Sunday, January 21, 2007

Handling Anger


I wish to write a little about my experience of anger in the school classroom in this little post as I intend doing a small group session on this with my fifth years – about 7 or 8 students at the most. Luckily we have been gifted with a young student teacher for some three weeks which allowed another teacher and me to split our group into three. I have experience of working in and with small groups for over 10 years now and my two years spent on a course in counselling skills equips me to deal with individuals in groups, that is being sensitive to the “process”, being aware of vulnerable students in the group, and not allowing students to reveal what they might not be comfortable with, or indeed the group for that matter. I also have the back-up of a fellow teacher who is a fully trained psychotherapist, just in case I might judge someone to be “unable to cope.” That’s my good friend, colleague and fellow-counsellor, Mairéad Martin, who was appointed Careers Guidance Counsellor at the beginning of this year after 12 years teaching Religion and History with us. So I hasten to add that no teacher should undertake anything like this without training! We both, along with our new Home School Community Liaison Teacher, the Principal, and our Special Needs Teacher make up our pastoral council. So we know what we are doing!

My experience of this particular year is that they are troublesome and disruptive for a good proportion of the staff. A good number of them have left since fourth year, either voluntarily or encouraged to do so as the result of misbehaviour and disruption. These young boys/men (16/17 years of age) are liable to explode at each other or at their teacher at the least provocation. That’s just the way things are with this group. They are not the brightest of years, but they are all individually relatively good human beings like the rest of us. It’s just that their background does not allow for sophisticated reasoning – rather they understand the power of the punch or of the fist rather than of the mollifying word.

I’m reading a section on anger in Michael Hardiman’s wonderful book, Healing Life’s Hurts (Gill & Macmillan, 2001) as I type these words. Hardiman refers to what he terms dysfunctional schooling which he asserts was to one extent or another a characteristic of all Irish schooling up to the late fifties. My era, and I am now 49, came at the tail end of that darker and forbidding period in Irish social life. Indeed I certainly remember a few brutes or sadists among the many fine teachers who taught me. Thankfully they were in the minority, but if a class were unlucky enough to have one of these dysfunctional teachers the whole lot of the boys suffered. No wonder these middle aged and older adults have problems with anger, which needless to say they passed on to their offspring, and so on and so forth. Hardiman states that for those educated before the 1980s there is a legacy of emotional damage to be confronted. (I should point out that corporal punishment was outlawed in Irish schools in 1981.)

I will quote directly from Hardiman here: “This legacy comprises the following endemic characteristics of education for most of the last two centuries: 1. child abuse by teachers; 2. uncontrolled bullying; 3. preferential treatment based on ability and social class; 4. the cultivation of inferiority among those less gifted. All of these have been characteristic, to a greater or lesser extent, of the schooling received by a majority of people who are now over thirty years old.” (Opus citatum, 49-50).

My point here is that my pupils are sons of these latter pupils referred to in the immediately preceding paragraph. No wonder they are angry – after all they are most probably sons of angry fathers. One of the goals of education it would seem to me to be the identification of this anger early in students. It is only recently that the Department of Education and Science is recognising the need for trained counsellors and therapists in our schools. However, they are only available on a hit and miss basis and are not paid directly by the DES but rather by funding which the individual school can manage to raise from one quarter or another. Wherever such counsellors exist they are part-time and badly paid.

Hence it’s the likes of me and my colleagues on our Pastoral Team who attempt to do our best to help our pupils – the needy ones – mostly in our own time after lessons. We have also trained ourselves in psychotherapy and counselling skills at our own expense. I will write further on this theme in later posts. I intend beginning my session with a song on anger and hope to progress from there to how they each express their anger, constructive and destructive expressions included, suggesting constructing strategies, the use of I rather than You statements etc. That’s the plan at any rate.

The photograph I have placed above is one of O'Connell School where I was educated as a boy myself. This marvellous school was founded by Blessed Edmund Rice in 1828 and the foundation stone was laid by Daniel O'Connell himself in that very same year.

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