One thing I’ve always been told and believe in to this day is that constantly finding ways to get better will ensure you see continuing success. This applies to teaching as much as any other aspect of life. Reflecting back to when I started teaching, I realise just how much my teaching style, classroom presence and eye for detail has evolved. In a series of blog posts, I want to share the story of this evolution.
In this first post, I will reflect back to how my approach to ‘behaviour management’ continuously changed, and is now beginning to take shape as a ‘culture in my classroom’.
Interestingly, my views on behaviour have gone 360 degrees. When I first started teaching, I knew I had to build good relationships, but I also knew that I needed to have sky high expectations and be unwavering in following them through. In practise, I found that having sky high expectations and enforcing them are two very different things. It’s so much easier to lend Abdul a pen than to sanction him for forgetting to bring his. It’s so easy to let Millie and Nadia talk to each other quietly because they’ve done four questions already, whereas everyone else is only on number two. I was muddling up enforcing high expectations and ideas of squashing children’s personalities. I wasn’t clear that focussing on work despite the urge to talk is good self-discipline, which is an empowering tool to teach… Clearly, I lacked insight…or so I thought. Fast forward to my third year of teaching and I stumble upon a journal entry I wrote during the PGCE year of Teach First – and it shocks me.
I had written a reflective piece I had titled: ‘Three Weeks In’. I discovered that I had articulated what is now my current stance on behaviour, but that I had somehow lost along the way. The irony is, I had articulated it so confidently yet the discordance between theory and practice persisted in the months to come. Being significantly more experienced in the classroom now makes me more sure in my belief in the theory, but I can’t deny that putting it into practice is still challenging. Don’t get me wrong – I know I have improved – I used to lend pens, now I hand out sanctions and have a conversation about taking responsibility and being organised. I used to let people off if they were just one minute late – it would avoid a lot of hassle. Now – if they are not walking into the classroom as the second bell goes at the very latest, then it will be a late detention. No questions about it. But there was a time when I didn’t see how I was approving of lateness and unpreparedness by letting pupils off. If they don’t face a consequence or even a challenge, they will not learn to improve. Here are a few excerpts from ‘Three Weeks In’:
‘Three exhausting weeks of teaching science in a secondary school as a trainee teacher have gone by, and the learning curve is as close to vertical as it can get.’
Sound familiar? Reading it made me chuckle. After some discussion about exuding confidence and the challenges of being alert to off-task behaviour, I get to the part where I articulate my epiphany on behaviour:
‘Today I had the epiphany that part of my job is to help teenagers learn discipline. They must learn to sacrifice the joys of messing around, sharing their playground stories [in the classroom] and teasing each other to focus and learn about things they don’t really (yet) have an interest in. They need to practice this art of inhibiting immediately expedient actions and appreciating the pay-off of delayed benefits. This makes it important to be strict and follow through with consequences persistently.’
What I realise in hindsight, is that the barriers to consistency got to me. Sanctioning where I have to follow up is exhausting. (Centralised detentions could solve this). Inconsistency across the school and pupil responses to sanctions also act as barriers. Having explored the huge debates on Edu-Twitter, Institute of Ideas and reading posts such as Joe Kirby’s, I learned about two key ideas which are key to creating a culture of respect for the rules across the school:
- For new teachers up and down the country then, the biggest support senior leadership can give teachers is to take away teacher autonomy where it concerns behaviour. This means there must be absolute clarity about the specific consequences for specific behaviours – this needs to be formulaic. As soon as there is room for interpretation of a behaviour and its associated sanction, it leads to inconsistencies between teachers, which results in backlash from pupils and the perception of some teachers as unfair and others as friendly, undermining teachers’ attempts at enforcing rules and building strong relationships with pupils. If the behaviour and consequence is clearly defined, it should drastically reduce any differences between staff. Consistency is key.
- Both teachers and pupils need to be crystal clear as to why certain behaviours are praised and why others are sanctioned. This will mean there is buy-in from both parties, the reward or sanction is meaningful and explicit. It is also empowering for a pupil to connect their actions to the consequences as it acts as a motivator. Narration of the what and why for any praise or sanction is the best way to achieve this, and the ‘why’ is almost always linked to responsibility, maximising learning and being respectful.
Fortunately, in the absence of a crystal clear, formulaic behaviour policy, individual teachers can still apply these approach in their classrooms. Of course it is harder if only some teachers do this, but it’s certainly worth a shot. I am still on my journey to getting where I want. Some things I am going to try are:
- Define exactly what sorts of behaviours I will reward/sanction e.g. follow sanctioning system if any pupil talks when I have asked for silent work – no reminders.
- Use stock phrases to make narration of these behaviours easier, as well as the link to why. ‘Silence is vital because everyone needs the opportunity to concentrate, which is why you now have a written warning’.
- Ask colleagues to do some live coaching – where they help direct me in the classroom if I am letting certain behaviours slip. E.g. My colleague signals I should write up a warning because a pupil calls out and I, in my bad habits, have accepted the answer. Or a colleague nudges me to narrate positively when pupils are working in silence, all focussed on answering questions.
It’s hard to be consistent if you are not used to being 100% consistent because letting certain behaviours slip may feel helpful: better relationship with pupils; no chasing up if there is a sanction given, no escalating response from certain pupils. But it’s worth remembering that we too need to practice this art of inhibiting immediately expedient actions and appreciating the pay-off of delayed benefits. We’ve come 360.
In the next post, I will discuss the Evolution of my Pedagogy: Teacher Talk.