How do we address school-wide behaviour in a logical way?

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”

These words uttered by Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan explain to Captain Kirk why the Vulcan must sacrifice himself to save the ship. This harrowing moment in my cultural evolution has always stuck with me.

But don’t worry, this is not an attempt to analyse Star Trek philosophy. I do have a serious point to make about teaching. My argument is that Spock’s logical reasoning is lost in our school system, and currently the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.

I am talking specifically about behaviour in secondary schools, and the fact that students who cause major disruption are now put before engaged and committed pupils. Of course, there is always going to be some level of misbehaviour in class – teenagers are teenagers after all, and quadratic equations don’t always set their worlds ablaze. For the most part teachers are good at dealing with this, and young people usually respond in the right way when challenged.

But then there are students for whom this isn’t enough. Take Connor in Year 9, for example. On an average day, he will walk into the classroom shouting and singing loudly. He may even push another student against the wall as he passes. When challenged, he will sit down laughing or launch a volley of expletives at the teacher before being sent to the isolation room. He will get told off by the headteacher and may be sent to an in-house support unit, designed to deal with behavioural problems. Occasionally he will get a temporary exclusion. Then, within a day or two, he is back in the classroom and the cycle begins again.

There are at least 10 more students like Connor in most good schools. Although teachers find these pupils a handful, dealing with them is part of our job. But what about the other 25 kids in my class? Sometimes I feel like I’m in one of those dreams where you are running, out of breath, and getting nowhere. Frustrating does not even begin to describe how that feels every day.

Hailey and Liam turn up for school every day. They are model pupils of average ability. On a good day, they are capable of solid C grades in most of their GCSEs. But they have to sit in a room with three or four Connors, the teacher having to constantly chase, cajole and challenge them until eventually these disruptive students are removed.

They have been learning in this environment for the past three years, and often complain that they can’t focus when Connor is around. They ask why it is that he gets away with as much as he does. My responses are usually generic along the lines of, “You make a valid point and I really don’t know.” Sometimes I might make a good pupil feel better about themselves, “We prefer to spend our time with you guys.” Or more often than not make an attempt to show the Connors of the school some support by saying, “Sometimes the classroom is just not the right environment for him.” But this is often a token gesture. When he is absent, the dynamic of the class is markedly different, with pupils far more settled and engaged. Suddenly it becomes easier for the students to answer questions without fear of an underhand comment. Those that sit on the behavioural fence are no longer pandering to a disruptive audience and therefore knuckle down and actually work harder. Without Connor, it’s no longer uncool to be enthusiastic about learning. Some research has suggested that this improvement is also reflected in attainment.

But what can we do about it? Schools are under pressure now to minimise the number of permanent exclusions and avoid the dreaded red flag of Ofsted. Headteachers try to keep these teenagers in mainstream education to avoid accusations of “poor behaviour” from inspectors, when, really, removing them could be interpreted as adopting a zero-tolerance approach. I would also argue that if given the resources, taking some of these students out of mainstream education might actually give them the specialised support that they often need. The only major drawbacks to this approach are the stigma children undergo when finding themselves in non-mainstream educational settings and often the lack of trained, effective teachers needed to deal with this challenging behaviour.

In an ideal world teachers would be able to offer every individual the specific help that they need. We would spend time with difficult students, stretch the more able and help all those in between. But that would require a huge investment in human resources and teacher time. Schools and outside agencies need more funding to find anything approaching this sort of solution, and with current educational cuts, the situation only seems to be growing worse.

I do not pretend to have all the answers. The truth is there is no magic bullet for this problem but the way we deal with disruptive students must be reviewed. Tough ideas need to be considered. At what point does a school accept that it can no longer provide the resources to cater for all of its students? Since when did it become the right thing to focus on a few disruptive kids at the expense of the rest of  the class? We recognise, of course, that there is always a context to consider when a student has serious behavioural problems, and schools and external agencies work together to support young people with these issues. But we often ignore the impact on the students who do not experience these problems yet have to suffer the consequences anyway.

Surely a school has a responsibility to make sound judgements for its entire population, rather than the small group with the greatest needs. I feel more responsible for the results of the students who are trying to achieve because from a teacher’s perspective, my time with them feels better utilised. I feel like I’m making a difference, which surely is the point. If Einstein was correct in his assertion that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then we are truly going insane.  The system as it stands is deeply flawed because the needs of the few so clearly outweigh the needs of the many. There is no Vulcan logic here.

