Teachers: reboot your classroom behaviour for 2017

A guy dies and finds to his horror that he's going to Hell. At the flaming gates of the Inferno he meets Old Nick who shows him to the dungeon where he'll spend eternity. To his puzzlement it's just a huge room full of people standing in giant cauldrons, up to their armpits in bubbling manure, all sipping tea from a cup.

'To be honest it's not as bad as I was expecting,' says the sinner with a little relief. Old Nick pulls out a whistle and blows it hard.

'Tea break's over, people,' he said. 'BACK ON YOUR HANDS.'

Welcome back to your personal cauldron. Behaviour is one of the fulcrums on which such matters pivot. If your classes are civil and keen, lessons pipe along, content is covered and everyone's opportunities are multiplied. If your room resembles a game of Hungry Hippos played by gorillas, life is less sweet. Learning dissolves in the presence of even just a few stubborn Jaspers determined to set their shoulders against your ambitions.

But teachers can reset and reboot their rooms at any time. Often it's the fear of doing so that defeats us even before we have begun. 'I've lost them,' we tell ourselves, guaranteeing it by doing so. But you've never lost them; you just drop the ropes temporarily. They're still there, waiting to be picked up again. Here are what you can do to pull your room into shape as quickly as possible:

1. Outline the class routines. 

Any behaviour you want to happen routinely, by all/ most of the class all/ most of the time, should be explicitly defined for the class as a routine. Don't assume they will all create their own civil codes of conduct. Make them clear. You want jackets hung up on the pegs before they sit down? Tell them. You want lining up outside, or equipment handed out by the monitor of the week? Tell them. They can be academic or social routines.

The point being that if the behaviours you want are meant to be universally carried out, then save yourself a few years of repeating your instructions and make sure they know them from the off. Otherwise you reinvent perpetually; you guarantee that some will know what you want and others will not, and that you'll waste a lot of time, and theirs.

2. Make them practice it until they get it right. 

It seems an odd thing to ask, getting students to practice entering the room or whatever, but doing so makes it far less likely anyone will misunderstand what you want. Many teachers forget that good behaviour often has to be taught, just like any other part of the school syllabus. We wouldn't expect them to innately know the boiling point of sodium, so why should we assume they know what we privately mean by good conduct? Help them to understand. Help them to form good habits.

3. Sell the benefits

I tell every class I teach that I love teaching, want the best for them, and believe that everyone in the room is capable of great things. I tell them that if we all cooperate, everyone wins; everyone learns; everyone has a good time; lessons can become more interesting; we smash the world's expectations of what is possible and what is merely probable for us. And I tell them that the only way to get there is by working together, and that means following rules that optimise our opportunities. I tell them that I care so much for them, in fact, that I will move mountains to make sure everyone is safe, secure, and can learn in peace. And I'll make sure no one disturbs that pact.

I have never heard a pupil reject that contract. The hard part is making good on that promise. That's the great game, of course

4. Make it happen. 

Words are easy; but if you want to turn those fine sentiments into a glittering tower, you need to build it brick by brick. That means reiterating the expectations ad infinitum, sometimes a ridiculous number of times in a day. So what? If it's the house rules, it's the house rules. If you're spinning plates, expect a lot of little touches to keep them going- a nudge here, a sturdy shove there, a little tap somewhere else. Patrol your expectations. Sanction, reward, rebuke, celebrate, do the million things that you do to remind students of what is desired and what is discouraged in your room.

Eventually, routines embodied in repeated behaviour become habits. Habits are helpful routines, imbedded. Once the word become flesh in this way, your learning will hit the hyper drive, because your time will be spent, not patrolling expectations, but reinvested in greater learning strategies. And the students will be working in sociable, optimal ways that maximise their chances of success both civil and academic.

Some people erroneously believe this is slavish; the opposite is true. Teaching students to self regulate their immediate desires is the ultimate liberation from the caprices of fancy and the moment. True freedom is not the ability to do as we please, but for what pleases us to be good, and to act on that. Addicts and compulsives are not free, and the student who acts immediately on their whims in a classroom is no more a free agent than a sub routine in a program. By inculcating good habits in our students, we multiply their agency both in the classroom and beyond.

So: walk back into the classroom any day of the week and say, 'Let's pause the lesson to talk about how we behave towards each other. Some of the behaviour is good; some of it isn't good enough. Let's revisit what I need you to do, and why. And let's commit ourselves to that goal. Otherwise....' Or words to that effect. The point is, you need to show the room that you take their behaviour seriously, and that means holding a picture of what it should be in  front of them. They need to know that you have the highest standards of all. And what you do will have far greater impact than what you merely say. When your actions match your speeches, you teach them lessons they will never forget, or doubt.

But the pay off is worth it ten times over. Good luck in 2017.


  1. Great post Tom thank you - a timely reminder for us all to make the most of the opportunity that the new term offers and get behaviour in order.

  2. Hear, hear- aim higher! Children are amazing...


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