When confrontations come: The Hunters

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions!” – Hamlet

The most difficult situations facing many teachers on a daily basis are those surrounding classroom confrontations. In addition to the wide range of duties, long hours, frequent sleep deprivation and the pressure for improved results, most teachers spend twenty or more hours of their week orchestrating learning in classrooms. Fundamental to executing this complex and difficult performance is that students yield the leadership of the room to the teacher. I have found that there are some groups of students who do not understand, or do not value, this principle.

All that aside, being good at handling confrontations is part of the teacher’s trade. It is worth being very good at it, because such confrontations can be very costly in time and energy – and very difficult if we get them wrong.

In this and the posts following I have considered six kinds of direct behaviour challenges. All of this is should be read in the context of using the “pre-emptive” strategies discussed in my previous post.

To address any behaviour problems, we need to ask three key questions:

  1. What exactly are the behaviours that are of concern? (Definition)
  2. What rewards are students receiving for carrying out these behaviours? (Motivation)
  3. How can I make the behaviours of concern less rewarding, and make pro-social behaviours more rewarding? (Intervention)

I have begun with what I consider to be the most difficult scenario to manage, that of students working together to undermine the teacher and destroy the lesson.

Hunting in a pack

This kind of collusion is a problem for any teacher, but particularly for beginning teachers. Very few of us are used to being baited, insulted and defied by teenagers who feel fearless because they have “the group” behind them. And when the teacher tries to deal with them firmly, others join in, so you don’t know who to deal with first. Even if you announce a list of offences and sanctions, they go off in a group reassuring each other how brilliant they are and how useless you are as a teacher (and, of course, as a person). There are few things as disappointing in life as feeling that a bunch of gobby teenagers may be right about you, and that all your years of effort to get to this point have been for nothing. No wonder so many people leave teaching in the first few years.

What this goes to show, of course, is how much group pressure can distort our sense of proportion. That is the aspect that makes this a particularly destructive experience.

So, to answer the three big questions:

  1. Hunting in a pack is when students co-ordinate their misbehaviour, and in collusion defy you, argue with you, insult you and appeal to each other for backup while doing so.
  2. Students hunting in a pack are being rewarded by two things: peer approval and power. The excitement of taking power away from the teacher, and the thrill of being accepted by a group that is doing something daring, is a heady mixture.
  3. The first step is to break up the party. Then, we have to get them into a space where real contingencies kick in and they are reminded of reality. The next step is to change the environment so that they feel more pleasure in being in accord with the teacher than in being isolated from the lessons and their classmates.

With all that in mind, here are some strategies for dealing with the hunters:

1. They operate in a group, so isolate them from each other.

They believe they have strength in numbers, so cut down the numbers.

A seating plan is a start, of course, but they already know they need to undermine this and have almost certainly been moving around the classroom to talk to each other and show how fearless they are. Be ready to remove them (or have them removed) from the lesson as soon as disruption begins. You can justify this by setting up a written agreement when working out a previous misdemeanour. “So you understand, Jasmine, that if any of the behaviours we have listed here occur again in future lessons, you will leave the class to work on your own straight away. Yes? Thank you.”

When Jasmine gets out of her seat to talk to Erdogan, hand her the ticket to a colleague’s classroom or office, and carry on. You have a lesson to teach, and the students need to know that that is your focus.

Always deal with  individuals.

Never deal with the group. They are effectively obsessed with each other, and the presence of their partners in crime is so intoxicating that they simply cannot focus properly on how unacceptable their behaviour is. You only need to try dealing with a colluding group of students once to realise that it is impossible. But deal with them as individuals, and you should see more progress. With no audience and no group to back her, Jasmine will steadily find the experience of defying you less rewarding.

When talking to individuals, do not fall into the trap of responding to their complaints. By all means show yourself as listening, but calmly refer them back to reality.

“I instructed you to answer those questions in your book, working silently for ten minutes so that other people could concentrate. Was that a reasonable instruction?”

“You left your seat three times in five minutes without permission and having been warned you would be sanctioned if you did it, and you still did it. So you were sanctioned.”

But don’t try too hard: you don’t want Jasmine thinking you need her approval. You will get there in the end but it will be on your terms, not hers.

Harden up

When they took you on as a group, it became a power struggle. As a teacher of the whole class, you have no option here. You have to win, both for your own credibility as a teacher and for the other students whose learning is being damaged. Be cool, calculating and play to win (i.e. have a calm and focused classroom). As far as possible, divorce yourself from your sense of outrage (or despair). It is not about you as a person. It is about teenagers who have lost proportion and in large part lost control of themselves. You have to be able to rise above the petty insults, the insolence and the contempt for your work. This does not mean that you ignore their behaviour – far from it – but you cannot let them provoke you into an ill-thought-out reaction. They are after your dignity, but to paraphrase Whitney Houston, they can’t take that away from you. Unless you let them.

More action, less words

Part of the fun for the hunters is watching you flail about trying to put out one fire after another. You need to act faster than they expect. Therefore, be well prepared, think out your sanctions and actions in advance, and have clear criteria for decisions in your mind. If necessary jot them down on paper, or even have them on the wall – there’s no harm in being predictable. Use few words. They feed on the attention, and then use it to justify their behaviour because you are “so annoying”.  Simply warn, then act exactly as you said. Your first priority is always ensuring that your classroom is a learning environment. Dealing with misbehaviour calmly, firmly and quickly is key. Insist that discussions are held later not now. They want to disrupt your lesson; you want to minimise that. If they continue to disrupt or defy, record and notify the relevant colleagues.

