United we stand - Why the school is your secret weapon in classroom management...or it should be.


Why the school is your secret weapon in classroom management…or it should be.

By Tom Bennett

‘No man is an island, sufficient in himself.’ John Donne

Often, when I’m coaching new teachers with behaviour management, a lot of their problems can be boiled down to their mistaken belief that they should be able to handle all the crowd control by themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth. The school is an institution, and institutions are sustained by collaboration. Just ask the Roman Empire when they were straddling every known continent; or ask them again when they were on their collective ass. Teaching is one of the loneliest jobs in the world, which is odd when you stop to think about it, because the moments that you’re not surrounded by children or grimacing adults can be collected together over a week and still be ten minutes short of a heart beat.

But just as you can be lonely in a crowd, so too can you be lonely in a classroom. Trainee teachers often fail to appreciate how little time is spent in the teaching career with another adult; once the training wheels are off (and regrettably in my experience, sometimes even before that) then you are really flying solo. To combat this, I try to encourage trainees to observe (and be observed) as much as humanly possible, because once you get onto the rollercoaster, the opportunities to stop and take pictures are few.

The pattern that often then develops is this: the new teacher, smelling of paint and freshly sawn wood, enters the classroom full of ambition and vision. They’ve read all the best books, sat in the lectures, and listened to the school CPD, so in their heads they know- on paper- what needs to be done to control a class. Three weeks later (oh look! That’s around about now) they’re wondering why the kids are still bouncing off walls and re-enacting Lord of The Flies in their Geography lessons.

This is a crucial point for some: at this stage teachers can go one of several ways.

1. Stop doing what you’re doing immediately. This is a mistake akin to the commission of Disneyland Tehran. It’s understandable though; if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got, right? Wrong. Some plans need time to bed in, and some things take time irrespective of how diligently you implement them. Modifying behaviour takes time, and if you are a new quantity to a classroom, all the behaviour tricks in the world won’t accelerate the fact that you’re not a trusted adult to your new charges. They can’t read you mind and tell that you’re a decent sort with the best of intentions. To many, you’re just a new and unwelcome face. This isn’t because they’re awful- for some kids, it’s just a natural resentment of change. Some kids HATE change. They think it’s toxic.

The teachers that give up with their routines, sanctions and rewards at this point have voluntarily put themselves on a fast track to perdition.

2. Switching from one strategy to another. This is another option that some pursue. If THIS strategy doesn’t work, then why not try THIS one? And THIS? And THIS? Maybe they ask some other teachers for advice, and they get three different answers; or they log onto TSL online (a wise decision) and pick up some tips that differ. So they try all of the strategies over the next few weeks. And what do you know? They don’t work either. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

3. Persevere, and get others involved. Now is the time for teachers to recognise some truths. Good relationships with children take time to accumulate; it’s an organic process, and one that defies synthetic intervention. That’s because it’s a human process, and children will react at the speed of children. Humanity will not be rushed. Relationships are based on trust, and trust is not conveyed or obtained in a heart beat. It accumulates like a stalactite, drop by mineral drop. Like the growth of hair, nails and height, change is often invisible to the naked eye. Only time and perspective can reveal that anything has moved at all. But move it will, as long as the teacher perseveres with their behaviour strategies. So long as they are based on clear boundaries, clear sanctions and rewards, rigorously and honestly applied, the process will work.

And there’s one more factor that needs to be added to the whole recipe: the school.  John Donne was right; there is no such thing as an individual teacher at school; we are defined by our relationships to one another, and there’s one thing that the teacher mustn’t be, and that’s alone. There is a world of adults existent beyond the classroom door, and any teacher that denies themselves of this resource is attempting to dig a grave with a toothbrush. The school, I might add to this grisly analogy, is a shovel; Hell, it’s a JCB.

One reason that many new teachers avoid enlisting the help of others is shame, and the fear of apparent failure. Won’t you look like a loser if you need help? Not a bit; the opposite is true; failure is only found in the inability to ask for help. Sure, there will be some desiccated, ossified old trolls at school that will tut and sneer at your requests for help, but who gives a damn what they think? If you hear someone claim, ‘Oh, she’s not coping…’ because you have asked for assistance, feel free to ignore their entire pedagogy in future. At least this way you’ve found out who the enemies of education are. Do the right thing and get the team involved in your troubles.

What does this look like? Well, in most schools there will be two things that you need to make behaviour work: a line management structure, and a behaviour policy. If your school lacks either, check for the nearest exit and start planning your great escape, because the place might look like a school, but it’s a clown house. Run for your lives!

Line management: the minute that a behaviour incident escapes your ability to contain it, refer to your next superior officer, and ask them what you should do. They might be able to imagine a piece of strategy for you to try, or they might simply escalate the sanctions available to you; perhaps they’ll arrange a parental meeting with you and the offending pupil’s family. There will be other avenues that you can pursue; the head of year/ learning, pastoral managers, mentors, form tutors etc. Use them ALL. They are their for you, and if you don’t use them you’re tying one hand behind your back and shadow boxing with the kids instead of taking it back to them.

The school Behaviour Policy; this should be your starter for ten. Find out what procedures the school has and then follow them. I imagine they’re not perfect, but Jiminy Cricket, they’re a lot better than nothing (probably). As Hobbes nearly said, ‘Bad government is better than no government at all’. Even a bad behaviour policy will at least give you a skeleton of structure to work with. You might be able to work your own behaviour policy into the whole school one, but the kids should recognise that you’re aware of the system, the main players in the pastoral life of the school, and the sanctions and rewards available to you. Put another way, NOT using these alternatives will strip you naked of everything in the class apart from your, no doubt, immaculate personality.

So how charming are you? Unless the answer is ‘A lot,’ then I suggest that we all get behind each other and work as a team in school The naughty kids aren’t the Mafia; they’re (for the most part) working alone, with short term goals. We are the ones who persevere in unison. And that’s why we win when we stick together.

And when we win, the kids win. Isn’t that nice?


Tom is the author of two books published by Continuum, The Behaviour Guru and Not Quite a Teacher.Read more from Tomhereon his personal blog, or follow him on Twitterhere.

Or get behaviour advice on the TES Behaviour Forum


Stand By Me

Don’t always look for help from the obvious people; school is stuffed full of potential allies, so think laterally as well as linearly.

Sanctions checklist

There are many options available to teachers; check whether you have picked the right tool for the right job.

Being observed with a tough class?

Look at some of the answers that the Behaviour forum provided to this dilemma.

Thinking of quitting already?

Read messages of support if the year has got on top of you already

ADHD in the mainstream Primary

If you’re new to teaching, pupils with ADHD can present some of the biggest challenges of all. See how others cope in this Teacher’s TV presentation

Social Media

Welcome to the minefield of social networking and beyond in the school context. The excellent Michael Shaw guides you through the traps.

Common mistakes new teachers make

Some things I think you should really avoid…

Manage that class with Sue Cowley

More resources

Behaviour and classroom management resources