Anyone who was following the Local Elections coverage recently would have got sick of hearing how bad ‘times’ are. It’s of course no different in education – we have our own hard times as the Coalition seemingly declares war on us…pay freezes, pensions under attack, constant belittling of the profession, Heads attacking a ‘culture of fear’ imposed by OfSTED (BBC News, 6th May 2012)… Although only 32% of us bothered to vote – worryingly the lowest turnout since 2000 – perhaps we did just enough to give the Coalition a bloody nose. George Osborne has accepted the ‘tough message’ and even the dictatorial Gove appears to have realised he cannot take on the entire profession on his own and has backed down on no-notice inspections! Politicians seem surprised by how resilient the profession is – but then of course we’re used to it. Whoever is in charge, left, right, centre, use us as political point-scoring football. One thing is clear though – despite the rhetoric, no politician ever acts upon perhaps the most pressing issue in the classroom – discipline. Blaming the teachers for not giving students high enough aspirations is easier than admitting socio-economic policies since 1979 have failed big time…
During a recent interview – which I am pleased to say turned out to be successful – I was asked about how I deal with disruptive students. A very simple question… and a very simple answer – of course my classroom management is perfect… After all, I’ve read Sue Cowley’s Getting The Buggers To Behave (both 1 and 2), Bill Rogers’ Practical Guides, Jim Smith’s Lazy Teachers Handbook… ok, perhaps I shouldn’t have admitted to the last one, it gives a bad impression, but the book’s title is ironic, and I never send students out of lessons so my classroom management must be perfect.
If only! Dream on… and its probably the thing us teachers fear the most and the hardest thing to master. As every NQT knows, you can read all the books you want, nothing prepares you for the realities of the classroom. I thought my PGCE course was excellent, especially the seminars on behaviour and psychology, but even then there were times during that dreaded first year when I thought how the hell do I deal with this? The seminars didn’t prepare me for this! Going back to the interview, in the true words of a politician, I was glad they asked me that question. I think I’d got a bit complacent over the years and it gave me a chance to think over why I’d been relatively successful in the field of behaviour management.
The obvious things to do, the well researched theories that we’re all taught on our PGCE, Teach-First or whatever course we’ve done or are doing, are to think about your lesson plan, differentiation (all/most/some), seating plans etc… I’m not going to go into this and I don’t want to teach my grandmother to suck eggs, but it goes without saying engaging the students with accessible tasks, relevant topics and
I once saw a PGCE student ‘set the scene’ in a year 8 lesson on the Black Death by reading out a passage from a scholarly tome by an eminent Cambridge professor. Needless to say the lesson was not a success, although I learnt a lot!
What is key to me though and what has really made the difference in my ten years of teaching is getting to know the students – and I don’t mean just their reading ages, statements and data, I mean getting to know them as an individual and treating them as such. Never lose track of the individual in front of you, no matter how hard it gets – and we all know it gets very hard at times. Engender a feeling of mutual respect – let them know you are on their side, you are a professional and you are not going anywhere and, it might take longer in some schools than others, you will earn their respect. When you take an interest in even the most difficult of students they will react in a positive way… find their interests, their likes and dislikes – I’ve even created whole worksheets around certain students’ interests that have worked wonders even at secondary level.
Knowing your students also means knowing your allies – from the very first lesson find out who is on your side and use them. They can help you appear human by allowing humour and banter – but of course only certain students fall into this category – you need to know who you can rely on to help you out and who will help create a positive atmosphere of mutual respect where the whole class, staff and students are working together – its hard to achieve, but its possible.
Getting the atmosphere right is essential too. It’s a tough balancing act between not appearing so laid back that you will let anything go and not being draconian and ruling through fear. During some recent work with an EBD unit I learnt more about this than ever – you need patience! Ok, these students had severe emotional problems and poor beahviour stemming from this but it was true that they responded to a calm, measured approach at all times. If, on occasions I got a bit over the top and excited or the starter was a bit too interactive, they reacted in exactly the same way and it was difficult to get them back. The same happens in mainstream schools too.
One last piece of advice – develop a thick skin and don’t take it personally! This is so, so difficult to do – we put so much of ourselves into teaching that it is hard not to go mad when 7C rip up the worksheets you were up until midnight preparing, but you have to remember, you are not the target as an individual. Let it bounce off you and carry on… There is also the chance that if the class see your Achilles Heel they will exploit it, so make sure they don’t! Also remember that you can’t do it all on your own and you shouldn’t have to – use the support from management, discuss things with your line manager – it is not a sign of weakness. ‘We’re all in it together’ seems to have take on a different meaning recently, but in teaching’s case, we are, so don’t be afraid to ask for help!