I teach in the SEMH sector. After a really challenging week I am so glad that most young people just conform at school. Imagine if they realised what they could actually get away with? Imagine the nervous breakdowns mainstream staff would have if they found themselves teaching in our sector? I think that the most surprising fact is the way the situation can change from peace to carnage in a split second. Take my class, the morning routine is for pupils to come in, sit down and start the ‘do now’ tasks left on their desks for them. This is done to the gentle tones of Pachelbels Canon or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The TA brings through breakfast orders and the children eat at their desks. I tap away at my PC, completing the register and checking any emails that have come through. It could be any high performing class in any school across the land at that moment. Pleasingly it is at this moment that visitors to the school choose to enter and more pleasingly still they choose to leave just as I start to detect signs of unrest amongst the ranks. Paul has his head on the desk, Gerald is currently under a beanbag and George is surveying the surroundings, deciding on his next move. Richard is lost to the world, absorbed in a Maths game on his laptop and Michael is absorbing as many facts as possible from the Guinness Book of Records.
‘Stop making that fucking noise’ bellows George, following it with his trademark high pitched and, seemingly never ending, scream. Richard is oblivious to the fact that he is tapping the desk top, he isn’t deliberately trying to wind anyone up. Richard’s attention is attracted by a chair flying overhead, thrown by an angry George and intercepted in an elegant catch by a switched on TA. Paul spots his opportunity and leaps up, flipping his table over as he goes and then the one next to him and the one next to that. The floor is awash with stationery, books and fallen furniture. The situation isn’t great but in that split second, those still calm are ushered out and into the next room to start their learning leaving two adults and two teenagers on the rampage. Paul rips work from the wall and noticeboards, paying particular attention to who it belongs to and shredding only that from pupils he doesn’t get on with or like. George suddenly realises that there is someone else involved in what was supposed to be his moment, his scene, his carnage. He spins and faces Paul, backing him into a corner — “this is our class, what the hell do you think you are doing?” “This is our class and our work. Get out, go on, get out”. Paul stands still and mute, his eyes darting round, assessing the position he was in. Finding himself boxed in he remains still and quiet, aware that the adults are working to help George regulate and to get him out of the classroom. As George retreats Paul lets out a maniacal laugh and makes a sprint for the stationery cupboard which is kept locked due to items such as scissors or a pair of compasses providing handy weapons for the pupils. He tugs at the door, nothing happens. He puts all his force behind it and pulls with all his might. The lock stands strong, holding both doors shut. Sadly the same can’t be said of the hinges which give way, the entire door coming loose. Paul laughs with glee and furnishes himself with scissors and glue, ready to cause a bit more carnage. The scissors concern me as Paul visibly calms himself and his actions start to become more purposeful and calculated. I cannot, hand on heart, say that he won’t attempt to stab me with them.
A calm and quiet call for help via the radio is issued and a colleague arrives switfly to support. Paul has identified items he wants to shred with the scissors and I position my colleague at the door whilst I discreetly try and pass out items that belong to the other children — coats, shoes and bags being the main part of the haul. To my absolute joy my colleague spots an opening and manages to get the scissor block out of the way leaving Paul with only the pair in his hands. Danger to us reduced, it is time to put significant effort into de-escalting the situation. For this pupil it isn’t the normal mantra of “I can see there’s a problem, talk and I will listen”, distraction is the order of the day. A laptop is produced and with some gentle persistence Paul starts to give one word answers. I know that when the moment is right I can suggest a coding site which is guaranteed to get a reaction. It’s one I know he dislikes and will almost certainly cause him to take the laptop and put it onto one he prefers. Bingo, laptop snatched, scissors dropped and retrieved with so much speed I almost pulled a hamstring in the process. Paul starts tapping away and gradually one by one the pupils are brought back into the room until the class is whole again. This particular incident was just over an hour in length. The rest of the day ticked along as if this carnage had never happened.
The real key to success in all of this is to remember that it isn’t personal. Yes this behaviour is taking place but it isn’t directed at you. You are just one of the unique individuals who chooses to work in this envoronment. You have to let it flow over you like water off the proverbial ducks back. Stress would eat you up if you couldn’t. I wonder how much more I would have enjoyed teaching in mainstream if I had developed that particular skill earlier? Applied to both other staff and pupils it could has an immense inpact on stress reduction and job satisfaction. It’s certainly a skill that teachers need to become more aware of and to devote time too. I think it is one of the skills that would reduce the burn-out experienced by so many. It’s certainly worth devoting some time and thought to. What will you do differently this week to take things less personally?