18 classroom mistakes to avoid

Gerald Haigh has written about his experiences in TES for more than four decades. Here the former primary teacher, secondary teacher and head offers advice on what not to do

Gerald Haigh

Never in all my time in the classroom did I feel I was a natural-born teacher. In so far as I succeeded it was by making many mistakes of my own, observing the mistakes of others, and always trying to learn from them. Some of these examples may have a flavour of a different era, but I believe they hold true - so don't make the same mistakes I did ...

Futile threats of retribution

"Right! If anyone does that again I will... "

Well, go on then, what? Burst a blood vessel? Call down fire and brimstone? Fall kicking and screaming to the floor?

Threats are easy to make, and sometimes work in the short term. But scary ones are difficult to carry out. So what you usually settle for is something pretty safe. Such as: "If you carry on like this I am going to be very annoyed!"

As if that'll put the fear of God in them.

On the whole it's probably best to avoid threats altogether. They tell the class that you aren't confident enough to apply a sanction without warning. It's better to make both praise and punishment immediate and confident.

The 'next person' trap

"The next person who talks is going in detention."

Oh no, it's Samantha - I was hoping it would be Darren. Maybe if I pretend I didn't hear her, Darren will talk in a minute and I can catch him.

"Please, Sir?"

"Yes, Jack?"

"You said the next person who talked would go in detention. Samantha talked, Sir. I heard her."

"Did she really? I'm afraid I didn't hear. Samantha! Take care. You know the rule."

"I'm sorry, Sir. I was just asking Gurdip if I could borrow his... "


"Me, Sir? No, Sir!"

"Don't lie to me, boy. I saw your lips move. You know the rule. Detention."

"Sir, it's not fair, Sir!"

Putting on a video and relaxing

A teacher, much more senior than I was then, arranged for his class and mine to see a geography-related educational video. We sat at the back. As soon as we switched it on, they switched off, talking and laughing among themselves.

"Don't worry," said my supposedly wiser colleague. "Something like this has to keep its own discipline. If it can't keep their attention we can't do anything about it."

That's nonsense, of course. He just wanted half an hour of time out, and given his job who can blame him? What we should have done was watch the video first, fillet it for the useful bits, prepare some questions, maybe give out a worksheet. My own mistake was in not winning brownie points by doing that in advance.

Unfocused praise

There are two related problems here. One is the use of extravagant scattergun praise where everyone's just getting on anyway.

"Morning, 5W. Everyone OK? Brilliant, brilliant! Ready to do some geography? Awesome! Excellent, everyone!"

The other is well-meaning praise that doesn't relate to anything: "Good boy. I'm proud of you."

Maybe part of the problem connects with that increasingly popular formula that says: "Praise three times for every time you admonish."

I'm bursting to give Jimbo a bollocking, but I have to praise three people before I can do that. OK, here goes. "Great handwriting, Ramandeep. You're really concentrating today, Stuart. Glad you got your hair cut, Michael. JIMBO! STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!"

The rule is, praise the work, not the child, carefully identifying what is good about it.

Setting work without thinking of the marking load

"OMG, Facebook friends. You should see the marking I'm taking home this weekend. I'm grounded for the duration."

Blame yourself, I say. What you did was forget that marking has to be considered at the planning stage. The question to ask is: "What marking will emerge from this lesson? What can I do to reduce it?"

Be aware, too, that there are ways of marking other than just wading through piles of work writing comments and adding grades. This document from the Highland Council is a very useful summary of alternative assessment strategies: bit.lyJHILxS.

If you plan with care, you will know what each lesson will produce in terms of marking, and you can arrange it so the heavy marking nights come at the least inconvenient moments.


I learned a lesson about shouting quite early on from a difficult secondary school class. Bad girl Margaret was playing me up. Driven to distraction, I yelled "Margaret!"

At the same time I was aware of a sort of stereo effect, and the whole class dissolved in laughter. It took me a moment to realise that one of the lads, watching my face closely as I built up to my explosion, had shouted "Margaret!" precisely in unison with me and at exactly the same volume. Dignity out of the window yet again.

We all know we shouldn't shout. But we also know how hard that is under pressure.

