Most of my posts are about teaching strategies, the curriculum or the odd political rant. I have written very little on the subject of behaviour management. I considered why and decided that as I began my blog, as a teacher of nearly a decade, in a good school, with good behaviour systems (note all good schools invariably have good behaviour management systems at their heart), I wrote about what I was interested in. I therefore took the topic of behaviour management for granted. The problem is that lots of teachers and school leaders take the issue for granted when it remains a critical matter that can cloud the working day for too many teachers.
This week we have seen the release of the OFSTED summative report of the year. Whilst their data and judgments are clearly imperfect, they recognise the significant problem of low level misbehaviour in schools. OFSTED figures suggest that as many as 700,000 pupils attend schools where behaviour needs to improve. Regardless of the accuracy of that figure, to suggest behaviour isn’t a prominent issue for teachers would be to sweep it under the carpet. This is one of the main problems with the whole subject of misbehaviour and behaviour management. As my colleague, Helen Day, stated when we discussed this blog: “It is ok to come out as struggling with differentiation, but to be seen to do the same for behaviour management would be interpreted as weak.” Helen can confidently talk about the issue knowing she has few problems, but many people bury the issue and are driven by fear. We need to recognise the reality and support one another.
This post is therefore for teachers like my teacherly self of only a few years ago whose daily practice was characterised not by confident teaching, but by gaining consistent control in the classroom. It is also for the teachers who, like me, struggled for longer than they would care to admit with troublesome students. It is for teachers who are struggling within a school that has ineffective behaviour management systems. It is for teachers, regardless of status and experience, who will likely have a euphemistically titled ‘tricky class’ or more in the future.
In my fourth year of teaching I had such a ‘tricky class’ for their English GCSE. I toiled daily with every bit of knowledge I had accrued in my relatively short career to keep them onside and to have them show some vague appetite for learning. It was a war of attrition and based on their GCSE grades nobody won. I have forgotten that class in an act of kindness to myself; however, they taught me a great deal about managing student behaviour. I likely learnt as much from them than they did from me. For those who have yet to experience such a trial, or who are stuck in the mire with such a group, hopefully these tips are of some use to you.
1. Meet them at the pass. Students are incredibly quick in forming judgements about teachers. If you have read Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow‘, or have simply taught any truculent teens lately, you will know that their minds work with such quick, automatic responses that can change with the flicker of a computer screen. This means all the small details of meeting them at the classroom door matter. Positive, open gestures, direct eye contact, smiles and assertive body language all matter. Be at the doorway – even when you are desperate to set up the computer or whatever else – be at the doorway. You can meet and greet your students with defiant optimism! Subtly assert your authority over the classroom by confidently allocating jobs: ‘lower the blind’; ‘move the chairs’; ‘hand out the books’ and so on. Move about the room and get them working pronto: shift bags and sweep around the room with unstinting confidence. Before they know what has hit them they can be learning stuff.
2. Confident leadership (and faking it if necessary). Every group needs a leader. If the teacher doesn’t lead then students will quickly fill the void. Your tone and body language matter. Any teacher who strains to shout has invariably lost the leadership of the group. Calm discipline is most effective. A calm, deep and sonorous voice conveys control. Like the proverbial stillness in the eye of the storm, responding with assertive equanimity brings true command. Move about the room plotting a confident path that can manage the little details that matter. Create your own consistent path around the room: tread those boards consistently. Great teachers seamlessly weave their way around the room diffusing low level misbehaviour before it even happens. Jedi-like, with a tap of a hand they stop the budding pen drummer, or with a quick, severe look students are set back on back on track.
3. Sweat the little details. We all have tired, interminable days when the merest effort of dealing with a difficult student fills you with dread and loathing. Those days are when we need to sweat the detail. We need to follow through with every sanction. If we are challenged in the corridor we need to follow it through. A missed homework – follow it through. You get the picture. Stop the snowball of misbehaviour at the source. Maybe letting some small, seemingly insignificant misbehaviour – a rude comment or a missed homework – go would be the path of least resistance. But beware – seeds are sown in the collective consciousness of a group. On the long, dead days teacher reputations are grown by sweating the details.
4. One rule to rule them all. No-one speaks whilst the teacher is speaking. When a student is speaking the same rule applies. To everyone. No compromises. No let up or allowance for low level chatter or the smallest of distractions should be accepted. You may have to teach them his over and over, but it is the one rule that you cannot compromise on.
