June 23, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
There’s been a major focus in the media this past week on behaviour management in schools, prompted by the appointment of teacher and former nightclub manager Tom Bennett as a Government ‘behaviour tsar’. Bennett is targeting what he terms as ‘low-level disruption’, involving chatting, playing on phones and general mucking about in class. Children lose focus on what they are learning and teachers spend too much time dealing with the disruption instead of teaching. I think the debate is in danger sometimes of ignoring a key part of behaviour management, which is the role of the teacher before, during and after the lesson.
Three episodes helped me learn most about behaviour management in schools. The first was when I got it completely wrong and basically ‘lost’ a class for the next two years, the second was when, learning from the first, I created a ‘classroom contract’ where the pupils and I set out our expectations of each other and I was shocked to see what was at the top of their expectations of me. The third was when, having thought I had cracked behaviour management, I found I had to learn some new skills when I started teaching year 7 (11 year olds) for the first time. The key conclusions from these three episodes were that pupils WANT their teacher to be strict, that preparing and delivering a good lesson is 95% of the job done in behaviour management and that however experienced you are it is always important to keep learning and never get complacent. An extra conclusion is that teachers who try and manage behaviour without robust support from the senior management team will fail.
When I started teaching, I got given a Year 10 GCSE business class. I took the list to my Head of Department who sucked air through her teeth and said, “well, if you don’t learn from teaching this class you’ll never learn.” Well I did learn, and I’ll never forget it. There I was, 32 years’ old, fresh out of the business world with an MBA, about to teach a group of 14 year olds, and I thought it would be a breeze. We hadn’t done much behaviour management in our PGCE teacher training course, partly because our lecturers hadn’t taught for a while, but I still thought I’d be fine. I’d be ‘Mr Cool’, use my subject knowledge and the kids would like me and it would all be fine. Oh dear. I got it all wrong. Kids don’t need you to be cool, or try to be their friend, they want a teacher. If they misbehave, you need to follow it up rigorously. Schools don’t have a behaviour policy for nothing. Follow it. I didn’t, and that class tortured me for two years. I came to dread every lesson, and when I did start to try and be strict, they basically laughed and carried on. I wouldn’t be surprised if they lost about a grade each because of this, such was the time I spent dealing with the disruption and not teaching. I came out of that promising myself I would never get caught out again. With the support of my Head of Department, i tried to get it right with my next GCSE business class.
It started with a classroom contract. 5 things I expect from them, and 5 things they expect from me. When it came to them telling me what they expected from me, I got a shock. Number one, for almost every student, and particularly the ‘naughty’ ones, was ‘be strict’. I was baffled by this, because I thought from the other class that kids just wanted to muck around. Taking this back to the staff room, it was explained to me that kids crave a strict teacher for a few reasons. Firstly, you create a safe environment for them, in which they aren’t going to have stuff thrown at them and aren’t going to be insulted by anyone. That feeling of safety isn’t something many of them have at home, so when it happens they really like it. Secondly, and this is important, they know that when they turn up to a strict teacher’s classroom, they are going to learn something, they are going to get taught. So I learned to set expectation for them, and most importantly, when they didn’t meet them, follow them up..talking to their tutors, Head of Year, and even parents if necessary. I could use the detention system, assuming I had run through the other options, and this could apply to behaviour but also to not doing homework. If you do that, and the senior management team support you (because, believe it or not, some parents WILL complain if they think you are too strict) that is a very good starting point. Importantly, you should of course also use praise as much as possible. Pupils really notice if you put as much effort into praising them when they do something right as you do to consequences when they don’t.
BUT, all this is not the be all and end all of behaviour management. Not in the slightest. The most effective form of behaviour management, I found, is to prepare and deliver a good lesson. Engaged students are just far more likely to behave well. It is not 100% effective, because they may have just had an argument with someone or a fight at break and aren’t calm, or they may not have slept last night (many come from chaotic homes where sleep is difficult). If pupils look forward to your lessons it helps, and they look forward to lessons in which the teacher is likely to combine a variety of teaching strategies to keep learning interesting. This can’t happen all the time, but if your behaviour management has been good up to the point of a badly prepared or delivered lesson, then you may be able to get through it unscathed as the pupils will gIve you the benefit of the doubt.
Which is where I come to complacency. It is never too late to learn new tricks, some teachers think that they have found a way that works and then repeat that every year, despite having different kids, and eventually the kids will realise they are just going through the motions or the kids will realise that other (often younger) teachers, seem to be trying out new methods whilst their more experienced teacher isn’t. It is the same with behaviour management. You think you know it all, then you find out you don’t. When I started teaching Year 7 Geography After five years of teaching I put a lot of effort into preparing the lessons but was not prepared for the different challenges of teaching excited and excitable 11 year olds. Put simply, I couldn’t get them quiet. They would chat constantly, mostly about what we were discussing, but getting them to quieten down when I needed them to was very difficult. Because I thought I was an experienced classroom practitioner, I thought I could solve it, but I eventually realised I needed help. So I asked for it. I sat down with two experienced Year 7 teachers, told them my problem, and asked them what I could do. They gave me some strategies which were really quite revolutionary, and yet so simple. Within a week I didn’t have the problem anymore. The key learning point here is that teachers need to support each other, but ultimately it is just you and a bunch of kids in a classroom, and you should ask for help if you need it.
The main point I want to make is that behaviour management in schools requires a combination of many things. You need to prepare and deliver good lessons, you need to set expectations and enforce them from the first lessons, you need to have strong senior management support and you need to never think you know everything. Even then, kids are kids, and they are not going to be perfect, but when they are not, something needs to be done to help them back .