How to tackle it? Deal with it like any other habit, by setting yourself achievable targets. Not, "I will never shout again" but, "I will get through this lesson without shouting."

Setting meaningless homework for the sake of it

In a big secondary school where I spent six happy years, the deputy head would select, in assembly, two pupils to report with their homework. We all knew that the real purpose of the exercise was to catch out those of us who hadn't set homework in accordance with the timetable. The effect was that we often set "busy work" tasks just to keep ourselves out of trouble.

"OK, off you go 9W. NO! NO! Hang on! Come back! I haven't set your homework. Let's think. Er. Write down how you imagine Charles I felt as he was executed. OK? Hand it in on Monday. Yes, Simone, 'executed'. That's what I said. Look, just do your best, right? And Joe and Rita, just colour in the picture. Oh, I don't know. Any picture."

Mistiming the lesson

"Right, you've listened to me long enough. Time for you to do some work now. Open your books and... "

Bell? It can't be the bell. Crikey. "Now, nobody goes anywhere till I get everything back... " Thirty pairs of compasses, 30 protractors. "Sit still. SIT STILL!" Right, I'm going round with the tin. OK, 14 compasses short, six protractors missing. "Nobody leaves until... Look, I don't care if it's Mrs Ripper next.

"I'll ignore that. I can't see how she can be scarier than me. Don't be insolent, boy. OK, that's better. Just have to write off four pairs of compasses, I guess. Off you go. What are you screaming about Jason? What do you mean, she stabbed you? With what? Well, if they'd been handed in it wouldn't have happened, would it? Stop whingeing, boy. Tell Mrs Ripper when you get there. It'll keep her busy for a bit."

Using certain subjects as punishments or rewards I actually heard a colleague say this: "OK, that's it. You've lost PE. We'll do maths instead. No, it's no good saying anything. I warned you."

Consider the messages this teacher has now sent out, none of which live up to professional standards:

- Physical education is not so much a lesson as a period of relief from proper work.

- Mathematics is hard, unpleasant and boring.

- The timetable can be manipulated by you for reasons that have nothing to do with learning.

- The behaviour of a section of the class can provoke you into disrupting everyone's day.

- You don't care that an unknown number of children hate PE and are relieved to be missing it, or that others love maths and relish the chance to do more of it.

Not being frank with management about mishandling a behaviour problem

Twice while I was a senior member of staff, colleagues came to me to say that they had lost their temper with a child. One had slapped a boy's face. The other had clutched a lad by the front of his jacket and backed him, roughly, into the wall.

Both sets of parents arrived to complain. However, because the teachers had been prompt in coming to me and entirely frank, I was able to keep everyone onside. I was equally frank with the parents, each of whom recognised three crucial truths: that their child was quite capable of driving any adult to distraction, that teachers are human and sometimes do things they regret and that we took the matter seriously. Most importantly, we had built up trusting relationships with each other and with the families.

Starting the day ill-prepared

"Come on! Come on! Get a move on! Go THROUGH, you fool! It's still on amber!"

Right. Made it to morning briefing. Don didn't spot me sneaking in. I'll stand at the back next to Megan.

"Pssst, Megan! What day is it? Yes, Megan, I am serious. No, Don, sorry, I wasn't asking a question. All fine, Don, thanks. Sorry."

It would be Thursday, wouldn't it. Double period with 9K in the huts. Must go to the toilet first, though, and pick up a coffee.

God, I'm not as fit as I was. This campus gets bigger every day. Hell, I can hear them already.

"OK, I'm coming, for God's sake."

Ah. They've suddenly gone quiet. Must have spotted me running across the tennis courts.

"Right, 9K. Get out your... Oh, hello, Don. Didn't see you there. Yes, yes. Sorry I'm late. Misread my timetable, I'm afraid. Yes, again, apparently. But I'll just carry on now, will I? See you in your office? At what time? Of course ..."

Asking poorly-worded questions

"OK, 5W. What do you not find on top of a mountain?"

That was an example of a poor classroom question used by one of our college lecturers. The fact that I remember it after so many years shows how important a message it carried. Classroom questioning is at the heart of the pedagogic craft, part of the process of guiding children towards learning. Poor questions are either so open-ended as to be meaningless, too difficult for the class or too tightly framed.

