Behaviour: Learners who know the rules can soar

Maintain certain levels of behaviour in the classroom and supporting students to grasp their own agency are not approaches that contradict each other.

Sarah Simons

When students know the rules in the classroom, they can soar, writes Sarah Simons

In the first few years of teaching, I believed in the magic of the old behaviour management mind trick where if you get the students to collectively write their own group manifesto, then they will stick to it. They created those rules, they have ownership of those rules, therefore they will respect those rules.

I kind of knew that tactic was a load of old bollocks long before I ditched it. But I doubted my instinct to cut and run, for two reasons. First of all, because the group authored rules method had seemingly been handed down through the years as a secret teacher spell, so if it didn’t work it must be because I was doing it wrong. Second, because it plays to my enthusiasm for individual agency and social equality. Who the hell am I to tell people how to behave?

Well, first of all, there’s buckets of stinking tripe that have been bequeathed through the pedagogical ancestry in addition to all the actual wisdom. And second… Actually I can dictate that people maintain certain levels of behaviour in my classroom as well as supporting students to grasp their own agency. Those two motivations don’t necessarily have to contradict each other.

News: Blended learning: do students actually rate it?​​​​

The student perspective: What is it like for students to be back in class?

Opinion: How making a college feel homely can improve behaviour

While I’m a big fan of equality in terms of status, of inclusion, and of opportunity to head in whatever direction an individual desires to go regardless of the starting point, I don’t think that a status neutral hierarchy between students and teacher is always helpful or appropriate. Nah mate, the classroom’s my turf and Im the boss. Also, it’s my place of work – were I to pitch up at one of my student’s places of work I would defer to them and play by their rules. Fair’s fair.

OK, I know I may be coming across a bit Gove-ish in my draconian "my house, my rules" stance, but the core of my belief is about creating a secure environment. If people know the rules, they are free to soar from the safety of that foundation. Im OK with being a benevolent dictator if it helps build a strong community.

The other reason that I booted out the group negotiated behaviour contract is that it often ended up being really complicated. I can’t be doing with upholding a set of 15 slightly different rules for each group – I wouldn’t be able to remember 'em, so how could I possibly ensure they were complied with? Instead, regardless of where I’ve worked, I’ve stuck to my own three all-encompassing rules: be on time, make an effort, be kind.

Almost all organisational rules fit somewhere within those three so it wouldn’t step on college policy toes. The third one, be kind, is especially universal in its coverage – targeted aggression isn’t kind, racism isn’t kind, homophobia isn’t kind, any behaviour or language that causes someone else to feel bad about themselves just isn’t kind. Simple as…

New normal, new rules

This year, there aren’t just in-house rules to contend with and communicate effectively, but all of the rules to keep people safe and healthy. In the community setting where I work, each student has their own taped off area as their ‘home’, and all the staff wear masks. Loo trips are a military-style operation, as are tea breaks and lunchtimes, and like colleagues around the globe, Eau de Antibac is my new fragrance of choice. But as many of the students have health vulnerabilities linked to their specific inclusion needs, complacency isn’t an option.

All my other teaching this year is via Zoom or Teams, so I don’t even have to roll out my Trunchball-esque schtick to hoards of rowdy teens. I have so much sympathy for colleagues across the sector who are trying to manage the first few weeks in a classroom environment. Not only because the pandemic chucks a blanket of complication over every part of early-term life, but because it’s so hard to ensure the coronavirus rules are being upheld when no one’s completely sure what the rules are. 

I think you know where I’m going with this…

The virus numbers are rising again. As I write, the loosely termed "rule" of six is all the rage. So in England, no more than six people can gather indoors or outdoors, unless you’re at work, in education or partaking in your passion for dragon boat racing, roller sports or octopush(?), to name but a few exemptions… And of course, the rules are different in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I’ve just counted 54 rules in this government document from 14 September that explains what we can and can’t do. Imagine chucking that out as classroom rules. Would you ever, in your wildest dreams, expect students to stick to them – or even remember them? 

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Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat

Find me on Twitter @MrsSarahSimons

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