I used to really struggle with behaviour. There would be routine periods of my lessons where I just didn’t have control. Majority of students not working. Kids wandering around to have a chat. Paper airplanes. You know the drill. It’s utterly soul-destroying, and makes you feel totally inadequate and desperately, desperately small. I doubt I’m the only one who’s struggled with this.
Ideally, I don’t really think my job should be to “manage” students’ behaviour, and I resent the fact that it’s a teaching standard. Students should just behave, regardless of what I do. That’s what I believe should happen.
Unfortunately, it’s not what actually happens. There are schools out there running brilliant, supportive behaviour polices that help all their students thrive and learn. But my experience is that most schools are not like this. Most have behaviour policies that ultimately leave the teacher with the unenviable task of “managing” the behaviour of their students, vaguely supported by some kind of never-quite-clear-enough reward and punishment system. Resent it I may, but live with it I must.
A few years ago, I had a real demon of a year 7 class. They weren’t bad students, but they were desperately needy and immature. You know that student who gets out of their seat, wanders to the front of the classroom and tells you whilst you are in the middle of a sentence that they have finished the page in their book? I had 30 of them. The first couple of months were hell, with me becoming more and more exasperated at the sheer carnivalesque ridiculousness of what they were getting up to. The phrase “herding cats” springs to mind. Exasperated Adam didn’t make for happy Adam, and those lessons weren’t particularly fun for anyone.
At some point I realised that there were certain things they would do at certain times, and I learnt to anticipate these things. If I could anticipate their actions, then instead of responding to them doing something bizarre I could preempt their doing something bizarre, and cut it off before it happened. For example, I realised that when I asked a certain type of question I got a certain response. For example, when teaching forces, I would ask:
Has anyone been to Thorpe Park?
To which the response would be:
Oh yes sir I’ve been! Oh I went too last year with my summer! Hey Dan do you remember when we went to Thorpe Park?
And so on and so forth. Rookie error. So I stopped asking the question like that, and instead would say:
Some of you may have been to Thorpe Park or somewhere like that and you might have seen….
See that? A slight shift, but made a difference. I still get all the pedagogical goodness of making forces relevant to their life experiences (for whatever that’s worth) but don’t have to deal with the ensuing hubbub.
I realised that a lot of my actions and mannerisms were cueing the students to respond in a certain way. Slowly, slowly, I built up a small repetoire of general rules for myself: tips and tricks to make sure that I was anticipating student response and acting differently in advance of that. I started talking differently, moving around the room differently, and noticing student actions differently. I started picking up on smaller details, catching students just before they were about to go off-task or do something disruptive. I started becoming pro-active in stopping poor behaviour before it started, and not just re-active in sanctioning it after it happened.
As I expanded my bag of tricks I started rolling them out with other classes too. Before I knew it, it wasn’t just my needy year 7s who were behaving better, but my 8s, 9s, 10s and 11s too. By paying really careful attention to what I was doing and to what was going on in my classroom I started “managing” behaviour far better. I’m now at a place where, though my lessons aren’t perfect, I practically never have those moments – the ones that make you sick to your stomach – where control of a class just…runs away from you.
These techniques also helped to minimise the high-level events like getting into a massive argument with a student. Because you’ve preempted poor behaviour, it rarely gets to that point where things are really hitting the fan. Furthermore, as you get better in your class, your reputation spreads, and you find the random encounters in the corridor where a student you’ve never met before tells you to f–k off happen less and less.
Probably much of the below is known to most regular readers of this blog. That’s ok. But there are people out there who are really struggling, as I did too. I suppose if I can help just one of them to feel better and more comfortable in the classroom this blog was worth writing.
As mentioned, I am not for one second saying that student misbehaviour is the teacher’s fault for not doing x, y or z. It isn’t. You’ll find that students magically behave for senior leaders or veteran staff. They aren’t better teachers or people than you: it’s just the way it is. When I left my first school I was pretty happy with standards in my classroom. After my first lesson in my second school the behaviour was so bad I was ready to call my old HT and ask for my job back.
It is what it is. Students are capable of behaving, and if they choose not to, that’s their choice. It’s not on you, it isn’t your fault (1). All that follows is a way of dealing with the world as it is, not as we wish it would be. So if you’re interested in some simple tricks that will probably make your life easier: keep reading.
I run training at school on this stuff and usually use videos. I can’t really reproduce that here (as no consent etc) so you will have to bear with some fairly ham-handed script writing. Sorry. A lot of these techniques can also be found in Teach Like a Champion 2.0 (though with different names) and I do recommend you get yourself a copy. I really really recommend you try and video yourself. You will see all sorts of things that you would never notice otherwise. It’s crazy awkward at first, but can be the most valuable CPD you ever undertake. Anyway, here goes with the tips and tricks…
Cueing and signalling
The most powerful overarching concept that I use is cueing and signalling: the way that your actions prompt and cue students to think or respond in a certain way. Let’s take a classic example, teacher has just finished an explanation and a student asks a question. The teacher lowers their voice, takes a few steps towards the student, and answers the question. They have signalled to the rest of the class that this bit of the lesson is not for them: it is almost a private conversation between teacher and the questioning student. Cue 29 other students to stop paying attention, and increase the chances of them turning around and having a chat.
Instead, try this:
Does anyone have any questions? Yes, Amy (Amy is in the front row).
*mumble mumble mumble*
Ah, that’s a great question. *broadcast to rest of class* Amy has asked a great question, Amy please say it again louder and I would like everyone to pay attention.”
Works much better. Pedagogically, you are ensuring that everyone has the chance to learn, but management-wise, you are ensuring that everyone is on the same page, and no one feels like “ah I can zone out of the lesson now.”
