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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. Tom is the author of The Behaviour Guru, a specialised behaviour guide which includes content from the TES forums.

Getting to know you - how do you handle personal questions

Children are naturally curious- it must be in their job description. We seem to have homing instinct for other people’s private data and personal lives- what else can explain why Heat magazine shifts so many units, and gossip animates the driest staffroom? But just because other peoples’ lives are interesting doesn’t give anyone else the automatic right of access to the details of those lives. And students are no different- like the cast of The Only Way is Essex (without, one hopes, the lobotomy and the vanity) , you stroll onto the screens of their lives; your job involves them actively viewing you, paying you attention. No wonder, then, if they speculate about what kind of heart beats beneath the immaculate mask of professionalism and mystery you effortlessly project? That interest can take many forms: it may be the genuine human interest of innocent curiosity; the slavish, needy attention of the obsessed fan; it may even be the lazy focus of the bored, cruel student. Every teacher will get this at some point: ‘Miss- what’s your name? No…your FIRST name…?’ So what do you do?

  1. You have the right to reveal as little as you wish. - Your role in the room is to educate the class. There is no legal or moral requirement upon you to reveal an eyelash more than you choose. Your relationship with the children is, first and foremost, a professional one, and you must never, never feel under pressure to tell them anything that you don’t want to. Most teachers struggle to respond to personal comments, because they, understandably don’t wish to appear rude, when the student might very well simply be making a friendly overture. Here are some suggested phrases that, expressed in a polite and assertive tone, can act as a dam to their attention:
    ‘Let’s focus on the work.’
    ‘No personal questions, please.’
    ‘I know you aren’t being rude, but I don’t answer questions about matters like that. I’m sure you understand.’
  2. Don’t be bullied - Unfortunately, many children will use the ‘personal question’ approach as a tacit form of bullying you. ‘Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have a girlfriend? Are you gay?’ etc isn’t just nosiness; it’s a power struggle, as one little loud mouth tries to show that they can mug you off in front of the class. I mean, if you asked a pupil, ‘Do you smell like that because you’ve just filled your nappy?’ then some people might see that as a bit in-your-face. Just because it’s a question doesn’t mean it isn’t an attempt to knock you. So, if you rebuke them for it, and they say something like, ‘I was only asking!’ then you can treat it as if they had performed a more direct form of criticism or insult towards you. In other words, treat it as a serious piece of misbehaviour, especially if it’s directed towards you. Use your normal sanction procedures.
  3. Read your room. - Of course, this advice is simply best practice for any teacher new to a class. As your relationship proceeds, you may well, develop (one hopes) greater levels of trust and self-restraint. If you know your class (and I stress that this is an IF) then you may feel that you can reveal a little more as time progresses. This is entirely your call. Bear in mind that once the genie is out the bottle, then you cannot put it back in. If you reveal your partner’s name, or where you come from, then be prepared for someone to mention it, further down the line; be prepared for people you haven’t spoken to, to mention it. Could you handle someone shouting it across a playground? If the answer is ‘yes’ then feel free. But if not, tread softly. I teach RS and Philosophy, so I happily talk about stories from my past life running clubs in Soho, but that’s my call. Once you have confidence in your class, many such questions seem trivial and unthreatening. But it is always your information, and your teaching style.


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