'Behaviour management: You have to adapt to survive'

The 'Don't smile until Christmas' approach may work for some students, but be prepared to adapt, writes Tom Starkey

Tom Starkey

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Because of the nature of my role, I'm still meeting groups of new students for the first time.

As ever, it's a tricky business. We eye each other suspiciously as we circle around waiting for one or the other to draw first (if I’m honest I like to extend the moment for maximum awkwardness). And, like in any standoff, the pressure is most definitely on.

In a short space of time, you have to try and get the flavour of the group and decide what your tactics are going to be from that point on.

This is made even more complicated by relative unfamiliarity, which, in turn, brings with it its own set of variables. With very little prior knowledge, you have to make an attempt to clock the good and the bad or else things may well turn ugly.

The start is crucial

If you get those first lessons right, you’re off and running, but get it wrong and you're stuck with the exhausting and stress-filled prospect of playing catch-up for the year. It goes without saying that setting the tone at the start in the FE classroom (much like any other classroom) is hugely important.

Now, traditionally I'm very much in the “Don't smile until Christmas” camp (Christmas 2027, that is). It’s been noted by colleagues that it’s one of my “hangovers from secondary”. That might be the case but, whatever the sector, it's a heck of a lot easier to let go of the reigns a little after rather than scrabble to gain it.

Interestingly, I’ve found that the much-maligned credo works just as well in FE as it does in secondary (unless of course you take it literally, rather than use it as the reminder it so obviously is in relation to being firm in setting out your boundaries at the start. I mean, has anyone ever actually tried not smiling until Christmas? Your face would go all mushy from lack of exercise.) Turns out, everyone likes to know where they are right from the start.

Mixing it up

But then again, even the classics have their limits. This year I’ve had to mix it up a little bit as I’m primarily working with students with high needs, many of who don’t give a hoot whether I’m not smiling, smiling, crying or laughing maniacally. In these cases, I mostly employ irreverence and humour as it’s what they respond to (yet I still enforce the boundaries - you don’t give one up for the over, silly).

In fact, I adapt my approach given age, vocational area, level and a whole host of other factors. Because that’s one of the great (yet challenging) things about FE – due to the wide-ranging nature of the students and the classes where they reside, your approach to behaviour management often becomes as varied as the learning situation you find yourselves in. You have to have a fistful of techniques because those who we teach and the groups they are taught in are far less hegemenous than other sectors. So when you mosey on into the classroom for the first time, make sure you're prepared for anything, pardner.  

Tom Starkey teaches English at a college in the North of England 

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