Behaviour - How to stand firm when classes run riot

Behaviour management is best tackled as part of a team, but if you're getting no support you can still transform the situation

Tom Starkey

Some things you really shouldn't have to do on your own. Line dancing, for example. It looks good when a bunch of you are scootin' your boots together, but the effect is somewhat diminished if you're out there on the floor on your lonesome.

Behaviour management is just as flawed when it is attempted alone. In an ideal world, you wouldn't have to worry about this eventuality. Your further education organisation would acknowledge that, although the students are, on average, older than most, they are still people and sometimes act in a fairly despicable fashion. Your college would recognise the need for a robust and explicit behaviour management policy that is fair, easy to follow, easy to implement and adhered to across the board. The college's management team would be strong and visible, always on hand to support staff dealing with the extremely emotive and tricky issue of behaviour.

Sadly, our world is often less than ideal. There is a chance that you may find yourself in an establishment that doesn't do any of these things. You may be working in one already. Such colleges assume that because the students are older than most, they are automatically more mature and pliable, so there isn't any real need for something as difficult and time-consuming as a coherent behaviour policy.

You may even be unlucky enough to work at a college where it is believed that any problems you experience must be down to you and you alone because you're not doing whatever it is you're supposed to be doing. You may be part of a team that will ignore problems such as violence and bullying by students because enrolment, attainment and retention figures are seen as the priorities.

If you are in this position, simply bemoaning the fact that it shouldn't be this way won't make it any easier. When there's no help coming, what can you do to help yourself? You could start by implementing these approaches:

Your classroom is your castle

Behaviour management in an unsupportive environment is an extremely difficult prospect, especially as your students will be fully aware that they are unlikely to be sanctioned for their actions. If this is the case, separating yourself and the learning space you teach in from the wider culture of the college could be a step towards achieving positive behaviour. There may be running battles down the corridors and gladiatorial combat in the open-plan learning areas, but the classroom you teach in is yours. The culture is yours. And the rules are yours.

Putting borders like this in place usually divides students into two categories. For many, your class will become a refuge from the madness going on outside, a chance to actually get something done. For others, it will seem more like a prison of unfairness, where the lively atmosphere the rest of the college is not reproduced. You must be prepared to face some animosity if you decide to go it alone.

Let's be realistic: even on this extremely small scale, trying to alter embedded behaviour and attitudes without help is immensely challenging and has no guarantee of success. However, if you are consistent but stern and you have the energy to put into the task, it might just work. Although it will be an uphill struggle, attempt it all the same. Any success you have could lead to improvements for everyone.

A force for change

Alternatively, you could take the bull by the horns and try to force systemic change. Whether or not this is possible will be dependent on your status within the organisation - and I would warn you against attempting it if you are just starting out. This strategy also assumes that the senior management team is unaware of the problems and needs to be told about them, which is not always the case. Making a case to those with influence about the advantages to everyone of a better behaviour policy could be the start of an attitude shift. But, once again, be sure to tread carefully. It is easy to be labelled as a troublemaker even if all you are offering is solutions.

What if you try these approaches and still hit a dead end? Then you have to ask yourself an extremely tough question: is it worth it? If your college offers no support on behaviour management and is more concerned about the appearance of learning than learning itself, then it might be time to start looking for a job elsewhere.

This can be a heartbreaking prospect and you may feel as though you are giving up on yourself and your students, but some workplaces don't shirk this important responsibility. It could be extremely beneficial to you as a practitioner to go out there and find one.

I moved from an institution that didn't have a handle on behaviour to somewhere that does and the difference is incredible. I still feel guilty sometimes, but then I remember how horrible it was to be in that situation.

Tom Starkey is an English teacher at a further education college in the North East. Read his blog at and find him on Twitter at @tstarkey1212

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