SCHOOLS: by Dr Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Teachers powerless to deal with unruly students
, April 18, 2009
To be effective, teachers need to be given the power to maintain discipline in the classroom, writes Kevin Donnelly.Overwork, large classes and poor pay are issues that worry new teachers. But according to a recent Australian Education Union survey of teachers across Australia, the other issue at the forefront of their minds is classroom behaviour.
The 2008 survey, which drew 1,545 responses, ranks disruptive students second on a list of 11 issues - rating 66.1 per cent, compared with 68.5 per cent for concerns about workload, 62.9 per cent for pay and 62.6 per cent for class sizes.
Of even more concern is that the figure on behaviour reflects a jump of more than 10 per cent compared with the 2007 survey. At the secondary level, the issue is ranked number one, with a rating of 71.4 per cent.
Victorian school leaders also see disruptive students as a serious issue. The president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, Brian Burgess, recently criticised the Victorian Brumby Labor Government for weakening the power of schools to deal with the problem.
Australian teachers and principals are not alone in expressing anxiety about the damaging effects of classroom misbehaviour.
In Britain, a recent teacher survey found that 45.5 per cent of those interviewed said challenging behaviour was a daily event and nearly two-thirds agreed that student behaviour had grown worse since they had started teaching.
Disruptive behaviour does not just undermine learning; equally damaging is its effect on teacher morale and wellbeing. According to one newspaper report, cases of stress leave for Victorian teachers have risen from 125 in 2006 to 170 in 2008.
Beyond the cost of WorkCover claims, many qualified and committed teachers leave the profession early because of the anxiety and stress caused by disruptive students.
It needs to be noted, too, that many beginning teachers are also concerned about aggressive and demanding parents, with 86.5 per cent saying that their training had not adequately prepared them for dealing with what many teachers describe as the angry parent syndrome.
What's to be done?
At a time when teachers are told that they must solve society's problems - from drug and alcohol abuse to sex education, self-esteem and wellness training, road safety, diet and, following Black Saturday, bushfire prevention - it's time to say enough is enough.
Parents are primarily responsible for raising their children and for instilling discipline and respect for others.Indulged and spoilt
It should be no surprise that children who are indulged, spoilt and turned into prima donnas at home cause disruption at school. So-called helicopter parents - the ones always hovering around, interfering and giving advice - should realise that they need to stand back, give children responsibility and allow teachers and schools to set and enforce their rules free from interference.
Based on the AEU beginning teachers' survey, it is clear that pre-service teacher education needs to be more effective in equipping teachers to cope with classroom realities. When asked whether their training had prepared them to deal with particular groups of challenging students, such as those from non-English speaking backgrounds, those with disabilities and those from dysfunctional backgrounds, nearly 70 per cent said "no".
Inquiries into teacher education have recommended that more time be given to practical classroom experience, with less emphasis on educational theory and more on what constitutes effective, research-based classroom practice.
Most baby-boomer teachers my age will remember the '70s and '80s, when formal discipline went out the window - along with the strap and school inspectors - and classroom rules were negotiated, teachers were called by their first name and a student's rights had priority over those of the group.
One response to unruly behaviour, advocated by Britain's Office for Standards in Education, is a return to traditional discipline and a more authoritarian school environment. Comprehensive schools in disadvantaged areas have received positive reports after taking up such an approach.
In drawing a clear line between life on the streets and what is accepted in the classroom, schools have banned hoodies and gang colours, introduced formal assemblies, and established clear rules that are enforced quickly and consistently, and strict uniform regulations. Many inner-city US schools have also turned behaviour around by enforcing strict rules and by promoting a school culture that rewards effort and success.
Compare such approaches with what takes place in many Australian schools, where discipline procedures are convoluted and bureaucratic. It's often assumed that teachers are at fault and parents are only too willing to take their children's side in any dispute.
In one notable example of how difficult it is to enforce discipline, a Victorian teacher failed to intervene in a schoolyard fight between a group of girls, most likely because of what would have happened if he had manhandled one of them.
Research shows that, along with a rigorous, properly defined curriculum, teachers are the most important factor in successful learning. To be effective, teachers need to be well paid, well resourced and to be given the power to maintain discipline in the classroom.- Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of Melbourne-based Education Strategies. He taught for 18 years in Victorian secondary schools. This article first appeared in the Melbourne Age, March 30, 2009.