Most of what makes classrooms work lies beneath the surface. The here and now of lessons and classrooms is dependent on the routines and relationships teachers have forged over time. If you’re clear about what is (and is not) acceptable behaviour, firm and fair in applying consequences, and provide meaningful feedback on how pupils’ can improve, it almost doesn’t matter what you do in a lesson: children will learn.
But that’s by no means the complete picture. One of the most damaging and appalling lies circulating around schools and teacher training institutions is this: if you plan your lessons well, children will behave. And if your lessons are not ‘fun and engaging’ they won’t. This patent untruth has crushed the spirit of many a bright young teacher, and it needs to be challenged.
The primary responsibility for behaviour rests with the school, not the teacher. And before you start frothing uncontrollably, please note the word ‘primary’. Of course teachers must bear some of the responsibility for the behaviour of pupils in their lessons. And of course having a well-planned lesson helps. But without watertight systems, classroom teachers are put in an untenable position.
Do any of these apply to your school?
- Pupils swear at teachers without being excluded
- Supply teachers and NQTs are hazed and hounded by baying packs of feral children
- Teachers send pupils out of classrooms for poor behaviour only to have a member of SLT bring them back in and undermine their authority in front of the class
- Teachers are expected to set and administer all their own detentions and follow up every misdemeanour witnessed in the name of ‘improving relationships’ or to turn a blind eye and pretend it’s not happening.
If so, you work in a bad school. And if you lead in a school where these oh-so-ordinary atrocities routinely occur, shame on you.
But there’s a sacred covenant at work in good schools. Just as your school has a responsibility to ensure that you don’t have to put up with abuse and can get on with the business of making kids cleverer, you have an equally weighty responsibility to uphold even the most trivial and inconsequential of school rules. These rules are there for everyone’s protection. Pupils need to know that they will be upheld consistently. I’d much rather set the bar at doing up top buttons than throwing chairs around. Teachers who are too cool for these rules actively undermine all their colleagues. If you ‘can’t be bothered’ to enforce uniform rules because you don’t really see how a pair of trainers can affect learning, Beelzebub has a devil put aside for you.
Arguably, the first and most important job of a teacher is to establish classroom routines, which enable children to learn in safety. Time spent embedding these routines is time well spent. If you have a rule, stick to it. If you allow children to speak over you, sit where they choose or wait for someone else to get their book once, they’ll learn that it’s acceptable to do it again.
The expectation that there is no slack time and that lessons begin the moment students arrive is a hugely important message. Waiting for stragglers just signals that turning up on time isn’t important. I’m obsessive about tightening up entry routines; if we can shave a minute or two off the time it takes to sit in our assigned seats and have our books open and pens poised, I’m a happy man.
Once clear and sensible routines are in place, there is space for positive relationships to form. Getting to know pupils takes time and many secondary teachers will only see pupils for a one solitary hour a week. How on earth can we get to know the kids we teach when we see so little of them? The first step is to know and use their names; if I use a pupil’s name, I will get to know her. It’s inevitable that the gobbier a pupil is, the quicker you will get to know them. But there are some fairly obvious things you can do to get to know the others. For this reason alone seating plans are worth their salt. Without them I’m likely to descend to gesturing weakly at a sea of faces and saying, ‘Yes, you.’ But having a printout of my plan to hand ensures that I can direct questions at individuals confident that I know whom I’m addressing. Everything else will start to fall into place and you can join the dots of their lives.
Talking to colleagues is a great way to getting the low down on kids, but parents are a more overlooked avenue. I always endeavoured to make three phone calls everyday. Some in response to incidents (positive as well as negative) that cropped up in lessons, others as I worked my way through the class list. Parents love teachers taking an interest. A quick call to say that their son or daughter is making progress/coasting/lagging behind works wonders. But simply complaining to parents about their beloved offspring is not normally a successful strategy. Focus discussions on progress rather than behaviour. Few are the parents who are completely uninterested in their children’s academic progress and, even if they’re powerless to help, they still want to know.
With routines established and relationships formed, we can then consider developing some of the behaviours we might value in effective learners. I wrote this post back in January 2012 and while I may have changed my thinking about the roles and responsibilities for good behaviour, some of this advice is sensible and still stands.
Bottom line: if you’re consistent, predictable and fair, attitudes to learning will change. It doesn’t matter if some lessons are awful. Sometimes just keeping them in their seats and not swearing at each can feel like an achievement. But, this is a marathon not a sprint. Pupils need to be made to see that they will do better than they ever thought possible and leave with the best results of which they are capable.