Classroom Management Starts with You

The Ten Most Common Bad Behaviour Habits Teachers Develop

I work with a lot of teachers who are taking their first steps in classroom management. And one of the most salutary things I have observed is that for many of them, the process is so similar as to suggest that we are all engineered in the Matrix, and simply follow the subroutines of an enormous predetermined program that forms the fabric of the illusion we call life. It’s just a theory. We all go through so many similar problems and pitfalls that by now we should be pretty good at preparing new teachers for the rigours of the profession.

Unfortunately I often see teachers who have entered classrooms with odd ideas about how classroom relationships actually work, and how they can meaningfully achieve some kind of productive working and learning environment. They may think, for example, that children learn better in groups, which may or may not be true (although I suspect it’s just one way of learning, and not always a successful one), but it can certainly be murder on your behaviour management if you’re getting to grips with a hard class.

I also observe a lot of teachers specifically for behaviour advice. Often, the same problems come up time and time again, like Buckaroo. Sometimes they have been learned from birth, like some kind of superstition; sometimes they are bad habits picked up as they went along, and never learned to discard. Here they are, laid before you so that you can see if you fall into any of these; and if you do, you can think about what you want to do about it:

1. Settling

It is very easy to accept what was once previously unacceptable. Behaviour that you would have once seized like an intruder now becomes resident in your room; squatting in essence. Why? Because…because it is easier to say that something is no longer wrong, than it is to deal with it and do something to deter it. The path of least resistance is a familiar one to many of us who have dealt with difficulty over a period of time.

2. Never calling for help

Once you’ve been teaching even for a little while, it can become hard to ask others to assist you. You, after all, don’t wish to appear rubbish, do you? The strange thing is that the only way you can be rubbish in some situations is by NOT calling for help. The sad thing is that there are some line managers who- you know who you are- persist in perpetuating this dangerous tendency in new staff by labelling those who ask for support - withdrawals, visits etc. - as ‘weak’ or ‘troublesome.’ As long as this attitude persists, teachers won’t call for assistance. And once the kids realise this, it is PARTYTIME.

3. Giving up with a strategy too soon

You know how it is; you try something out because a teacher, or a tutor has recommended you try x. Or worse, you take the advice of some clown in a newsletter. So you roll it out, lovely and splendid to your pupils: lollipops in a jar, golden stars, seating plans based on chaos theory; you will know your own mind. But nothing happens. Or worse, they seem to react badly to it, so you give up. Reader, beware. It might be that the strategy simply hasn’t been given time to take root. Almost every trick in my box takes a bit of time; usually at least a few weeks, and some of them are strategies that span a year. Do not expect miracles: think steering the Titanic, not turning a Segway on a sixpence.

4. Not giving up on a strategy

This is a common problem: you’ve been told that x works, even when it flies in the face of all your experience. For example, I know a lot of new teachers who are TOLD that they have to have all their classes facing each other in crocodiles and horseshoes and so on. Now if the class is tough, this is a disaster for a teacher, who is now working against their natural instincts to socialise with each other. But if you have been told by someone you trust that, ‘No, this is the key, this will grow a magic beanstalk in your class,’ then it can be a hard thing to shake off. The best way to solve this is by being observed by someone with a very different style to you; what do they think about your strategies? Maybe time for some fresh perspective.

5. Being too open/ friendly/ emotive

Kids need to see that you are the authority; that you’re in charge. What they don’t need is someone who tells them all about their life and what they had for breakfast. Kids often grow to see such people as big chummy pals, not authority figures, and it can be damn hard to claw this back. That isn’t to say that you can’t reveal careful parts of your life experiences and day-to-day nuggets, but it has to be a) when you are comfortable and b) when the relationship is there.

6. Groundhog lessons

Lessons should be varied in tone and pitch and task, not because we should feel like we’re entertaining them, but because it helps them to sustain interest. I am not averse to periods where lessons are dry or a bit dusty, because education cannot be fun all the time; sometimes it’s just hard work. But that said, you’re a fool if you don’t introduce a bit of variety into your lessons. The same style, the same structure, day after day after day will only let the kids know that you’re doing as little as possible for them.

7. Not following up

I see a lot of teachers who HALF do the right thing, by setting clear boundaries, and then laying the law down for all those who choose to throw two fingers up at the righteousness of the room. But then…nothing happens. They say ‘detention’ with their mouths, but their bodies say ‘pub’. Or they say ‘I’ll call everyone’s parents tonight’…and then don’t. It just teaches the class that you don’t mean what you say. So why should anyone listen to what you say?

8. Letting kids talk over you

This is fatal. This is the end, my friend, the end of your authority. The classic advice is ‘don’t start until they’re quiet.’ But what happens if they’re never quiet, eh? WHAT THEN TOM? Of course, taken literally this becomes a stick to beat you with. So ATTEMPT to get complete silence. THEN start naming names and handing out sanctions. THEN see who’s left. THEN have someone removed. THEN see if you can start. You may still not have complete quiet. But you will have done everything you can, and you will do more after the lesson. But what you mustn’t do is just plough on.

9. Getting personal

It’s the biggest temptation in the world; one child goads you so much, and clearly so personally, that you return with a comment about their weight, or how thick they are. Kiss goodbye to your chances of teaching them (see: David Starkey: Dream, School). It’s hard, but you are a grown up. Deal with their behaviour; their character, even if it is unlovely, is of secondary concern. Don’t let them in completely. These children are not your children; their education is your responsibility. Do what you can to safeguard and promote this first and most of all.

10. Allowing quiet children to do bugger all

Is this you? It was me for a while. The trade off is this: you sit quietly, and I won’t bother you. Success! Except it isn’t. You have to keep your bar high, and see poor output as just another form of misbehaviour. If they aren’t trying, then you’re not meaningfully making an impact on them; you’re the baby sitter. So even though it might make the job harder, take them to task for this too. Treat it as if they were capering about on desks or something. It might be invisible, but it’s bad behaviour too.

All of these habits are subject to being rebooted. But YOU are the only one who can do this. So do it. THAT’S how you show you’re committed to professional development- and the welfare of the kids.

Good luck


Read more from Tom here on his blog, or follow him

Tom’s new book Teacher: Mastering the Art and Craft of Teaching,is released on the 7th of June 2012, by Continuum/ Bloomsbury