs; soon the classroom made the local sewage works smell like a bombed Fabergé factory. When I invited him to desist, he gave a gaseous reply. On being told to leave the room, he rose and made a noisy exit, laughing his dandruff-filled head off. “Goodbye, human skunk,” I said, as I closed the door.

Next day, I was summoned by a deputy headteacher. He was holding a letter from the lad’s mother. Apparently, her sensitive son had come home in tears due to my words. On being told to apologise, I agreed to do so as soon as the boy had apologised to me for his disruptive behaviour. I heard nothing further.

If teachers were accorded respect and stoutly supported by schools management, there would be no need for classroom roaring. Wouldn’t that be something to shout about?