Sunday, 22 May 2011

Some general behaviour advice for running a classroom. It's not bloody nuclear physics, incidentally.

I often get asked for general pointers about how to run a classroom, so I thought I'd condense the content of what I tend to write on the Behaviour Forums, into a handy, pocket sized, pop-in-your-wallet cut-out-and-keep guide. If you think that children are angels, then I advise you avoid the next thousand words or so. But you'll probably do that anyway because you'll find the longer words troubling.

Be the Top Dog

          Children are curious, adventurous, wilful, smarter and dumber than you’d think. They are also bursting with the desire to do lots of different things as their whims take them. I know this is true, because they’re human beings, and that’s what we’re like. Unfortunately a lot of what they want to do will not be what we want them to do. Case in point: we want them to be at school learning, while lots of them would rather be in the park, or at home dreaming of appearing on Big Brother. This is a conflict of perceived interests. Anyone can see that this is going to cause problems.
          Were we in a world where youth automatically deferred to seniority, and authority figures were treated as icons of high status, then this wouldn’t be a problem. Whether or not this state of affairs existed in the past or existed at all, is completely irrelevant to your classroom. What matters is that they won’t automatically do what you say because you’re the teacher. So forget about it. Seriously. Don’t waste a second thinking, ‘But they should be behaving! I’ve told them to!’ That’s a valuable second in your life you’ll never get back.
          You need to show them that you’re in charge. At first they might not think that, so your job is to change their minds. Don’t ask, ‘Why aren’t they behaving?’ ask, ‘Why should they?’ They don’t know you. You might be a supply teacher (gone in a day) or a temporary teacher (gone in a week). Which means they think they can get away with misbehaving.

  • You’re not dealing with rational adults. Many of them will behave selfishly, motivated by whatever gets a laugh, or boredom, or hormones. Rationalising with classes, while laudable, is mostly pointless.
  • They initially value their relations with their peers far more than with you. So they would rather look good to their pals than please you.
  • They know you don’t know them. Literally; names and faces will be a blur at first. See how long it takes you to realise this: that if you can’t put a name to the misbehaviour, you literally can’t do anything about it, unless you pin them to the floor with tent pegs.[1]
  • They’d mostly rather not be sitting at a desk all day, writing about the Tudors or Trigonometry. I don’t blame them.
  • What they would like to do is sit talking to their pals, planning cruelty upon their archenemies, and possibly, getting a rise out of the new teacher for kicks.

          This is not to suggest they are feral, or subhuman. They are profoundly human. They are children, learning to be adults.

Oh for God's sake.
          So you need to be that adult. Like it or not, you will have to be the biggest dog in the room. If you have a problem with that, you’ll have a problem in teaching. They don’t need another pal; they need you to be an adult, to set boundaries for them, and to provide order and structure in their education. If you do this, you all have a chance. If you do not, then you’ll be fire fighting your entire career, their education will suffer, and you’ll crumple with stress. I advise you to take the High Road.

Setting boundaries

  • If the class isn’t behaving the way you want, then you’re going to have to bring the rule of law into the room; your law.
  • There will probably be a whole school policy on behaviour, outlining punishments you can use, and when you can use them. There should also be a reward system. The students will be familiar with both, so if you use them, then you show that you are an extension of the whole school teaching team, and not some pathetic loner student teacher that they can kick about like a tin can.
  • Familiarise yourself with the names of senior teachers in the school responsible for behaviour and general ass-kicking. This might include Heads of Year, Form Tutors, Senior Staff. Don’t invoke their names willy-nilly, or they’ll realise they should be scared of them and not you, but drop them in from time-to-time to show you know who carries the naughty stick at school.
  • Tell them what you expect of them, both in behaviour and work; you can do this by a short speech, a hand out, anything that shows them you have rules and you expect them to obey. Even if they disrespect this process, you have made a point.
  • If anyone breaks the rules, take their name, give them a warning or a punishment like a detention if it’s serious enough, and inform them of your decision. Do not engage them in conversation on this point. I repeat; do not. The lesson will be ruined by arguments, and it’s demeaning for you to argue with students. Let them huff and puff
  • If you set a detention, then DO IT. Be there, for God’s sake.