5. Silence is golden. In an age of OFSTED-appeasement, many teachers are made to feel guilty if students aren’t always wholly ‘engaged’ at every moment – or in OFSTED-speak – exhibiting a “thirst for knowledge”. Only, the fundamental error is that students don’t necessarily have to be talking or moving to be ‘engaged‘. Think about the last time you were rapt, or in awe. There is a good chance you were sitting and listening to someone, some music or watching something deeply moving. Our brains can be buzzing with activity as we sit and listen. We are not passive, we are just not moving much! The same is true of the classroom. Too easily ‘mental engagement‘ is often mischaracterised as ‘physical activity‘ and it does not represent real learning. Students need not be silent throughout the lesson. Debate, drama and talk are all integral to learning and consolidating their knowledge. I am saying that we should consider in every lesson where are those spots to time when students will work in tranquil, golden silence. Let’s make every effort to build their capacity to work in those conditions.
6. Make good behaviour visible. When dealing with students, particularly our most challenging cherubs, we too easily forget those quiet, more introverted students who plough on regardless of distraction. These quiet heroes not only need praise for their commitment, but they can play a crucial role in improving the behaviour of everybody in the group. Put simply, praise those modelling good behaviours more than students exhibiting bad behaviours. Celebrate the quiet heroes. We all know them – let’s make them as important as the class clown. When we leap to chivvy a slow starter, we can praise the student already rolling.
7. Avoid conditional language. The small details of our language and instructions have a potent impact. Clumsy, vague instructions can beget misbehaviour and distractions of our own making. To combat this we can each develop our own shorthand language. Those phrases that signal to students a whole list of responses in just a single word or phrase. For me, ‘active listening‘ is a key trigger phrase. It means ‘put your pens down, look this way, don’t have anything in your hands, stop speaking and listen‘. Only ‘active listening‘ is much more concise and more effective! We should not fear being assertive with our language. We shouldn’t use ‘can we all be quiet please?‘ – when we can use ‘Quiet – now…Thank you‘. Less polite in the short term perhaps, but it does not signal any disregard for our students. We want them learning – that shows our highest regard. What are your shorthand verbal triggers? Don’t have any? Develop some.
8. Teach them to listen, communicate and behave. Every teacher should have the highest expectations of students. It should be at our core as professionals. Too often, however, we forget that our expert assumptions about how we and others should behave isn’t so automatic for many of our young students. Ask yourself: have you shared your expectations with the group? Do they understand how to listen actively? Do they know and understand how they should speak to one another? In group work activities, what are the parameters of their role? They need training in how to learn. Don’t assume students know exactly ‘how‘ they should behave. Make the implicit explicit. Spend some time establishing the ground rules: you could involve them by getting them to create an ‘ideal student‘. Give this character a name and refer back to that character with ceaseless consistency. They will actively forget. Teach them to listen again!
9. The Three Rs: Rigorous, relentless routines. I have talked little about teaching strategies and how important behaviour for learning is in reality. We of course need to develop learning routines. Take asking questions when they are stuck. We need a routine to stop the chaos of shouting out indiscriminately. Expect them to write down questions on a post it, rather than shouting across the room for help and support. Build that strategy up as a regular routine – train your students. If they shout out answers when you are conducting oral feedback then train them in the ABC feedback routine (Agree with; Build upon; Challenge) whereat feedback is accepted, but in a structured, routine fashion. Students love routines. Repeated teaching strategies help students feel secure. Following through on routines (like checking rigorously for homework) also makes students value their learning more. Ask yourself: what are my routines?
10. Relationships matter. Behaviour management is about routine and establishing control. This doesn’t equate with not valuing students. We create calmness and control because we value our students more than anything. No one individual student has a right to detract from the learning of others. When we establish firm parameters and high expectations we can focus upon developing great relationships. We can laugh and joke and digress knowing that we are in a position of calm safety. Ignore the tired cliche of not smiling before Christmas, but you don’t need to be their friend either. That is not your role. You want to command their respect as a leader. Friendliness, warmth and unmitigated regard can indeed develop. Crucially, a trusting, positive relationship can follow once you have taken a confident, assertive lead.