Friday Period 5: Bottom set Year 10.
Chair swinging, pen throwing, table chucking, saliva spitting, noise making, abuse hurling, note passing, face punching teenagers are the last thing any sane human being wants to be dealing with at the end of a hectic week. The bell goes to signify the beginning of Friday’s last period and in walk year ten: a monstrous thirty headed beast feared by all trainees, NQTs and those who forgot to suit up that morning.
Managing a badly behaved class can feel like fighting a Hydra. Every time you deal with one incident, another two or three crop up in its place. Whilst you are busy asking James to spit out his gum, Jack and Jade have started throwing stationery at each other and Johnny is swinging on his chair and telling poor Jay to shut up and perform questionable acts on his mother. In this state, classrooms become utterly chaotic, teachers become mentally drained and demoralized and, perhaps most importantly, no learning happens.
But, as we know, we have a responsibility not to allow behaviour like this to continue. Not only is good behaviour vital for learning, it is our duty to make sure that our pupils are taught how to behave. It may be hard to manage, but every time we allow a kid to get away with chewing gum, swearing at his mates or generally being uncooperative, we are telling him that it is okay to behave that way. And when they are finally unleashed into the real world, what then?
Of course, any discussion about behaviour management often leads into a wider conversation about effective school leaders and systems. Strong leaders provide support for staff and make it easy to give out sanctions for poor behaviour. Weak leaders tend to say that behaviour is ‘the responsibility of the classroom teacher’, which effectively condemns the NQT to a couple of years of abuse until they can establish and refine their own structures. And that’s if they can put up with it for a year or two: many don’t, and frankly, who would blame them?
However, let’s not dwell on the incompetence of those who should know better. I really struggled with behaviour management in my first and second years of teaching. I spent a long time reading and thinking about how best to manage the chaos in my classroom, tried lots of things out, failed, made mistakes and tried new things. Through all of this I’ve realised a couple of things. Firstly, behaviour management isn’t about you. If you happen to be quite good at dealing with behaviour, that’s not because you are some paragon of teaching virtue, parachuted in from teaching paradise to save the little darlings from a feeble incompetent. By the same token, if you are so terrible at managing behaviour that you might as well not be there (like I was!), that doesn’t mean you should hang up your board pens and quit the profession, either.
Behaviour management is not about you; it’s about the approaches that you use. The ability to get kids to sit still and learn things, rather than being a result of an unquantifiable, innate quality that cannot be taught, is actually an outcome of using the right approaches and leaning on well built systems. Teachers are empowered by good structures and an understanding of the importance of following them to the letter. As I have said above, lots of schools don’t really put structures in place (which in my mind is utterly insane) but all is not lost. There are many things that you can do in your own classroom, and understanding what the cornerstones of good behaviour management are is the first step.
The Three Cs.
It does sound a bit on the faddish side of things to use a phrase like ‘the three Cs’ to describe good behaviour management, but I’m just going to plough on anyway. Of all the information I have read, been told about and picked up from colleagues, these three things appear to me to be what underpin all good behaviour systems: clear rules, consequences and consistency.
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But you might be surprised to learn that some schools don’t really have ‘rules’ as such, and if they do, they are often written down in a dusty policy document in language that outdates the Magna Carta. Nobody really knows what the rules are, so is it okay to arrive late because of the bus? Is it okay to wear foundation but not mascara? Is it okay for one child to call another ‘gay’? Nobody knows. Instead, we use our ‘professional judgement’. Unfortunately, Mr Chilled-out’s judgements are very different to Ms Strict’s, meaning that there is absolutely no consistency whatsoever.
You can’t do anything about whole school consistency unless you are a member of SLT yourself. So instead of trying to launch a siege on the citadel, think about implementing rules in your own classroom.
The clearer and simpler they are, the better. So nothing fluffy like ‘we respect each other’s learning’- this means nothing to kids. Rules have to be linked to actions so that they know exactly what they mean. It’s also useful to frame things positively; telling kids what they should do, rather than what they shouldn’t. Rules such as ‘Enter the room in silence’; ‘keep bags on the floor’ and ‘track the speaker’ set a clear expectation of what you actually want them to do. Specificity is vital. Anything vague or ambiguous is pretty much a waste of your breath. (Of course, I’m not suggesting that we don’t want children to respect each other, just that making that a rule is unlikely to yield the desired results.)
Once you have established your clear rules, you must make sure pupils know that rules are intrinsically linked to consequences. If they break a rule, no matter how small or insignificant, there is always a consequence. For example, if a pupil is not tracking you when you ask, he receives a demerit. If a child forgets a pen, he receives a demerit. If a pupil fails to hand in homework on time, he receives a detention. If there is no consequence, there is no point in having rules in the first place. And don’t worry about giving warnings, either. Rules ARE warnings. If you give them a couple of opportunities to misbehave before you actually call them on it, you are telling them it’s okay to behave in that way.
This is by far the hardest one to crack. I still struggle with it now, as I’m sure many other teachers do. Being consistent is just so important, but it is really hard. It’s particularly difficult when your school doesn’t have any systems. So rather than logging behaviour on some kind of IT system and having it dealt with centrally, you have to spend hours rushing around after school phoning parents and liasing with colleagues trying to chase kids up. It’s exhausting, but it is worth putting the time in.
Like I say, I’m still working on getting this one right. But whenever I quibble over whether or not to give a kid a consequence or to chase them up at the end of the day, I remind myself of something very important. I did not come in to teaching to massage the egos of children. I did not come in to teaching to make excuses for them or to allow them to behave poorly because of what they’ve got going on at home. I understand that the home lives of many of our children are tough. They undergo challenges on a daily basis that many of us might never have to deal with in a lifetime. But that is not an excuse; it is simply an explanation. We need to stop making allowances for poor behaviour and think about the lessons we are teaching that child in the longer term. Do we want them to leave school thinking that it is okay to ignore or swear at a superior? Do we want them to take no care over their work and to ignore deadlines? Of course we don’t. Every time we give a child a consequence we are teaching them these valuable life lessons. Some may find this approach unkind and unforgiving, but in reality, if we are to enable these troubled young people to flourish in their futures, we must teach them how to behave. In many ways, having clear rules, giving out consequences and being unwaveringly consistent, is the kindest thing any teacher can do for their students.