Class rules

Keep them short, simple, and fairly general, while allowing yourself scope to expand. If they’re too vague, then they’re meaningless, i.e. ‘Everyone must respect everyone.’ That stinks like a rat in a drainpipe. Avoid being too specific either, or they will mercilessly throw your own rules at you, i.e. ‘No chewing gum’ suggests that they might be allowed to chew tobacco, or bones or something. I go with the following class rules:

  • Don’t talk over me
  • Put your hand up to talk
  • Wait for me to allow you to talk
  • Treat everyone with manners.
  • Be on time
  • Bring equipment
  • Do all work

That last one is useful because telling people to ‘respect’ everyone else is like telling someone to ‘reach for their dreams’- its meaningless, and also probably impossible. But everyone knows what manners are. You can add a few more rules, but keep it short and sweet. I tend to have one main rule- ‘I’m in charge.’ It has a ring to it. These rules are hardly groundbreaking, but make them explicit. Then you can’t be accused of being too vague.
So far, so uncontroversial. It all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s not. Here are some of the things that will upset this process:

1. Pupils will fail to turn up to detention

Then you need to follow up: this is when it starts getting tiresome. Call home and tell the parents what happened. Be direct, but supportive. Say you need their help for their child to learn. Don’t say their offspring are Satanic, even if they are.

2. Pupils will argue relentlessly with you

One more time: do not engage, repeat, do not engage. You look weak, and reduce yourself to their level if you argue with them. If they won’t settle down, then have them removed from the lesson, or send them out to calm down. There is nothing more important than the education of the pupils in the classroom. Any one who upsets that can spend some time in the cooler.

3. There will be so many students misbehaving, it will be hard to know what to do

Keep taking names, no matter how long it takes, so that you can follow up later. Or at the end of the lesson only let go the ones who definitely behaved. Avoid whole class detentions if it’s at all humanly possible, and even when it’s not. It’s a cowardly, counter productive technique that will have them hating you, and devising new ways to send you to perdition.

4. You feel like giving up- and do. Soon, you start ignoring blatant misbehaviour in order to have a quiet life.

Never give up; even when you really feel like it. Trust me.

Follow Up

Independent learners, having their needs met.
          This is, perhaps, the secret ingredient of behaviour management; this is the Colonel’s secret recipe; Coca-Cola’s mystery ingredient; this is the thing I should sell on the Internet- the real reason why so much behaviour management goes astray. This is the final part of the jigsaw.
          An enormous number of new teachers say, ‘I’ve tried all the behaviour tips- I’ve set detentions, I’ve done the whole nine yards…but they’re still misbehaving. Boo hoo hoo.’ I don’t blame them; they get told all of these simple rules and standards to follow, and then nothing really happens. The naughty kid eventually attends a detention, or hands the homework in. The parents have been in for a meeting. You have issued detentions to the students consistently for a fortnight. But nothing. They still misbehave. Sometimes it’s the same kids; sometimes it’s others, but it becomes repetitive, and never ending. Why isn’t it working?
          Because it takes time. Never give up. This is the element every new teacher needs to understand. This is the Kryptonite. Teachers have two superpowers that the children don’t have: we are organised (or we should be), and we have stamina. The kids aren’t organised. If they were, we’d be up against the wall before you could say Viva Zapata! They work alone, or in pairs, or in miserably small groups. We are a mighty monolith, the school, the government. We can go all the way; we have the ability to issue sanctions, over and over again. So use this power.[2]If people don’t turn up to your detentions, record it, and discuss it with the head of Department, or your mentor, or whomever is responsible for keeping order in that area. And follow up with these people; ask what is being done, and is there anything you can do to help. You are part of a team, which implies two things: they have to help you, and you have to help them.
          The second power is stamina or perhaps just patience. Keep doing it. Don’t give up. Given a pupil three detentions, three weeks in a row? Do it again. Almost every single pupil will eventually give up, in the face of constant punishment. Of course they will- they’re kids, not master criminals.[3]They will usually do anything to escape privation, which, for many of them would be defined as not being allowed to play Call of Duty 24 whenever they felt like it. If you keep it up, they almost all crumble and comply. The ones that don’t (a tiny minority) will have to be dealt with by extraordinary measures (or, as I like to call it, excluding them), and you’ll have to enlist your superiors for assistance.

