Alone Together

. . . to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them.” – Hamlet

It is the pleasure and the pain of teaching. You close the classroom door, survey the room, and remember that once again it is just you and this group of adolescents in this space for the next hour. In that time you will make about 300 decisions; will interact with most of the 30 students individually, will call upon and question students repeatedly, elicit extended or corrected answers, judge your feedback according to your knowledge of each child’s temperament, time each activity as tightly as you can, adjust the length of different activities depending on the responses of students, share your passion, insist they do the boring bits, encourage, remind and advise. You will have the inordinate pleasure of seeing a student ‘get’ something; the frustration of your third version of the explanation not grasped. You will see potential turning into reality. But before you can do any of that, you must Manage Behaviour.

Some readers will immediately respond that all the things I have described are part of managing behaviour. Many will already have said, “It’s all managing behaviour.” And a few will say that teachers should teach and SLT should manage behaviour.

The truth is that when I close that door, and look those students in the eye, they want to know if I have the backbone and the smarts to lead them for the next hour. If I do, they will follow – but first they will test me.

I have seen many teachers who were great planners, or great questioners, or who knew their students well, who were diligent with marking, who knew exactly what their students should be able to achieve – but they weren’t good at managing behaviour. And as a result, nothing else happened as it should. Students didn’t make progress because they either didn’t want to work, or couldn’t work because of the chaotic environment. I remember a caring, conscientious colleague who would give each student her full individual attention – while the rest of the class reverted to a re-enactment of the climax of The Lord of the Flies.

It is true that managing behaviour is not sufficient on its own to bring about good teaching and learning. But it is a necessary precondition. John Hattie’s Visible Learning study found that being in a class with disruptive students had a negative effect equivalent to over a year’s progress. This astronomical cost to learning is the best reason for being a good behaviour manager – not just learning, not just progress, not just Ofsted or SLT – but our responsibility to ensure that all our students get the best deal, even those who are quiet, well-behaved and want to learn. They desperately need us to make sure that the learning environment is secure, safe, fair and work-focused.

There has been much said about the importance of SLT supporting staff with ensuring that bad behaviour has consequences. I believe this is right and necessary. I worked for a time in a school where referrals to SLT were met with “What did you do? Write me an account of all your actions,” and other indications that the person naming the problem was the problem. As a result, some students roamed the school like escaped zoo animals, wandering through woodwork classes, banging on windows and smoking in the toilets. The school was effectively run by about thirty unpleasant teenagers. So I know what people are talking about when they say that SLT must provide backup, and I agree.

But what we must never do as teachers is to hand over our power to someone else. Once the situation has passed out of our control, others will determine not only the consequences for the student, but the student’s perception of us. When a teacher refers a student to another member of staff, the process that then follows must still include the teacher at the centre. What the student needs to see is that the teacher has all this backup at his or her command – not that the teacher has much less power than others in the school.

I quickly realised, at the school I mentioned above, that referring cases upwards was undermining my own authority. Given that there were few if any systems, I set up my own. I agreed with colleagues on a quid pro quo referral system for extreme cases. I set detentions (as few as possible), made phone calls home where it might help, set extra work to make up for lost time and kept classes back on occasions where there were too many students out of line to distinguish easily who should be kept back and who shouldn’t. In other words, nothing special. It had taken six weeks to work out that I was being undermined when I made a referral, and it took another six weeks of running my own systems to get my classes to where I wanted them.

School support systems should always keep the teacher at the centre of the restoration process. If we weaken student perceptions of teacher authority, we create more work for the teacher, and ultimately more work for school leaders. In the end that does no one any favours – leaders who are too busy quickly stop being leaders.

The converse is also true: strengthening students’ perceptions of a teacher as wise, capable and worthy of respect can be a remarkably straightforward strategy to reducing resistance. A bright NQT was having difficulty with some overly confident boys in her Year 10 class. As part of the restoration, I pointed out to one boy that he was very lucky to have such an intelligent, well-qualified teacher; that she had an excellent master’s degree in literature from Oxford; that he could learn a lot from her; and that other students were already receiving the benefits of her help. It was remarkable how quickly the news of her qualifications spread, and her standing changed significantly. She also won their respect because she was a fine teacher – but a few minutes of articulating my respect had made it easier for students to see her strengths.

On the other hand, a teacher with a similar background had an unfortunate tendency to deny that problems in her classroom were hers to manage, and would frequently explain how the school would be much better if the SLT did X, Y and Z. After two years it was apparent that she had lost the battle of reputation, and she left to start over – hopefully having learned some useful lessons along the way, such as: blaming others is not the same as finding a solution.

The key word here is reputation. My first year in a London school was very hard. I fought many battles, often coming home bone tired, but I made sure I won. After that year the students trusted me (after all, they hadn’t been able to make me leave). One day, when I challenged an unruly boy in the playground, he was about to give me what appeared to be quite a long list of advice about what I could do with various parts of my anatomy – until one of the cooler young men took his arm and shook his head. “He don’t let go”, was all he said. The truculent student grudgingly yielded. Reputation had won the day.

We may be alone in the classroom, but we are not alone in the school. When we work together, we teachers can be a formidable force. But that work must keep the teacher in control of the process and the student must see us as able to deliver consequences. For all of us, that means facing down every challenge – with all the painful lessons that must be learned along the way. Then, and only then, will our reputations, and our lessons, be secure.

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2 Responses to Alone Together

  1. Great post, although I’m not sure your epigraph is appropriate. The troubles only ‘end’ in one way, and I hope we’re not recommending it to young teachers!

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