"Hail Hydra," I said to the secret door to the Department of Education. But it no longer worked. Saruman no longer ruled Orthanc. I tried "Friend" and "Rumpelstiltskin" and "Fidelio", but nothing.
I was asked in today to submit my thoughts to the Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training. Today's focus: behaviour training, a subject about which I have one or two opinions. Let me be plain: the state of behaviour-management training in the UK is very, very bad indeed. It's more than patchy; patchy would be tolerable. But there are more gaps in the quilt than patches. New teachers often enter the classroom as naked as a needle as far as running a room goes, their heads filled with a lumpy gruel of well-intentioned trainers' platitudes and fairy wishes. As a point of balance, there is a great deal of excellent training out there: great schools, great universities, great in-school mentors. But if you get it, you're fortunate. Five years working as a behaviour coach and agony uncle have taught me that.
A big part of the problem is that a good many people in charge of training new teachers appear to be in the grip of absurd notions on how to get kids learning. "Gripping lessons," they argue, despite the self-evident truth that not all lessons can be gripping, or should be. "Restorative justice, not punitive," they argue, despite the fact that there is no significant evidence base for RJ as a successful intervention beyond case studies and individual schools here and there. Most of the data for it comes from prisons, or as I like to call them, "not school". And even then, crucially, RJ takes place in prison, so the concept of sanctions and some form of punitive function is intrinsically linked to it. It has a place as one strategy amongst many, but the idea that new teachers should default to it is madness.
And the idea that new recruits are unable to praise a lot is surreal. All the teachers I work with who struggle to handle behaviour, are often very positive indeed. It's neglecting the assertive aspect of teaching – calling kids out on poor behaviour – that often lacks.
Basic behaviour management comes from clear boundaries set with compassion and justice, and clear consequences of adhering to those boundaries, using sanctions or rewards. Add consistency, courage and repetition to that recipe and you have a hearty stew that will cater for most appetites. Those on special diets will need boutique provision away from the mainstream, and good PRUs like New Rush Hall have the best menus.
Here are my answers to some questions posed by today's discussion – which was excellent, incidentally. The table was heavy with talent.
What does the best ITT provision do to ensure new teachers are equipped to deal with the challenges of behaviour in the classroom? Are there any particular evidence-based strategies?
In my view, the best ITT...
- Provides experiential training, and as much of it as possible.
- Makes behaviour management an absolute number one priority concurrent with, or even prior to, pedagogy.
- Sees behaviour management as a separate part of teacher training, but understood holistically.
- Coaches the candidate through the learning cycle rather than abandons them.
- Provides a sufficient level of challenge and variety as well as providing opportunities to reflect and follow up, discuss and absorb the experience rather than be swamped by it.
- Provides mentors and advisors who are good at running rooms and handling challenging behaviour, rather than distant greybeards with good intentions and poor judgement. Preferably currently active teachers, but at least ones with proven track records in this area.
- Provides the right form of instruction – consequence-based behaviour training, attaching consequences to behaviours.
- Avoids ideology and over-optimistic views of the nature of children.
- Teaches about what a good school behaviour policy and system looks like, and encourages new teachers to see behaviour management as being part of a team, not just a magic power somehow acquired by the righteous.
What delivery arrangements most effectively prepare trainees in behaviour management? What kind of school experiences prepare trainees to deal with challenging behaviour?
- In-school systems, not one hour of behaviour management in the year then GO.
- Ones that have developed whole-school policies to deal with behaviour.
- Ones where line managers are clearly involved in escalations.
- One where senior staff are visible and sympathetic to the needs of new teachers, and take an active interest in their well being and development.
- Where senior staff walk into any classroom at any time.
- Use an analogy of riding a bike or swimming. The deep end simply drowns new staff – let them learn with water wings and stabilisers at first, and gradually allow them autonomy.
- An incremental approach to devolving responsibility.
- Open support for all members of staff as a default.
- A clear behaviour policy, known to all staff and students.
What kind of support should be given to trainees struggling with behaviour management?
- Observation and coaching from supportive mentors who are prepared to discuss lessons.
- Allowing them to observe relatively new but successful members of staff in how they run their rooms, not high-status SLT, for example.
- Filming them teach, then reviewing the film in a low-stakes environment.
- Acknowledge that the poor behaviour is not automatically the fault of the new teacher.
- Repeat and review.
- Hold their hand closely through the post and pre-class process, carefully monitoring the student teacher response.
What are the common characteristics of weak training in behaviour management?
- Theory before practice.
- Too much time in lecture halls, not enough in classrooms.
- Biased lecturers with little experience of tough classrooms.
- Self proclaimed gurus who advise marvellous strategies that only work if you're fabulously charismatic or, indeed, them.
- Bad advice – for example, telling new teachers to be their friends, flirt with them, crack jokes, prescribe engaging lessons as a magic bullet, advise endless appeasement, etc.
- Permitting new teachers to be allocated to whichever teacher will have them, and then abandoning them to the vagaries of chance, hoping that they'll be trained well.
Is enough time and emphasis given to behaviour management in ITT programmes?
No. It's a joke at the moment. Possibly because a lot of people responsible for training people in it couldn't do it themselves, or have lost all touch with the classroom, or were never good at it in the first place. Or have moved from low to high status without touching the sides of behaviour management. Or escaped teaching as soon as they could to become advisors and consultants and academics. There are many people in this game who don't resemble this unpleasant description. And there are many who do.
Remember, citizens and colleagues: the next time someone gives you advice on how to run a room, ask yourself one crucial question: could they do it themselves? If the answer is no, then walk away. Just walk away. You deserve better, and your children undoubtedly do, too.