Here’s another good one: bringing a student up to do some work on the board. Let’s say students have finished a long problem, and you ask a student to come up and do the working on the board. I see this a lot. I dont really get the point, probably active learning or something, but essentially unless you are incredibly skilled you are signalling to the rest of the class to switch off. They just won’t listen to your detailed socratic conversation with the student at the board. At best, they will just be waiting to hear the correct answer. At worst, they aren’t listening at all, and will start making eyes at each other or actively having a chat. Far better to do it yourself, use a visualiser, and at each step pick a student to explain what you are doing. That way you can use cold call and no opt-out to make sure that students aren’t switching off and having a chat.
When giving instructions, I normally build in a positive cue, so instead of saying:
Everyone please get your green pen out
Without talking, please get your green pen out
This way, I preempt the inevitable “sir I left mine at home” or the “Dave can I borrow a green pen.” A small thing, but makes a difference.
And…wait….and wait…”ok, I would like you all to…”
I recommend you read Lee’s blog on Brighten Lines. This is about making your transitions incredibly clear so that there is no room for misunderstanding. Here, I want to emphasise the importance of waiting before you give instructions. My students stand up at the start of a lesson. When I am ready, I invite them to sit down. I then wait. I wait because them sitting down makes a noise. And some of them will be opening their books. And looking for a pen. And generally doing things which are fine, but not strictly paying attention to me. So ask them to sit (“without talking please get a seat”), wait in the same place till they are done, and then I issue the first instruction of the lesson. If I do it before then, I guarantee that some students won’t hear and won’t know what to do simply because they weren’t listening. So I wait.
Noise leads to NOISE
I also don’t take questions in that time. If I start talking to a student whilst everyone else is clattering around sitting down and rustling through their books I introduce just a bit too much noise into the classroom. And then, and I’m not quite sure how this happens, more noise starts to develop. And that noise becomes a hubbub, which becomes a NOISE, which means I need to do a countdown or whatever to get students to listen. So wait. If a student puts their hand up or says “sir” at a time when I am waiting for everyone to be ready to listen to me I gesture to them to put their hand down or I shake my head. It can wait. Like with the green pens earlier, preventing students from having that conversation about their missing pen prevents a small amount of noise which, in turn, prevents a larger amount of noise.
Pens down, all eyes on me
Some schools have SLANT. Mine doesn’t, and my students would look at me like I was bananas if I told them to SLANT. But I do have “pens down, all eyes on me.” If I want students to listen to me, I want them to stop writing. If student x is writing while I am issuing instructions, they won’t hear the instructions and, you guessed it, will make noise as soon as they have stopped writing. So I make them stop, and look at me. And yes, I sanction students who don’t do this. I give them plenty of time to get with the programme and then I will quietly walk to their desk (all the while talking to the rest of the class), take their pen from their hand and then have a conversation with them about it later. Rules are rules.
I do the same if students are writing notes while I’m talking. To start with, they will probably learn worse if they are copying something from a board while I’m talking, but for our purposes let’s say they get it all down from the board, then I finish what I was saying and let everyone else take a note. What do the students who have already got it do? You guessed it: make a noise.
Sweat the details
Nowadays I always feel at my worst as a teacher when I let something slide. When I see something out of the corner of my eye, and ultimately chicken out of dealing with it. I can’t be bothered for the confrontation, the argument, the subsequent paperwork – whatever. So I let it slide. This is bad. I’m at my best when I’m picking up on every single detail, complimenting good behaviour where I see it, but holding students to account for poor behaviour: all their poor behaviour.
Cut the banter
Having a smashing relationship and rapport with your class isn’t going to make them behave for you. That “Discipline is all about relationships” is one of Andrew Old’s top 5 lies about behaviour. If you have a tough class, keep a lid on them, and keep that lid on tight. If you start joking around or bantering or whatever I guarantee it will lead you to problems later in the lesson. If you want a great relationship, manage their behaviour until they know exactly what the rule is and where the line is. Then, and only then, can you start easing back a little. And you know what? If you never get to that point, if you find yourself permanently stern with a particular class: you’re still doing fine. To start with they will probably have a begrudging appreciation of you. And secondly even if they don’t realise it themselves, it’s better to have a good GCSE and the memory of a stern teacher than a poor GCSE and memories of the quality bantz they had with Mr “down with the kids” B.
Of course none of this means you should be impolite or unfriendly. You need to show warmth, that you care about your students, their wellbeing and their learning. But you can do all of that without having a laugh with them.
You aren’t going to be able to do all of the above with every class from 8.30am tomorrow. Pick a class who are a bit tricky, but not too tough. Start practising with them. Video yourself. Reflect, get better and improve the way you control the class. Then start rolling out to tougher classes. It’ll feel frustrating in the short term, but it works in the long term.
Get help or find a new school
If despite all of the above you’re still struggling, you need to ask for help and support (2). Find someone in your school with a good reputation for behaviour but who has also struggled with it. No point picking a senior leader who’s been there 20 years or one of those naturally scary people who the students are just quiet for. Let them come and observe you (or better watch a video of yourself teaching together) and get some advice and support. And if despite all that you just can’t quite get there, that’s cool. Find another school in your area with a better record on discipline and see if you can get a job there. Those schools exist – don’t give up just yet.
It’s really tough
Remember, you aren’t alone. We’ve all been there, we’ve all struggled. All I’ve tried to do here is sketch the things that have been pretty easy to implement, but have made a big difference to me – I hope it helps.
(1) If there were speed cameras all the way down the M1 which issued fines immediately if I went too fast, I wouldn’t speed on the M1. But at the moment, those cameras don’t exist. If I speed it’s still my fault– even if the government could have made some action to prevent my behaviour in advance.
(2) Probably worth noting that if you are in a school in which chaos genuinely reins supreme (and these places certainly exist) then the tips and tricks almost definitely won’t work.