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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.

It’s the only language they understand- the pointless circularity of aggression in the classroom

In a week where the TES survey on parents’ attitudes towards caning, slippering and other matters punitive were handsomely covered by every other media outlet looking to plug a gap between rogue traders and rugby, it might be apposite to talk about the role aggression and gestures of dominance occupies in the classroom. While very few people in teaching- I desperately hope- don’t wish a return to the bad old days when it was legitimate to clobber students in order to encourage them to learn (a strategy that had a long lineage and a sudden demise at the end of the last century), it’s worth considering the part punishments of other sorts plays. After all, there is something inherently confrontational in challenging the challenging pupil. What, as every good facilitator would say, are our thoughts? Here are mine:

  1. Violence begets violence. One of the arguments against corporal punishments was that it legitimised the use of force to solve disputes. Now, ignoring the fact that this is actually a pretty popular thing to do in the arena of international diplomacy, the unavoidable conclusion that we find from the use of force is that the victim of it usually seeks revenge in other ways. So too in the classroom, even when no physical contact is made. If you bully kids, or intimidate them, or use your authority, size and social advantage to belittle them for personal reasons, then expect to reap a hurricane of resentment, hatred and animosity that will obviously destroy any attempt you might make to build up a relationship that promotes learning, active, personal, independent or any other form. Of course, no one needs to be told this. Of course they don’t. Yet some teachers still do, despite this self-evidency. Screaming at pupils to their faces is a good example of this.
  2. Authority in the classroom is essential, but authority doesn’t imply anger. Most teachers can pull off a useful trick- they can appear slightly angry with a class, without feeling a drop of it in their hearts. Notice the word ‘slightly’- when I wish to convey some level of extreme disappointment (helping a new teacher quell a rowdy classroom, for example) then there are many colours on your emotional palette to convey. I go for ‘disappointed, surprised and just a tiny, tiny bit angry.’ I think the word ‘cross’ conveys it. But that’s a long way from feeling angry, or bellowing at them, or telling them how awful they are as people. Never, ever, even in the heat of a moment, tell a class that they’re horrible, or vile, or disgusting. For those thinking ‘Of course not, who would?’ may I remind you that when the blood is up, and tempers are frayed, sometimes for some, these descriptors trip out very easily indeed. And no matter how much you regret them, out they remain.
  3. Speak softly, and carry a big stick. Ah, the wisdom of the ancients. The best method for conveying authority is by saying what the rules are, setting consequences for their infraction, and then doing exactly what you said you would. No shouting required, no anger, no stand-up rows in the class, no arguments or rap battles. Just look serious, and do your magic outside the classroom - the phone calls, the paper work, the meetings, the detentions, whatever.

That way, we all have a quieter life. And no one gets hurt, including you.


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