Managing students’ behaviour can be the most terrifying aspect of becoming a teacher. Although it’s the nightmare scenarios of being told to eff off on your first day, or having a chair hurled at your head that tend to keep new teachers awake at nights, these are – in most schools – relatively rare events. More often than not it’s the small stuff that undermines lessons and erodes the best efforts of teachers and students alike. In my eventful (and often unsuccessful) picaresque to discover what actually works I’ve made scores of mistakes and wasted countless hours trying to tackle the horrifying banality of low-level disruption. So, distilled in vats of trial and error, and tempered in the crucible of hard knocks, these are the five most useful pearls of wisdom I have to offer:
1. What you permit you promote
It may seem tempting to turn a blind eye to students’ misbehaviour, especially when it’s not that challenging, but you do so at a cost. Whenever you allow students to speak over you, you’re communicating that this is acceptable. Whenever you let students off for ‘forgetting’ to bring a pen to your lesson, you’re letting them know that you don’t mind. Whatever you accept in your classroom will be perceived as acceptable. Take note.
2. It’s not your fault
Anyone who tells you that students would behave if only you plan your lessons properly is talking bollocks! However well-intentioned they may be, such people are not just wrong, they’re actively part of the problem. This dastardly untruth is the most toxic, pernicious piece of misinformation (and there are a great many to choose from) doing the rounds in schools. Children choose how they will behave, and the reason they often choose to misbehave in your lesson is because they think they can get away with it. You know when the deputy head walks in and they all go quiet and stop throwing paper about? How much planning did she put into that? In bad schools, children learn they only have to behave for experienced or senior teachers. In truly great schools children behave in all lessons – even for NQTs and supply teachers!
3. It is your responsibility
That said, it’s entirely up to you what you do about bad behaviour (see point 1.) If you work in a good school there will be a clearly defined and well understood behaviour policy which all teachers use. It is there for your protection. Enforce the school’s rules with all the zealotry you can muster and never, never, let the students suspect you don’t actually give a damn whether their top button’s done up or what kind of foot wear they prefer.
4. Routines matter
Nothing works until you’ve cracked the classroom climate you want. Be clear about what you expect and practice it. Do this until everyone understands how to enter the classroom, how to present written work, what to do at various points in the lesson. There’s little point busting out all singing all dancing lessons until you know that everyone is crystal clear about exactly what’s expected and what the consequences are for not being on board. So, don’t be afraid to rehearse routines for as long as it takes.
5. Relationships matter too
But do all of this – as far as possible – with a smile. Be fair and even-handed. Never be tempted into using collective punishment: it’s lazy, wrong and they will hate you for it. Take time to get to know the students you teach. Learn their names and use them. Students are rarely rude to teachers they respect. And they respect teachers who can enjoy a joke but have very clear boundaries.
Do all this and, with time, behaviour management will cease to be something you have to work at. It’s a bit like learning to drive a car; before you know it you’ll be half way up the M6 with no memory of the last 50 miles. Then, as the burdens on your fragile working memory ease, you’ll be able to really focus on becoming the best teacher you can be.