How to teach kids who don’t want to know

Whether you’re in your first year of teaching or your 14th, when it comes to tricky classes, it’s all about getting the basics right, says Tom Rogers
20th December 2020, 8:00am
Tom Rogers

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How to teach kids who don’t want to know

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/how-teach-kids-who-dont-want-know
Behaviour

It's one of the oldest questions in the book: how do you teach a group predominantly made up of students who have little or no interest in learning? 

If it's one or two students in a class of 30 who refuse to follow instructions, you have a good chance of being able to deal with it. If you have 10 (or more) in a class of 30, many strategies become redundant. Going through a sanction system with 10 students can be chaotic and difficult: starting a lesson can be a battle and getting pen to paper even harder.

The first thing to do when confronted with this scenario is to consider what you want to achieve. Rather than give up on that goal, be realistic about how long it may take to get there and what may or may not be achieved in the interim. Marginal gains will be the name of the game.

It took me a while to gain trust and imprint routines with some of the most challenging classes I've taught. In the transition period, we went through battles, occasionally a war, to finally get to the place we needed to be. 

My main weapons of choice are task and structure. From the moment students arrive, I want to be demanding of them in the style of a very polite broken record: cajoling, monitoring, refocusing, repeating.

I try to offer very specific and achievable directives from the outset: "I want you to come in, sit down and take your equipment out, face the front with eyes on me." I'll make eye contact, from a distance, with as many students as I can. I'll offer a "well done" and a "fantastic" to those following instructions.

I make my first task in the lesson crystal clear and, in the students' eyes, achievable. I will model the task, breaking it down into what an outside observer might see as obvious steps. 

I'll restate the instructions several times in different ways, using non-verbal cues, confirming with them that they understand and are happy to begin. I want to make sure that the task provides absolutely no opt-out for any student. 

A labelling task is always great here, whether it's a First World War trench or the equipment of a Roman soldier. There's a visual element, and it's simple and accessible. This allows you to ramp up the expectations while they complete it, homing in on their spelling of key words and their handwriting, circulating the room (if possible), and praising and instructing as you go. 

With them all calm and focused, it's important to keep that momentum going by stating the time they have remaining to complete the task - a few minutes, working down to seconds.

It's at this point, in a warm and business-like tone, that I will defend my boundaries if I need to. The last thing I want is conflict, but low-level disruption is a great hill to die on. Challenging at the lowest level, in a non-confrontational and calm way, tells every student in the class that you mean business.

Sometimes, none of this will work, all hell will break loose and, before you know it, you have lots of students shouting out, talking to each other across the room, some with their heads on the desk. 

At this point, get support. Request the head of year or head of department to come in and talk to the class: this is not a sign of weakness. I did this without hesitation just last week myself with a Year 9 class and I'm in year 14 of my career.

I'd rather pitch expectations high and have to fight for the class than pitch too low and spend my time begging for them to comply.

I always remind myself that it's not personal. If a student lashes out, nine times out of 10, it'll be at pure frustration that I won't let them do what they want. During these moments, I'll remind myself of my career to date, and all the students I've taught. 

If I was talking to my NQT self, I'd say: "Remember that PGCE you passed?" I'd recall all the hours and past wins. It's easy to forget the whole lot in these times.

Tom Rogers is a history teacher, who runs rogershistory.com. He tweets as @RogersHistory 

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