Why is that they behave in your class but not in mine?
It’s a myth that students in a selective school are angels. It’s a myth that they sit quietly at their desks, taking neat, detailed notes while the teacher lectures the room. It’s a myth that these schools are ‘easy’ places to work. I completely agree that working in an environment like this is perhaps not as emotionally draining as working in schools in difficult circumstances, but there are still challenges to confront.
Take behaviour for example. The ‘treat’ of teaching a class of twenty six highly intelligent boys is that if they choose to misbehave, they are capable of orchestrating a pretty effective, co-ordinated psychological attack on you at the front of the room and will not stop until you have left the room. You need your wits about you to keep your class on your side.
A Head of Year came to see me the other day. His question: ‘what is it you do with x?’ I was puzzled. ‘What do you do that’s so successful which means he’s fine in your lessons but gives other teachers the run around?’ He had been removed from the lesson before lunch, something that was becoming a repeat occurrence. This then got me thinking – which behaviour management strategies do I use that are repeatedly effective?
Be reasonable: The boys I teach like to be treated as reasonable human beings. That sounds trite, I know. If you explain clearly why it is they need to behave they will probably listen to you. They get irritated, however, when you appear to be making arbitrary pronouncements that don’t seem to have logical consequences. In the case of this particular student, he is a serious sportsman, who is often in school before me in the morning doing practices, he spends lunch and afterschool doing sport and will spend most weekends at competitions. A lunchtime detention for him is like a double punishment. Not only does he have to spend time with you, but he is also deprived of the thing he both enjoys and is seriously talented at. He asked me once if, rather than staying in at lunch to catch up on work, if I could give him some extra work to be completed by next lesson so he could do his sports practice. He completed the work, which satisfied me, and he could go to his practice. A reasonable compromise. Likewise, I asked him to stay behind at lunch this week. He spent twenty minutes with me, and then asked if he could leave to complete a school sanction. He promised to bring the rest of the work, completed, the next day. Again, by being reasonable he was able to be responsible and complete a sanction and satisfy me.
Being reasonable means you can buy ‘good feeling’ between you and the student, which you might need to call upon if there is a more serious transgression. If you have been on a students’ case for minor offences and then something serious happens, you’ve got nowhere to go.
Confront the behaviour, not the person. I try to run my classroom along the lines of clear policies, which I brief students on throughout the year. They know, for example, that if homework isn’t completed satisfactorily the first time, they get a non-sanctioned intervention from me. The 2nd time? Intervention + school sanction. 3rd and subsequent time? Intervention + escalated school sanction. No equipment? 1st time? Don’t do it again. 2nd and subsequent time? School sanction.
This means I can take the emotion out of my behaviour management. Because I have clear policies, I can’t change my mind when a ‘good’ student forgets their textbook or doesn’t do their homework. My students also know that I am simply addressing the behaviour, and not them personally. Again – ‘bad blood’ is minimised.
Be consistent. You have lost the game before kick off if you punish one person for doing something and then not the next person. Students (quite rightly) smell a rat and automatically see you as having favourites, not being consistent, not worthy of their co-operation. It is the biggest cause of bad blood between teacher and student.
I had messed up a little bit with one of my classes at the beginning of the year; I hadn’t been consistent. They were starting to get irritated. I had to be brave and address the issue. We stopped the lesson and had an impromptu class conference about the problem. I asked them – why isn’t this working? Their answer? You’re not being consistent, sir. I got a homework sanction but he didn’t. You said we’d get a detention if we didn’t put our hand up. I got a detention but he didn’t. They were right, of course. I had to be brave enough and apologise. Plenty of people would think that apologising to a class is humiliating. I completely disagree. If you have clearly messed up, be a reasonable person too and say you’re sorry.
Like them. I watched an episode of Teaching with Bayley the other day, in which a headteacher said: ‘You’ve got to find something to like in every single one of these students. Or leave’. He’s spot on. Even if you inwardly cannot stand someone in your class, you have to find something to like in them. In the case of the boy in my class, I know that he has absolutely no talent for my subject, will never do anything with it, and will want to drop it at the first possible opportunity. He cannot sit still, is easily distracted, occasionally makes inappropriate comments in the middle of the lesson and can be a real pain. There’s loads to be irritated by. But by at least outwardly appearing to like him, I can again build ‘good feeling’ between us so that when push comes to shove (and it does at points), we can have a reasonable discussion and address it.
So what’s the magic tool?
I don’t think you can manage behaviour successfully by deploying tools and strategies. It’s about ‘rapport‘. If you build rapport with classes and students, learn to like them, be reasonable and treat them like reasonable people, they in turn will repay you in their co-operation. Of course, some classes and some students are harder to like than others. But these are the classes that need the security of a strong relationship with you the most.