9. Broken glass
Updated: Jan 22, 2020
“It’s so quiet. We haven’t had a fire alarm this term,” Errol Samson greeted me that first Saturday. In the week before Christmas, there had been a spate. On one of my final visits before I took up my post, I witnessed the boy who had sworn at an Ofsted Inspector shamelessly punching the safety glass. When cornered, he confessed that he was homeless. Rhiannon Starr called it a cry for help and phoned a contact at Social Services. But she also agreed to switch off the emergency pads on corridors and instal a new circuit in all the offices. We had to prevent the posse of internal truants from disrupting lessons every 20 minutes. Our priority was calming the school, but we were taking another big risk. "L'audace, encore l'audace, toujours l'audace," as Miss Starr quipped in the style of the gung ho US General Patton.
When I arrived 20 minutes early that first January morning with bags of fruit and croissants, the stars of my Year 11 top set were already waiting outside the classroom. Angela Leighton, the Teacher Governor, had also come in with the Head of IT and an enthusiastic Design Teacher to observe my use of Guided Discipline. As the rest of the class arrived, they seemed happy to accept the new workload. Not only had all the students present at the ‘Coy Mistress’ lesson completed the homework, so had those at the French exam. Just one student was missing, so I phoned her at her Saturday job as I had promised and asked the manager to send her in – much to the delight of her classmates. The descriptive essays they wrote that morning were still too short and undeveloped, but there was an excited buzz at the end of the session. IT, Art and Technology teachers had offered to teach extra lessons after mine, so some pupils stayed all morning. According to Angela Leighton, “They are ready for a change.”
Every week the standard of their reading, speaking and listening improved, though it wasn't until the end of January that Alice broke the glass ceiling and scored the school's first Level 9. The writing skills took even longer, and the Monday night practice lessons were torture for some of the pupils. They desperately wanted to do well, but the effort of writing fast and remembering grammar and punctuation when they were exhausted gave one of them a headache that lasted weeks.
Whenever I wasn't teaching, I toured the school, anxiously sniffing for smoke but only picking up the stink of urine in the stairwells. There were 10 minute lessons observations. The checklists included aspects of teacher behaviour such as the number of positive reinforcers and the use of warnings before sanctions, plus aspects of pupil behaviour like whether they were waiting with hands raised rather than calling out. Logs given to the teachers at the start of the week to list commendations and transgressions were collected for the school statistician. There were weekly checks on how many chocolate bars had been distributed. Mary Stevens of the Local Authority’s Behaviour Support Service agreed to spend most of January at Eydon Vale, triangulating observations.
It was clear to both of us that most teachers and pupils wanted Guided Discipline to succeed. However, even seasoned staff were intensely nervous about being observed. When I stood up at the end of my first visit to the Head of Art, I visibly startled her. She was acting just like the teachers in the demonstration video: forcefully, but also calmly. When I told her how well she had done, though, she shook her head incredulously. Like so many others, she was still so beaten down that she found it difficult to accept praise.
For many teachers in the school, the introduction of Guided Discipline was extremely stimulating. Every time I went into the staffroom, I would be asked, "What should I do if….?" As Angela Leighton said, "The staff were ready for it!" However, our observations suggested that most teachers were still finding difficulty in maintaining pupils’ concentration for a whole lesson. Students stopped me in the corridors to tell me how much better things were, though. One perceptive pupil commented that most of the staff had stopped holding grudges. "They are dealing with problems as they arise and starting each lesson afresh."
In the early morning briefing at the start of the second week, I told the staff we were now passing from the “invasion beaches” to “securing the bridgehead”. Any slip by any teacher could still bring the whole system down. We all had to keep to the Guided Discipline script. We all had to know that the Senior Staff, Zone Managers and the Duty Tutors were observing classes or walking the corridors every moment of non-contact time.
When I asked the cleaners about the amount of rubbish on the classroom floors, they agreed there was less. “Last term, the bill for broken windows was £19000. So far this term, we've only had to replace the glass of four. It’s early days yet though,” their manager warned.