Sorry, mate; not my department

Whose job IS it to get kids behaving?

Here’s a funny thing: whenever I speak to large groups of rank and file teachers, and I ask them what the biggest obstacle is to good teaching, they usually say behaviour. And when I ask them why behaviour is so difficult, one of the most common responses I get is ‘Senior Staff don’t do anything about it. I mean, it’s all very well for me to try to get them to behave, but if they don’t behave then I need to know that something will be done about it, and that doesn’t happen often enough.’ So far, so most likely true. But- and here’s the funny thing I promised you- whenever I talk to a room composed mainly of senior staff/ VIPs and ask them exactly the same question (assuming they haven’t answered ‘Not enough deep data-mining or some other strangled Satanism), and ask them to identify the roots of the behaviour, the answer is strangely divergent to the first group: ‘Staff don’t follow procedures enough; they seem to expect us to be a police force, what they don’t realise that if the pupils don’t see most discipline coming from them, then they’ll never behave for them. Often, we never hear about misbehaviour because it isn’t reported.’

Now isn’t that odd?

We have a thesis: senior staff dodge trouble like cobras; an antithesis: classroom teachers duck their responsibilities. What’s the synthesis? Is there a way to square these two circles? Are they different perspectives of the same problem, or (following the law of excluded middle), is one side wrong, one side right, with no common ground? I think the former.

One common problem is that all staff- I won’t talk about sides, or teachers vs SLT, because in a good school there ARE no sides, just a group of adults that give a damn and want the same broad goals, which hopefully involve the well-being of children- are human beings. As such, we are frail, we are fallible, and we have moments of weakness and moments of vigour. In our fatigue, it is tremendously easy to let things slide that we know shouldn’t be allowed to go anywhere: to turn a blind eye to something that needs to be dealt with, but we’re too swamped/ stressed/ drained to master. This happens at all levels of the school pyramid. It is also entirely human to imagine, using the fabulous device of cognitive dissonance, that we weren’t at fault for avoiding dealing with the situation, and that someone else must have stumbled. It’s called the blame game, and no one is immune.

My job, your job, I think, is to be aware that this can happen, and to take a broader perspective on our own performances. Instead of saying, ‘This kid was terrible in my lesson, what is someone going to do about it?’ and then sit back, waiting for something to happen, I suggest that the first question we ask is, ‘What should I be doing about this?’ Now, in many instances, it won’t be your responsibility to resolve the situation. In that case, good, just make sure that the right person does get to hear about the incident. After all, if a kid came at me with a katana, I wouldn’t really feel it was up to me to set a detention (although I’d be on the phone to Steven Seagal pretty sharp). There are many things that others are assigned to do. But simultaneous to this principle is the duty that we have: what should I do? For almost all minor classroom behaviour infractions, it is the classroom teacher’s responsibility to initiate the first steps in the behaviour modification tango. Perhaps you know it? It starts with a phone call, possibly a detention, a chat, lost privileges…whatever the school behaviour policy demands. And you should stick to it as much as possible, so that the kids know that you know it.

This is important because the student needs to see that you are the first guardian of classroom discipline- and that makes it your classroom. If you constantly refer to your line management superiors, then all you teach the children is that they should behave for, and respect them, not you. Make the link immediate. This part of the job is one of the most taxing; setting sanctions, keeping track of them, making calls, doing the paperwork. It’s also our jobs, so hard luck, I’m afraid. When they invent a magic wand, I’ll let you know. Until then, we do it with our sleeves rolled up. It’s why we get the big bucks and the long holidays *makes irony commas*. If you’re not doing this kind of thing, then- and I need to stress this- you’re not working with the school, you’re working against it. The school will absolutely expect you to do this kind of stuff. If you can, and you can keep it watertight, then you get the power-ups and the bonus levels- you get to escalate.

When do you escalate? It means you’re enlisting the school more and more in your behaviour management, using the power of the team, drawing in all that support and juice to strengthen your arm. Yes, I know it doesn’t feel like it, but it’s true, I promise you. So escalate, WHEN you have exhausted your armoury, and not before (there are exceptions: see later). If they fail to improve after you’ve set a detention, called home or whatever; if they fail to attend your detention; if they repeatedly break your class rules…these are all good access points to an escalation. The exception to the ‘use all your tricks first’ rule is when the infraction is clearly of a more serious level. If a kid gives me back chat (oh, just try me) then I might bust their chops with a detention. If they use any of the Unforgivable Swears at me (it’s been a while) then I go straight to the Head of Year/ Learning/ House/ SLT and get them to unpack the howitzers. Simple as that. The longer you teach, the more you understand when something is an ‘I got this’ situation, and when it’s a ‘Get by with a little help from my friends’ moment.

