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‘Three Top Tips from Tom’ will be updated weekly with the best advice and tips on behaviour and classroom management.

Tom Bennett is the TES adviser on behaviour and a teacher at Raines Foundation, an inner city state school in Tower Hamlets. He regularly supports teachers on TES through our behaviour forum and monthly newsletters on behaviour.

Be the inspiration - role models in the classroom

When I joined teaching, I enrolled in a scheme called Fast Track, sort of a precursor to Teach First. The tag line was ‘Be the inspiration: from the staffroom to the classroom’, implying that we were expected, like Navy Seals or the SAS, to be emulated everywhere our sanctified feet trod. As you can imagine, this wasn’t exactly a good look when you were fresh out of the packet and trying to learn how not to burn the school down, or to survive fifty minutes with 8W. I quickly modified it to ‘from the staffroom to the bathroom,’ which at least had the merit of self-effacement.

However, there is a serious point behind the well-meant platitude. You are, like it or not, a role model when you step into the classroom. Children will not, for the most part, slavishly copy your mannerisms, unless it is for the purpose of humiliating you as a means of garnering social leverage with their peer group. But never forget that your presence has an effect. They are still children. You are an adult, and as such are part of the greater picture of the world that they see. They are learning to be adults, whether the process is perceptible or not, and one of the ways they do that is by copying and absorbing the subtle cues and clues you exude, invisibly, like sweat. Here are three things to remember:

  1. Be the adult you would like them to be. The simplest way I can express this is through manners. I avoid using the term respect, because that implies an internal psychological motivation and sensation that cannot be demanded, expected or generated at will. But manners are a pattern of behaviour that can be emulated easily. Of course, most teachers will automatically use manners as default, but they are indispensable if you want to build a relationship with a class. Don’t think that this is obvious. It is easy to forget yourself when you’re stressed, annoyed or under pressure (and when do those things ever apply to a teacher, eh?). So: pleases and thank-yous, appropriate tone, body language and content. Having yourself filmed briefly (not by a child, not on YouTube) is a terrifying and potent way to observe how you REALLY are with your classes. How do you look…to you?
  2. Convey the character traits you would like them to acquire. As I say, you cannot teach character directly, but you can demonstrate behaviour which implies the character that informs them. So, if you want the kids to hand their homework in on time, you need to demonstrate that you’ll routinely (as far as possible) hand it back when you say you will. If you want them to try harder, show them that you’re prepared to try harder too. This isn’t merely about being fair; it’s about demonstrating and modelling behaviour so they know what it looks like. If you’re late to the classroom, then you set the tone for what punctual means. Just because you CAN slip in five minutes after the gong, doesn’t mean you should.
  3. Make a stand. If behaviour occurs in your classroom that you’re not comfortable with, then step up to the plate and knock it out of the park. If a pupil makes a slur on another and you do nothing, then you tacitly demonstrate that you approve and you collude with the perpetrator. If someone makes a racist crack, or expresses some vile misogynistic comment, then deal with it, instantly. Teachers are often reluctant to act too prescriptively as moral arbiters in the classroom, but this is a shame. The kids need to learn their moral cues from someone. You are someone. More importantly, you are an authority figure in their lives, whether it feels like it or not.

As adults, we have a duty to help these children to become better people, not directly through some witless program of improvement but indirectly through the way that we teach, which helps to imbue children with the habit of learning, and through the behaviour we model, which imbues them with habits of acting socially and of deferring egoistic gratification in favour of the needs of others or of their future selves.

Tall order. Big job.

Good luck

Tom

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