Make one or two work elsewhere: “After our last lesson, I’ve decided that you will be working in . . . for the next two History lessons. If you get enough work done, you can rejoin the class.” Remove some quickly, as above. Move others within the class. Set alternative work. Record everything. To manage this you will need to set certain kinds of activities, and avoid others. Do not chase brownie points for group work when children are sabotaging it. Deal with the saboteurs, then try again once you feel you have established greater control. Set sanctions: extra work, prep time, supervised homework, cleaning desks, emptying recycling, and so on – but for individuals, not the group.

Only use detentions for immediate impact

Look at your timetable and select the times where you have them just before break or the end of the school day. If necessary get some duties changed so that you have the best times available. Keep only one or two back at a time, or distribute them into different rooms. Keeping the group together simply reinforces their sense of solidarity.

Running immediate detentions has more impact than delaying them. Even if they come to a later detention, it will probably have less impact. You want maximum return for any time you put in. You can, of course, use the time to have a back to reality conversation. If they’re not buying in, don’t waste your time. Do some marking instead, and get them to catch up on some work. Detention should not reward the student with unnecessary teacher attention.

Build collegial support

Use school systems professionally and build your credibility with managers and colleagues. Even if your school has weak systems, cultivate relationships with colleagues who are able teachers, and willing to work supportively. Apart from the many mental health benefits of such relationships, teachers can help each other in practical ways. Not only can colleagues help with holding disruptive students for a time, but they can also observe and collect data for you. The support should, of course, be mutual. For students, knowing that you have a respected colleague helping to watch your back shows that you, too, have the power of a group behind you. When you don’t seem like a lone target, you are much less attractive prey to the hunters.

Set objective targets which are positive, not negative. 

This holds them to account more tightly, but don’t focus on “not” doing things: this simply gives more time and attention to poor behaviour. Instead, require positive targets such as having all the questions answered, the lesson objectives achieved, keeping the standard of their work neat, or having the right equipment. These things are all fairly objective (if your lesson objectives aren’t objective, you know what you have to do) and therefore much harder for them to argue with. Be prepared for them to argue at first though – then, simply call in your HOD or a senior colleague and ask the student to explain again. It’s very difficult to justify a blank or messy page.

You should, of course, make them Do It Again. This tells them that you care about their achievement. Not only that, but as soon as you see them doing something right, thank them or tell them well done. Be low key, sincere, and catch them when they’re being good (so you will have to be observant). Seeing you recognise good behaviour is proof that you are fair. This is important, because the group semi-hysteria they have developed around baiting you will have inculcated a shared but probably groundless belief that you “pick on them”. After all, they’re so cool, someone boring like you would be real jealous, innit?

Stand up to bulllies

For most students, their challenging behaviour is mainly about impressing their friends. They can be won over little by little through clear boundaries and judicious approval, especially if you can nudge their friends in the same direction. But for others, power is the main motive. These students are bullies, and very likely have a controlling influence over other students. Such bullies need very firm management, because they will be planning ahead how they are going to make your life miserable. It’s what bullies do; it gives them pleasure and a sense of control. Bullies also like a good argument. They feel they are good at it, and they may well feel a kind of euphoria while looking you in the eye and telling you that you are a crap teacher and their Mum is going to come down to school and sort you out.

The way to deal with the bully is to remember the reality that you are in fact the one in control. Firstly, you are the adult. Secondly, you are a trained professional with the responsibility for both the safety and learning of many children. Thirdly, you are exercising care in a position of trust and such rudeness is appalling. Fourthly, under no circumstances would such behaviour be acceptable, let alone here. Fifthly, there is a 50/50 chance that the student is bluffing, in which case talking to the parent will be helpful. Sixthly, if the student is not bluffing, this parent needs to be put straight. So, very calmly, you simply tell the student that you will indeed take up the conversation with the parent, but in the meantime, there is work to be done. Oh, and that was very rude behaviour and you will have a detention straight after class. Here is your work. Go to Mr McKee’s office.

Managing the bully is critical to your reputation, and will make your students feel safer.

When you do speak to the parent,  express your concern for their child because their behaviour is stopping them, and others, from learning as well as they could in your class. If the parent comes in, have the student’s work to hand, along with some good students’ books for comparison, to prove that other students in your class are working well, and to make it clear how far below the standard the child is. All with a calm, caring, adult persona.

Set incremental goals but keep ratcheting up the expectations.

Aim to cut the main disruptions in half in a week, and then halve them again the following week, and so on. Even if that doesn’t work out, be more persistent, more determined, more stubborn, and more premeditated than they are. Focus on improved outcomes, for all students: not just in the amount of work, but also neatness, organisation, and presentation. Set visibly high standards and require them to be met, but focus on improving two or three things at a time. If you try to do it all at once it will cave in on you.

Keep the long view

You have a whole career ahead of you, you have your professional reputation and you have your self-esteem to think about. They are worth fighting for.

Later, when you get home and pour yourself a glass of wine, you can blog about it. Anonymously, of course.

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