This series of #backtoschool blogs summarises much of my thinking as it’s developed over the past few years and is aimed at new or recently qualified teachers. Each area has been distilled to 5 ‘top tips’ which I hope prove useful to anyone embarking on a career in teaching. That said, I’ll be delighted if they serve as handy reminders for colleagues somewhat longer in the tooth.
It’s normally at about this point in August that the dull, nagging ache begins; the toad, September, squats over the summer. It’s bad enough if you’re returning to a school where you’re well-known, but if you’re starting anew or, Heavens forfend, embarking on a bright new teaching career I have a few words of well-worn advice: school rules are there for everyone’s protection – enforce them consistently, compassionately and zealously.
It is my firm and fervent belief that getting behaviour right is the primary responsibility of the school, not the teacher. In schools where behaviour is not an issue, teachers, and pupils are free to concentrate on the difficult business of teaching and learning. In schools where behaviour is in any way inconsistent, nothing else will work well. By inconsistent I mean that same high expectations of behaviour should hold sway in the presence of the Head, the gnarled old German master of thirty years tenure, the bright-eyed NQT, and the world-weary supply teacher. In schools where this is de rigueur, all will be well. Sadly, although I’m aware they exist, I have never worked in a school like this.
All too often poor behaviour is blamed on poor teaching. If you find yourself in a school like this, you will need, at least to some extent, to be an ‘engaging’ teacher in order to survive. At worst this means pandering to children’s whims with activities of dubious educational value, at best it can mean a thoughtful attempt to fight through the thicket of indifference you may encounter. As a teacher in a new school you must find your own balance – some classes will be more functional than others and so misbehaviour will be less of a barrier to the business of teaching them stuff.
But if you are to survive please know that whatever ever anyone else tells you, bad behaviour is not your fault. It just isn’t. And if anyone tells you the best behaviour management is a well-planned lesson, grit your teeth and know there is a particularly vicious corner of hell reserved just for them. Behaviour is always a choice. Yes there will be reasons for why pupils choose to act up, but these should never ever be accepted as excuses.
In schools where poor choices are tolerated, new teachers are up against it. Your best recourse will be to follow the school rules, whatever they are, even if you don’t always agree with them. (If you really don’t agree with them, raise this with the Head. If an accommodation can’t be reached, they’re the boos – deal with it or leave.) Set your expectations early, for what you accept on day one will haunt you for the rest of the year. Anything you allow becomes established as allowed; anything you challenge is established as unacceptable. At any point, if you are not happy with the behaviour in your lessons, you have to address it explicitly. And know well that whenever you choose to ignore a school rule you are actively undermining the authority of every other adult who works in the school. Yes! This means you, trendy, leather-jacketed drama teacher!
But although bad behaviour may not be your fault, it is your responsibility. Here then are 5 tips suggestions for consistent, compassionate behaviour management:
1. Know the school rules and stick to them
Find the behaviour policy in the staff handbook and learn it. If there isn’t one (gulp!) ask your head of department what their expectations are. If pupils say, “But Miss Lackadaisical lets us…” ignore them. They may be lying, but if not Miss Lackadaisical is your enemy.
2. Never let pupils sit where they want
Seating plans, however, are your friend. They signal clearly you’re in charge and they help your learn pupils’ names. I always used to begin with boy/girl in alphabetical order and then tweak until I arrived at something functional.
3. Use agreed consequences fairly and consistently
Tell pupils what the consequence will be and then never, ever back down. For this reason avoid nuclear options. If the consequence is arduous for the pupils, it’ll likely be arduous for you. Happily though, your average pupil feels as punished by a 5 minute detention as a 30 minute one. And always avoid the collective punishment. Quite apart from it being against the Geneva Convention, it’s lazy and it’ll turn the quite and well-behaved against you too. Even when a unidentifiably large number of miscreants have been annoying you, it’s still easy to identify those who do not deserve punishment. But if you make a mistake, acknowledge it. An apology goes a really long way.
4. Never let pupils work off punishments
Seriously, don’t. No matter how they wheedle or cajole, if you’ve levied a punishment you must carry it out. Otherwise they’ll learn you don’t mean what you say; that mucking about is fin as long as you sorry you’re sorry and work really really hard to get your name rubbed off the board.
5. Make 3 phone calls every day – talk about progress, not behaviour
Parents can be powerful allies and are much more likely to be onside in your avoid criticising their precious darlings directly. Tell them how concerned you are and they will likely broach the subject of behaviour themselves.
Often, the best examples of behaviour management can be seen in the PE department. Yes, I know they’re not trying to make teenagers sit still and write stuff, but they have the spectre of Health & Safety always hanging like Sword of Damocles – any laxity or leeway will eventually result in injury.
And remember: it’s NOT YOUR FAULT! Good luck.