But the line of responsibility doesn’t stop there; this story is cyclical, like life, or the Lion King. It is absolutely the responsibility of the line manager/ pastoral manager to now get THEIR sleeves rolled up and get elbow deep into the situation,. This is where some teachers have a very legitimate complaint; the problem, passed on, vanished, melts like snow, as if it never were. It is very, very easy for someone who was not directly offended against, to treat another’s problems as less important. Too many senior staff get involved at the point once it has escalated past the classroom teacher, and apparently, want to be Coco the Friendly Teacher. They placate, coo and soothe, and then say, ‘I think Jordan is ready to come back now. He’s sorry. Aren’t you, Jordan?’ *Jordan mumbles something that might be sorry, might be blow it out your ear*. This is spinelessness of the highest calibre.

Any manager that treats the legitimate escalation of another with deflection, diminution, or deferment, has lost sight of the concept of support. You aren’t there as hostage negotiators, or UN diplomats; your role is to support. You may have heard the famous line, ‘If you want to lead people, get behind them?’ Yeah, that.

This line of responsibility runs higher and higher; the more senior the staff member, the more seriously they need to take their responsibilities, and may I suggest that teachers already need to take their responsibilities pretty damn seriously. But the higher your rank, the more harm/ help you can be. Unless you took a career hike for the glittering office and salary points, you probably sought higher office because you wanted to make a bigger difference to school life. If you didn’t, then look to your soul, look to your soul, because we work in schools, not canning factories, and our job is a vocation and a calling. We look after children. To do that we need to look after each other.

Who’s responsible for good behaviour in schools?

Everyone is. Everyone should set an example; everyone should check in on their job description from time to time and ask themselves ‘Am I still doing that?’ It happens to the best of us. It’s when people stop doing what they should be doing, that things start to slip, slip, slide away, and things deteriorate. If you can pass the mirror test and say, ‘Yes, I have done my job thoroughly,’ then the responsibility lies elsewhere, and you must pursue others to satisfy their roles as well as you have satisfied yours. It’s hard, but it’s often the only way to make sure you get the support you need. Press others to do their jobs, and they will press you to do yours. The dream (and it might be a near impossible one) is that eventually no one needs more than a casual reminder from time to time.

Send not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee. Unlike the Big Society, we really ARE in this together.

Good luck


Read more from Tom at his personal blog:

Or get behaviour advice on the TES Behaviour Forum:

Or buy his books, The Behaviour Guru and Not Quite a Teacher, both published by Continuum, here.

Or follow him on Twitter


Supporting each other

Schools aren’t composed of discrete units; you aren’t alone. It’s a community, a body made up of cells, of which you are one. If we look after each other, the body thrives; if we don’t it dwindles and dies, perhaps too slowly even for us to notice it. Here are a selection of resources from the TES collections that you can use to work together with your colleagues and comrades. When you move your arm, make sure a hundred arms move with it.

The New Ofsted Inspection guidelines

  • Yes, I know, Get thee behind me Satan. But in the turbulent world of classroom teaching ONE of the many things you have to do is be aware of what the inspectors will be looking for. That way, you can pull it out of your magical top hat whenever someone with a clipboard wanders by. Then you can carry on with teaching afterwards. Share this with colleagues at department meetings. It makes a great ice-breaker at teacher parties. Possibly.

Staffroom etiquette

  • One false move and you can lose an eye. Make sure you speak the ocal lingo in my short guide to

Stand By Me

  • Who can you lean on in schools when times get tough? When you’re weary? When you’re feeling small? Walk on, with hope in your heart…

Working with parents

  • Your invisible friends, not a barrier to behaviour, but a bulwark. Get in touch with the biggest influences in your kids lives. Make them your allies, not your arch-enemies.

The Wider Workforce

  • From Teachers TV: SEN research focusing on how teachers and TAs work together. Three research projects focusing on teaching assistants and the wider workforce, explore ways to improve understanding and practice between teachers and those supporting them in the classroom.

Manage that class

  • Sue Cowley, the Guv’nor, shows you how she gets medieval on classes using the power of her voice alone. Like Banshee from the X-Men.

Vertical Tutoring

  • An interesting way that some schools get students from different age groups to support each other. Doesn’t work in all school catchments, but worth a look if you haven’t encountered it before. This link takes you to an external commercial website, but it has some good advice and links if you were thinking about turning your tutor groups upside down and mixing them up like Etch-a-sketches.

The TES Forums

  • They’re free, and we’ve got thousands of teachers in YOUR area who want to speak to YOU, RIGHT NOW. Yes, I know what it sounds like, but it’s perfectly respectable. Teachers, more than many professions, need to support each other. The forums are the perfect place to moan, gripe, wail, support, laugh and cry with each other. It SHOULD be a dating website! Except it isn’t. Log on, find a thread that appeals to your position and issue, and we have the shoulders to cry on, the tissues, the slippers and cup of cocoa. Also the feather boas and the Brandy. We have it all.