Every right-minded teacher wants students who are switched on and in possession of keen minds and enquiring spirits. Until, that is, those keen minds make misbehaviour their sole mission and the only enquiry of interest is how far you can be pushed before you scream, cry or get signed off sick with stress.
This is the realm of the class smart-arse. These stock characters of school life have been a staple since the days of the dunce's cap, but they will remain long after the interactive whiteboards and iPads have been consigned to the scrapheap.
You know the type. This is the student who listened with particular interest to that citizenship lesson on human rights and is now protesting against grammar practice by appealing to Article 3. The one who has cobbled together a passionate (if misinformed) argument on UK detention law and will happily hold court before sauntering off without permission at one minute past three. Although their intelligence is endearing, these students can cause the finest lessons to unravel.
A conversation with the class smart-arse is a battle. A battle of wits, yes, but it can be just as destructive as a chair being chucked across the room. Imagine if you were to allow yourself to be drawn into debate about, say, the injustice of teachers wearing their own clothes. This diversion would not only knock precious minutes off your lesson plan but offer irresistible entertainment for the rest of the room, with all eyes watching to see who would emerge victorious.
It is, of course, a lose-lose situation for teachers. Allowing yourself to be undermined by a student is a green light for months of behaviour management challenges. Being dragged into spiteful sniping is even more problematic: it proves to your charges that you are fair game for needling and happy to use your intelligence for evil ends. Above all, it leads to a seriously unpleasant atmosphere to work in.
And so the temptation is to tactically ignore. "Tra-la-la, I'm not listening" feels far more manageable on a Friday afternoon than taking the time to explain exactly why freedom of expression does not mean that it's acceptable to swearsit on the floorreapply blusher during a speaking and listening assessment.
But you must remember why they are playing up. These opinionated students are (often quite literally) crying out for you to recognise their intelligence. They are also experimenting with their personalities. In protesting that they should be the ones who are paid for coming to school ("because it's so dead"), your student is simply trying the role of "the mouthy one" on for size and relying on you as a professional to show them that it's not a good fit for anyone who wants to get on in the world. You owe them, and society, the simple but exhausting courtesy of challenging them every time. Here's how.
Give them what they want
For any student, mouthing off is essentially an attempt to try to steal the spotlight. So why not give it over willingly? Get your know-it-all to plan and present a starter, lead whole-group feedback or even design a homework task for the class. Not only are you showing trust by relinquishing control, you're also making sure that you're on the same team rather than in opposition.
The simplest approach, but the quickest to fly out of the window (particularly during disputes about whether a student should be allowed to open said window), is to hand out praise. It's easy to characterise your classroom adversary as an evil genius when they're constantly aggravating you, but remember that this is a child who, more likely than not, just wants a bit of acknowledgement. Swallow your pride and give them a compliment.
This tip for tricky students will reap rewards in all classes: explain yourself. It's obvious - but often forgotten in the commotion of a lesson - that giving students access to the rationale behind the planning is a powerful motivator. Constantly being told what to do without reason is incredibly frustrating (think back to your worst ever continuing professional development session if you don't believe me), so take the time to explain to your charges exactly how they stand to benefit from your expertise. And if you can't justify it, it may not be worth doing. Remember, "because I said so!" is never the answer.
Restore the relationship
If things break down and it comes to detention, take the opportunity to use the time constructively. As tempting as it may be to take a punitive approach with the so-and-so who's been spoiling your lessons for weeks, talking to said loudmouth on their level can work wonders. It will take time and effort, but investment in your most difficult students will be more than worth it in the end.
Zofia Niemtus is a teacher in London
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