Good questions are encouraging, accepting, well-distributed, inclusive, differentiated... I could go on. That said, it's too easy for the whole business to fall over into parody.

"Now, Jane, what's two plus two? Seventeen, you say? Well, that's a pretty good try, Jane. I'm very pleased you had a go. Now, anyone else... ?"

(For good tips, see Teachers TV's advice on the TES website: bit.lywV4CpF.)

Continually saying "shhh, shhh"

I started doing this, and stopped when it was pointed out to me.

"Settle down now, shhh, shhh. Open your books, shhh, shhh. Now, here's what I want you to do, shhh, shhh."

This is the teacher who never really achieves quiet engagement with the class. Instead, he or she settles for an uneasy peace that permits children to chat quietly among themselves without ever breaking out into open anarchy.

I taught with someone in whom the habit was so ingrained that he quite unknowingly kept it up in the staffroom. "Two sugars, please, Miss Deakin, shhh, shhh. I beg your pardon. No, I didn't mean that at all, shhh, shhh."

Sitting down too much

In my early days I made the mistake of staying behind my desk while children queued patiently to see me. Gradually I disappeared from view behind them. If something unexpected happened - a call for help, the entry of the headteacher - I would burst forth like Orca the Killer Whale emerging from the deep.

By contrast, in the Birmingham secondary where I later worked, the head of maths, who suffered from a debilitating back problem, would often teach lying flat on the broad window ledge of his classroom. The pupils' respect for him was such that they were ready to pay attention regardless.

What does that prove? Only that when it comes to judging the effectiveness of a teacher, whether they sit, stand or lie probably isn't the main defining characteristic. Try telling that to Ofsted, though.

Not turning up for a duty

God, what a relief. I've got a few minutes in the staffroom before I start doing some preparation for tomorrow. Always that nagging feeling I should be somewhere else. It must be something that bugs all teachers. Who's that at the door? I'll have to answer it.

"Hi, Jason. What's up?"

"Sir, Mr Wantage says will you come down to the bus turnaround straight away. There's a big fight. One of the buses is on fire. The fire brigade is there and four police cars."

"Wow. But why did he ask for me?"

"He says you're on bus duty, Sir."

(OK, that's an exaggeration of the actual incident. But the fight was real enough.)

Over-friendliness at the start of the lesson

I know, the rule says I should be at my room ready for when the class arrives. But this lot know me. There they are, all over the corridor. No harm in them, really. They know who's boss. Who's that on the floor crying?

"Right, you rabble. Clear a way for me. Get up Goofy, you're not hurt. OK, in we go, follow me."

Crikey, I'm pressed up against the window on the far side.

"OK, OK. Settle down. Pick that desk up. What do you mean, you haven't got anywhere to sit, Goofus? There are enough chairs. I see, yours is broken. It wasn't broken last lesson. What have you done to it? And stop crying. Right, now, kids, let's do some GEOMETRY! YAY!"

Ingratiating oneself with the class at the expense of another teacher In my final teaching practice I was running a noisy and (to me) very exciting session, when the door opened and another teacher appeared.

"Oh, sorry," she said. "It was so noisy, I thought the class was unattended."

To which, foolishly, riding on adrenalin, I said, gesturing to include the class: "Noisy? Noisy? We weren't being noisy, were we?"

"No! No!" they chorused.

The teacher turned on her heel and left. But, of course, she was waiting for me at break, by which time I'd come back to earth, ready to grovel. My status as a student and her grace and generosity meant we continued to be friends. But the whole scene, after more years than I care to admit, plays in my head in high definition whenever I think about it.

Assuming that what works in one school will transfer to your new job

Over six years working with some difficult children in low ability classes, we got to know each other pretty well. They knew where the boundaries lay, when things were serious and when they weren't, when it was OK to be cheeky and when it wasn't.

Then I went to another school. In my first lesson with bottom stream 14-year-olds, I invited them to leave their desks and sit in a circle so that we could just chat. I failed to realise that this was a signal to them that I was Mr Softie, fair game, ready to roll over. It took me ages to get back on top. A neutral observer would say I never did quite manage it.

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Gerald Haigh

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