For the Best Experience – Get Out!!!

educational

Thinking back to my school days, I can’t remember many lessons. I can’t remember a single Lesson Objective or Learning Outcome. I think the only classroom experiences I remember were when something crazy happened – like when a lesson went totally wrong for a teacher, or one of the more challenging students lost control and caused a spectacle for most of the lesson.

But I remember all the school trips. Most of them I remember  because they were fun – but I remember the actual learning that took place too. In many cases, they sparked my interest in the world because I saw things that a kid from an underprivileged background would never see from home.

In many schools, there is increasing pressure to deliver lessons – skills and knowledge – to students in the classroom. As schools are judged on measurable results, teachers and school leaders are feeling more under-pressure to lead this from the controlled environment of the classroom so data can be generated easily on student progress and outcomes. However, the closer we move to this model of education, the more I feel our students are missing out on what I think education should be about – engagement and enjoyment.

There has been a great deal of research on Education Outside of the Classroom. I don’t wish to summarise the wealth of research out there, except for supporting the majority of it which identified “Out of Classroom” Learning as one of the most valuable aspects of a student’s education. A summary of this research from Ohio University suggested that:

“Students who directly participate during a field experience generate a more positive attitude about the subject.” (Behrendt and Franklin: 2013)

It is clear that the benefits are far-reaching. But rather than focus on research, I’d like to focus more on my own personal experiences. I’m sure there are many teachers who will share my views and I am also sure that there will be some horror stories out there which may have tainted experiences of getting students out and about.

Some of my most cherished memories have come from school trips or sporting events. I also believe they are vital in cementing a fantastic relationship with students. Some years ago I ran a football team for a school I worked at. Much of the team was made up of some of the most challenging students at the school. Young, working class lads, disillusioned with education. After a few weeks of training and playing competitive matches, something changed. Many of these students, with some of the poorest behaviour in the school, were trying harder in my lessons. Their behaviour was improving dramatically. By the end of the year, their progress was a dream. But I was doing nothing different in this class than any other, really. The difference was – we’d bought into each other. As I coached them, I saw aspects of their characters that never came out in a classroom. I saw them pour their souls into trying to win, especially the comeback from three goals down to win the game. I saw their competitive edge sometimes boil over – and they experienced my wrath when this sometimes manifested itself into disrespectful behaviour towards a referee or an opposite player – but in the end they understood my expectations. I saw them help out team-mates who were struggling and lift the performances of some of the weaker players, and how exposed they felt when they faced a massively superior team and were turned over by a huge scoreline. The dignity and character they showed through this humbling experience was profound. A new level of respect was created that year and it stayed between us until the boys left school, long after I had stopped coaching them. Overall it was a hugely rewarding experience and I would urge any teacher struggling to find their feet in a new school to coach a sports team or a club of some sorts.

Educational trips are no different. There is a permanent bond formed between a teacher and a student when you take them on an intensive trip. Some of the best memories I have come from a trip to the WWI Battlefields in France and Belgium with a bunch of Year 9 and Year 10 students. Their curiosity was amazing and they probably learned as much in that week as running a full scheme of work about the First World War. They were engaged for the whole time – asking intelligent questions and fully immersing themselves in the experiences they were having.

Teachers should never feel guilty about creating some time during trips for “fun” stuff. Why not take some time out for shopping? Recently, a group of Year 12/3 Marine Biology students were taking time out of school for their trips, which I would always raise a sarcastic eyebrow at because wetsuits and the odd surfboard would be seen accompanying the students. But why not? They were still doing Marine Biology and from a “results and outcomes” point of view, the students are certainly heading in the right direction because they have been fully engaged with the subject. Next term, I will be running some Geography field trips to the coast looking at coastal processes and I can feel a surfboard or two coming out during those!

One of the biggest challenges for teachers on trips can be behaviour. However, in most cases from my experiences, most students have the ability to step it up during trips. I think its about giving some of them the responsibility that they maybe don’t get in the classroom. Let them out – trust them – and mostly they’ll repay that by just getting on with it. Rarely have I been let down by students during a trip. Teachers can manage situations really well by being low key. Accept that the excitement of a trip might initially be a lot to handle for some. My golden threat is that any misbehaviour warrants half a day with me – and I can be the world’s most boring human being. It usually works. Clear boundaries, easy instructions and a good sense of humour can work wonders in managing students on trips.

