Shut Up!

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Is it easier for teachers to tell their students to ‘shut up’?

When I started teaching, I once told two children to “Shut it!” on our way home from a trip to St Paul’s Cathedral.  The coach was hot and stuffy and my patience was running on empty. It had been a tough day. Incidents: one child abused the Whispering Gallery acoustics with “Jordan is a tosser”, another had mocked some German tourists with a ‘Sieg Heil’ salute and a third stole a CD entitled ‘My Spirit Hath Rejoiced’.

I don’t actually remember saying “Shut it!” but I do remember that the front half of the coach fell silent for about 10 minutes whilst the other half were oblivious and continued mucking about. The colleague sitting next to me smiled and said:

“You’ve let yourself down, your class down and the whole school down! You’ll have parents knocking down your door tomorrow!” and he carried on chatting to the driver.

Another colleague said, “Well, that’s their emotional well-being and sense of self-worth down the drain!” Their concern was overwhelming. As it turned out, no parents came, social services were not involved and I learnt a valuable lesson which is why I’ve been telling kids to button it ever since.

Button your lip!

If students just won’t stop chatting, there are lots of strategies you can use to settle things down. One of the more radical and inappropriate classroom management techniques to use, is duct tape as one teacher in the US did!

Not unsurprisingly, this caused a real hoo-ha and things blew up a little! Unbelievably, this isn’t an isolated incident with another teacher doing the same thing with another pupil in a different school.

Wouldn’t it have just been easier to have told the students involved here to ‘shut up’?

Put a sock in it …

Telling those two children on the coach to put a sock in it was wrong because I’d lost my rag and I’d let the day’s events get the better of me. I’d given the words too much emotion and power. It is what we in the profession call ‘ballsing up’ but I put that down to being a naïve young teacher on his first school trip, wet behind the ears and a bit green. It was a classic school boy error and I learnt that the ‘red hot chilli pepper teacher’ had to give way to the ‘cool as a cucumber teacher’.

Some will say that saying “Shut up!” is unprofessional, showing a complete lack of respect for the child and perhaps, an emotional abuse issue. They might well be right. All children and young people are entitled to protection from abuse, suffering and neglect and I completely understand that they need to be kept safe. We work as trusted adults in loco parentis and protecting them from harm is number one. Our language and how we use it can have a profound effect on their well-being and their thinking, including our own.

Image: Shutterstock

Words are powerful and we need to use them wisely, but how we say words is everything. A venomous ‘end of your tether’ shriek of “Shut up !” can be a desperate and primeval cry for help that sends out the message you’re not coping, so children have every reason to feel vulnerable. But there is another way: humour.

Trap door shut!

Said with humour in a completely non-threatening and tongue in cheek way, “Shut it will you” can actually work wonders and you shouldn’t be afraid to use it, at least with older learners that is. The thing is, there has to be respect there in the first place before you do it. After getting to know pupils well and understanding what makes them tick, a well-timed “Just shut it” executed in the style of Lord Sugar with half a smile, raised eyebrows and a slight tilt of the head can get them to refocus and settle down. It’s a message of love and not of hate.

You will hear students saying it too. If someone is being a distraction and playing the class fool, you will often get their peers telling them to “Shut up!” and it works. A witty “Trap door shut” or “Press the mute button will you?” can help to shut-down petty low-level behaviour in a far more effective way than exploding like a stick of dynamite.

It is a surprisingly effective message that rarely gets misinterpreted.


“Yes sir?”

“Belt up will you?”

“Yes sir, sorry sir!”

(… the class giggles. Everyone gets on, no one gets hurt and everyone can achieve …)

Behaviour consultants get twitchy and sanctimonious at this, but as a strategy it can work wonders, yet doesn’t work for everyone which is why behaviour management has to personalised and carefully differentiated … Other strategies are available.


I’m not a huge fan of blowing up in class but this has to happen on occasions. Many of my colleagues frequently turn red with spit flying out of their mouths and they are still respected by the pupils. I don’t warm to “my resilience bucket is empty” or “you are stopping yourself from reaching your full potential” but if it works for you then go for it but sometimes ‘shush‘ can be slush.

Belt up!

Quite apart from striking a balance, pulling no punches, being human, being inspirational, being a polymath, being in control, being a maverick, being ready, and being there, the priority is being careful with your choice of words. If you are going to tell someone to cut the cackle, pipe down or button it, at the end of the day, it’s about knowing your pupils and your pupils knowing you.

That’s what really makes a difference to behaviour in the classroom.

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