How long will it take?
          Those last few paragraphs are probably the most important advice I can give to a trainee teacher. Seriously. Persevere and things will settle down. Setting a time scale on it is impossible, because it depends on so many factors: the general compliance levels of the pupils in the school, the percentage of Special Behavioural Needs children in the room, your own personal presence, your body language, and a thousand other factors. At the risk of setting an impossibly vague timescale: most teachers experience an improvement in behaviour levels after a term; after a full year teaching in school, there is usually a marked improvement. By the second year, relations should be on another level, and the teacher should be able to push them harder and expect even more from their behaviour and work- IF they have been applying the rules consistently and fairly.

Don’t….
Dewey: 'I'm so sorry.'
  • Be tough one day and tender the next. Consistency is massively important
  • Be Nasty. If you EVER say to the class that they are ‘horrible’ or ‘evil’ or- God forgive me- you ‘hate them’, then you will deservedly be poked with a dozen pointy sticks forever, in Hell
  • Blow your stack at them. Shouting will get their attention, maybe even cow them slightly for a minute, but actually, after five minutes they realise, ‘Is that all she’s got?’ and your fury will be revealed as empty, hollow and meaningless. Besides, some of them will find it entertaining. But most importantly, it’s undignified and makes you look like an emotional fool. What would Sean Connery do- apart from shoot them? Imagine someone you respect as an authority figure. How would they conduct themselves?
  • ‘Forget’ to turn up for a detention/ meeting/ chat if you are meant to be there. They will realise a terrible thing; that sometimes they can get away with misbehaviour. That’s as bad as never punishing them. Inconsistency will bite you on the ass.[4]
  • Turn a blind eye to something you normally punish. Just because you’re having a great/ tiring/ hung over day doesn’t mean YOUR behaviour should be any different to normal. See above re: inconsistency.
  • Let them off with misbehaviour because you can’t be bothered to follow up. Do your job.
  • Completely forgive their crimes because ‘they were good afterwards’. That means they can misbehave, then get away with it if they act nicely afterwards. Which means they’ll never be good all lesson. Of course, you can still reduce their detention/ prison sentence if they act really well, but never entirely rescind the punishment. There has to be some justice. You are the Law.

          Some of you will have noticed a pachyderm in the premises: I said that this will take time. Some of you might have noticed that the time scales I mentioned might even fail to fall within the time you will have within your placement, therefore you may not experience what you might call satisfactory behaviour before your placement ends. This, I’m afraid, is just something that some trainee teachers will have to bite on. You may not indeed. But it’s still important that you follow these guidelines because it’s good training for being the kind of teacher who does get results in a permanent post; the kids still need to see you trying, or they’ll be all over you like tiny, beardless pirates; and because in many cases, you WILL see a distinct improvement before you go.


[1] Frowned upon.
[2] It wouldn’t be your first choice of superpower, I grant you.
[3] Not yet, anyway.
[4] Perhaps that’s your thing. 


That was an excerpt from my latest masterpiece, Not Quite a Teacher, published by Continuum and available now from any good book store with a kind heart and a twinkly eye. 

2 comments:

  1. Hi Tom,
    Thanks for the quick tips which I will certainly share with my teachers at school. As kids get wiser and more tech-savvy, we always have to stay on top of the game. Your advice will come in very handy when we start the new school year with new teachers. Thanks again.
    SohNee

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi SohNee

    My pleasure, and I wish you well in your school.

    Tom

    ReplyDelete