I would say to most teachers – do more trips! If you can find a way of getting the kids out of the classroom, do it. There are clear benefits to their learning – even indirectly. There are hidden treasures. After eating a school lunch in a French school, my students never complained about our dining room ever again!! After seeing the serious lack of litter in Belgium, my students realised how messy they really were!! But apart from the educational benefits, there is a huge advantage on returning from a trip and having that shared memory with the students. They get to see that human version of you which doesn’t come out as much in the classroom! You might find that they’re more engaged, buy into you a little more, want to give you that bit extra that was missing, and help you develop that relationship with them that makes the whole process of getting them through the tough stuff more effectively. From this angle, I think the value is invaluable.

Should we teach “Compassion” as a new subject in our schools?

compassion

“You look like a sex offender.”

“You 12 Year Old Faggot.”

“You should drink bleach and kill yourself.”

“I hope you get cancer.”

These are some of the comments left on a teenager’s YouTube channel after posting a series of short clips. As an adult, let alone a teacher, I was shocked to find comments like these in abundance. These comments were sent by other teenagers specifically to criticise the content of a channel. Having looked at other social media, the trend is very similar, particularly on Instagram.

I don’t want to get into a debate about how we teach internet safety to our kids. In my opinion, its a no-brainer that we should be teaching kids to be more intelligent and “streetwise” when it comes to the internet. However, to me, comments like these do not simply originate from a lack of understanding of how to use social media, but grow out of a total lack of compassion for other peoples’ feelings. Worryingly, as a teacher, it seems I am seeing more examples of this complete lack of understanding of how the actions of our students impact on their wider world.

Before I start suggesting that things are worse than they have ever been, I’d first like to reflect on my own years as a teenager. At times, teenagers can be cruel. Arguably, many lack the empathy we would expect from them as adults. It is easy as a teenager to get drawn into unpleasant behaviour due to many factors – peer pressure being a big one. But I would argue that the anonymity afforded by social media has allowed the very worse elements of teenage behaviour to take route, which is more reason why schools and individual teachers need to take more responsibility in supporting their students to make the right choices, maybe to the point of formalising this in the classroom.

Homophobia has been a recent case in point. In many schools, low-level homophobic comments have largely gone under the radar. “Oh, that’s gay!” says one teenager to another when referring to something they dislike. I continue to hear about comments like these unchallenged by teachers in charge of a classroom. On the upside, I have also worked with an amazing colleague who brought this issue to the forefront of her school, becoming a leading member of the Stonewall campaign to raise awareness of the use of this language in schools. The results were outstanding as students began to really understand the impact of their actions. More of this needs to happen.

But as teachers we are facing a battle. How do we teach compassion to our kids when the world around us is becoming increasingly hostile? A case in point was an article in the Guardian today about the wearing of the “Burkini”. I was shocked and dismayed that a supposed democratic, enlightened nation could enact and enforce such prejudicial laws for little purpose other than it “may offend people” on religious grounds, and was not in keeping with a “secular” society. I wonder how many Catholic Nuns were asked to de-frock in Paris today as a result of their religious expression?

After the Brexit vote, race hate crimes in the UK rose by 57% according to some research. Yet in the midst of all this intolerance from our societies, we expect our students to be tolerant, open-minded, non-prejudicial? We are fighting a losing battle!

My point here is that in the climate of intolerance, injustice and prejudice, maybe we need to be clearer to our students on ways in which to avoid this. Maybe we need to specifically teach the values which education SHOULD be about – compassion, understanding, open-mindedness. I know teachers that do this already – they are amazing. Their kids listen to them and learn a great deal about life from them too (and they know who they are!!) But I also know many teachers who avoid tackling these issues head on. That is why I would suggest that there needs to be a more formal approach to teaching these values in school.

At the moment, our societies have a great deal of room for improvement. But if we want to start making those improvements, maybe we need to start with education and the values that this should bring to our young people and start that process in our classrooms.

The False Economy of Behaviour Management

The first time I walked into a classroom I was petrified. It was a mixed ability Year 7 class and it was like they could smell my fear. They were waiting to pounce, I was sure of that. I needed back up in a big way, but I knew it wasn’t going to come. This was my problem, so I donned my armour and prepared for battle…

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I’d probably gone about it wholly the wrong way.

