The Saboteur

“For ’tis the sport to hoist the enginer with his own petard; But I will delve one yard below their mines, and blow them at the moon.” – Hamlet

It’s the first week of the half term. Miss Alexander has planned her lesson thoroughly; her students’ books are marked; she has even differentiated the work. But the lesson won’t settle. Normally pleasant students keep eyeing her and sniggering to each other. Several students appear surprised when she asks them questions, and give offhand answers obviously designed to show they re not interest in the work. She perseveres with the lesson. Eventually, she has to admonish one girl for persistently talking, and the student argues back boldly. She is taken aback, but knows her trade well enough to keep her professional demeanour intact. Reluctantly, she has to send the student out, while others glare at her sullenly. When the bell goes and the class is dismissed, she sinks wearily into the chair at her desk. She has three minutes to recover, analyse what went wrong and get ready for the next lesson: Year Nine are already starting to arrive.

Behind group misbehaviour there is sometimes deliberate incitement. This incitement will be instilled by The Saboteur: the student who gets a kick out of seeing you get a hard time while not actually seeming to do anything wrong him or herself. Sometimes we have a good idea who they are: sometimes, we may never know that it was a saboteur who made our lives so difficult for that year. It is very, very important to deal with saboteurs, because they not only damage others students’ learning; they also create enormous stress for teachers, and that affects everything else we do – other classes, extracurricular activities, and of course, even our personal lives. Saboteurs are not necessarily common, but they have enormous potential for damage.

There are three important questions to ask:

  1. What are the behaviours of concern?
  2. What is rewarding (motivating) these behaviours?
  3. How do we change the contingencies in the environment so that it is more rewarding to work with the teacher than against him or her?

1. The behaviours of saboteurs are hard to define and will not even necessarily occur inside the classroom. Gossip, slander, half-truths, name-calling; these are all stock-in-trade for the adolescent determined to make themselves seem clever and render the teacher powerless. Whispering, mocking, note-passing, occasional distracting noises (that are hard to pin down) may be observable in the lesson. The saboteur will do just enough work to keep out of trouble, but will also make it obvious to others that they are not trying, as they need to demonstrate that they are not on your team.

2. The saboteur is motivated by power. Their actions are pre-meditated, deliberate, and manipulative. In fact, manipulation is the main element of their strategy. In reality, they are  bullies who think that they are too clever to be caught, and they will also bully their peers using the same tactics. They want to be the person in the room/class/year group that others either look up to or are afraid of. Saboteurs are at least as likely in “nice” schools as they are in “tough” schools, and the cultural capital of middle-class manners can make the more affluent even more difficult to spot and manage.

3. But manage them we must, and we can, because we are the adults, we are smart, and we are in charge. Our students’ learning must be protected, our sanity must be preserved, and if we can protect the saboteur from their own destructive  behaviour patterns, that would be nice too.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions for dealing with saboteurs. They are not exhaustive, nor particularly expert; they are mostly, I hope, common sense. But making a list of strategies, and putting in place several at once, works for me. Warning: what comes next sounds like tactics for conflict. That’s exactly what it is. If you prefer to believe that All You Need is Love, or that all children are candles to be lit rather than containers to be filled, read no further. You will only be offended.


How do you spot the saboteur who does much of their damage before they get into your lesson? First of all, you need to consider your seating plan. What happens when you move Harry’s seat to the front? Isobel and Clarissa have been much less focused since Katie was moved to the back. but Katie is a quiet and well-behaved student, isn’t she? Test: move Katie, or move two other students to sit near Katie instead, and watch what happens.

In a similar way to a scientific experiment, you can observe the consequences when you take away a particular variable, in this case, a student. Find a reason to have Katie work elsewhere for a lesson. What happens to the atmosphere? Atmosphere is key here, because other students are likely to be much more relaxed when the saboteur is away. If you notice that a lessons feels much more positive than usual, check your register and make a note of who is not there on that day. This is not scientific proof, obviously; but it may help you to establish a pattern.

The third way to identify saboteurs is by being acutely observant. Set up your lesson so that students are working and you are watching. Don’t be distracted by requests for help. The saboteur is expert at waiting until you look down, and in that moment they will mutter so that only the four students nearby can hear – all of whom will laugh in shock or glee. You will tell them off, but the saboteur has their head down, looking like they’re working, experiencing the thrill of illicit power. Instead, use your peripheral vision. The saboteur thinks you are not looking, but peripheral vision is very good at picking up movement. Scan the room and let your eyes rove. You might not catch the saboteur, but you have pinned them down for a while, and if nothing else your extra vigilance confirms that you put them under pressure. Remember if they can’t operate, they lose face, so they will either back down or become more overt.

Fourthly, share intelligence with other teachers of suspect students, with their form tutor and their head of year. “Here’s what’s been happening lately. Can you tell me anything else?” Such information-sharing is always helpful, even if the student is not a saboteur.


You need to remove the saboteur from having an influence in your lesson. Because they are hard to catch, and manipulative, you need to play it smart. Simply re-organising your seating plan so that they are right at the front is one of the simplest ways of limiting their influence. It’s much harder for them to control others when they can’t see them without turning round. If they keep turning round, you have a specific behaviour to challenge – in their own time and, of course, on their own. Gently, keep asking them why they need to do it, and don’t let them get away with glib answers. Keep a note of the conversation.

Now and again, if you don’t overdo it, you can organise a break for yourself and the class by having them work elsewhere, on a project or extra-curricular activity. But this is only a band-aid. What you really need to do is to engage them and win them over.


Saboteurs generally under-perform.  This may be to show others that they aren’t trying, or to show you that they are so clever that they don’t need to try. They feel that they are so bright that they can expend more energy on destroying the lesson than on their learning. This is a key way to establish a more constructive relationship. Look closely at their bookwork; how much effort is going into developing answers? Accuracy? Presentation? Thoroughness? Take them aside and discuss the work. If necessary, call in the parents as well and explain how you really want the best for Katie, and although she is performing at a B grade, you’re convinced that she is an A or A* student who really needs to be stretched and challenged. Offer to give Katie some extra mentoring in your subject, and explain why you will be setting extra homework to tap her hitherto unexploited potential. Demonstrating personal interest in Katie may well help to win her over, because she is at heart at least a little vain. She may also be insecure. If she feels that you like her, it will be much harder for her to maintain an antagonistic attitude.

But count actions, not words. The saboteur will always know what to say. How they act tells you what their goals are.

Be realistic

Lastly, there are some students who are just in a very dark place. I think of one student – let us call him Ashan – who made his class almost impossible to manage for three years. There were six students in the group who drove everyone crazy, so although Ashan was quiet and apparently disengaged, he wasn’t on the priority list – even though he had been involved in organising and filming fights after school. He eventually executed a planned group assault on an entirely innocent boy, repeatedly kicking him in the head. When Ashan left, the class changed profoundly. He had severely damaged the outcomes of the group, but had never been seen as a priority.

Watch the surly, disengaged student that no one ever dares to challenge. Be on the alert for subvocalisation – the carefully pitched comment that only a few can hear. Move and isolate as appropriate. Challenge and encourage. Collect intelligence, and share it in documented form. Managers can really only take action with documentary evidence.

We have to accept that for some saboteurs, we can’t help. They need much more than the classroom teacher can provide, and there are other students to protect.

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