One of the main issues a trainee or new teacher has when walking into the classroom is the challenge of managing the behaviour of their students. Let’s face it – teenagers have a job to do. Their job is to do our heads in. If they’re not doing our heads in, they’re essentially failing at being teenagers. There’s no malice in it. It’s just what they do. Think back to when you we’re a teenager. I just did stuff at school. Often there was no logic or explanation. I did it because I could.

This, however, poses several problems for the new teacher because we have job to do too, and that’s hopefully to get these mini-adults to learn something. So how do we do that?

Firstly, and I hate to say this… sometimes us experienced teachers are not that helpful. I remember being mentored by a fantastic teacher. He was a legend in the school and his reputation as a teacher was phenomenal. But when he walked into a classroom, the kids just did whatever he wanted them to do. Their books were out. Their equipment was ready to use. They were sat up in quite anticipation of the lesson. So I’m sitting there with my note pad trying to write down the techniques he used to get the learning environment the way he wanted it… and I waited, and observed, and waited… and the fact is – he did nothing observable.

This brings me to the core of this article. As experienced teachers, we often set up a false economy for trainees when it comes to classroom management. Yes, there are techniques that we can teach you. Yes, there are many things that you can control. However, much of classroom management comes from relationship building, and that doesn’t happen overnight. You have to find a way to connect with your students. Then, they’ll want to work for you.

So what can you control? Well, before you take the riot-police approach focus on your planning. Here are some basics:

  • a well-planned, well-resourced lesson will be so full of activities that the pupils won’t have time to mess about.
  • “maximum output – minimum input”. Let the kids do the work. Make your lesson about doing.
  • Practice on your pace and transition between tasks. When they are coming to the end of one task, be handing out the next, so that each activity seamlessly flows into the next. This reduces the “down time” in a lesson.

Usually, lessons where I have experienced masses of disruptive behaviour has been when my planning hasn’t been great!

So, if the going gets a bit tough, how do we deal with that? There are a few simple tips to take on board:

  • establish routines as quickly as possible, whether that’s handing out books, writing down a date or title, or standing behind chairs. After only a few lessons, the kids will grow to know what to expect.
  • Be consistent. My wonderful mentor once said to me, “Teaching is easy. You tell a kid what you will do, and then you do it.” It really is that simple. Never give out empty threats and never back down unless you are genuinely in the wrong.
  • If the school has a robust assertive discipline system, use it. The kids don’t quite know your boundaries at the start, so you need help.
  • Rely on colleagues: you are not weak by asking for help. Sometimes, getting support sends a message out to the kids that there is a whole system behind your words that can kick in should they wish to test the water!

But this advice is all quite negative. We can start getting into the difficulties of teaching certain kids from certain backgrounds, but in all honesty, there are very few kids out there that don’t respond well to a bit of praise and respect. For the so-called “bad apples” in the school, this can often work wonders. Think about it… if you’re really respectful and praiseworthy of a badly behaved kids for doing something well, you might be the only person in their lives that has said something nice to them. It really does work.

  • Use lots of praise, but don’t over-do it. Praise is most effective if used honestly. Make a student work for it and it will mean more to them.
  • Try to connect with them. It might be football. It might be fashion. It might be Xbox games, but give them something. Teenagers never cease to amaze me. I did a lesson on the History of Black Music once to find a Year 9 pupil who had a wealth of knowledge about Jazz music because of his dad’s record collection. You just never know what you can tap into.
  • Focus on positive behaviour. Point out examples of positive behaviour in your classroom so they can learn it from each other.
  • Make an effort to like them! Many teenagers with behavioural issues come to see most adults as people who are out to get them. Well, change tack a little. Become the adult that’s out to help them.

Ultimately, these are things that you can develop over the course of your placements which will help you win the battle of wills that happens in the classroom. But in the end, a developed relationship over time is the best way of improving behaviour in your classroom. It was not until my 3rd year in a school that I felt that there was not a single class that I couldn’t handle. That was because the kids had gotten to know me… and vice versa. They knew when they could have a laugh and when they needed to work. They knew my boundaries and I knew how to get the best out of them as individuals, which led to an improved group.

So just keep going. It will get better. It just takes time. But go easy on yourself and remember that we set trainees up with a false economy that if you do (a) then your outcomes will be (b). Just be patient with yourself and remember that we all started off like that… it just takes time.