In schools, certain assumptions can be made about how many students each class will have, their age, and often their previous educational experience. Colleges are a lot less predictable - the variations in cohort size and demographic are vast. There could be five students in a group or 25. They might all be teenagers or spread across generations.
This can make behaviour management interesting to navigate. Beyond the constants applicable to all teaching - the importance of a teacher's own behaviour in influencing that of a student and of having a consistent behaviour policy to which all staff adhere - further education teachers can struggle to find a successful path to classroom harmony.
So here are some approaches that work for me, especially when dealing with groups of mixed ages. They were developed with reference to experts on behaviour management, then honed by my getting it all wrong on countless occasions and rescuing some lessons from the wreckage.
Welcome to my house
Standing at the door and welcoming each student as they arrive provides a moment of personal contact and reinforces the idea that the classroom is your house and that learners are guests in it. This strategy is as relevant for 56-year-olds as it is for six-year-olds. And it can have an even greater impact at the end of the session. Having a quick word with each student as they leave, offering or asking for feedback, or setting a short task to be handed in upon exit, is a clean, crisp end to the session and can lend a positive note even if it hasn't gone to plan.
Setting the ground rules
Many teachers like to negotiate learner contracts with groups at the beginning of the year and refer back to the terms as a means of reinforcement. This is a solid strategy but it presupposes that learners don't understand the basic behavioural requirements. I prefer (perhaps naively) to assume the best, and take the more relaxed approach of having an informal chat about expectations. These can be reduced to the following three essentials: be here on time, treat everyone in the room as you would like to be treated and put effort in to the class. Then I tell them that if there's something going on in their life that could prevent any of these three things from taking place, they should let me know.
Practise what you preach
I am on time. I treat my students as I would like to be treated. I put effort in. I also don't swear in front of them, shout at people, use my mobile phone in the session or swagger around college with my hood up and my bottom hanging out of my trousers. It would be unfair of me to demand these professional standards from my students if I didn't exhibit them myself.
The great phone debate
When you have learners with a range of responsibilities, is it fair to insist that they don't glance at a text when it could urgently concern their child or their job? This year I experimented with relaxed rules regarding mobiles and encouraged students to use them as a resource when appropriate. To my surprise, this has stopped them being a distraction.
If a student's phone does hijack their attention, I remind them that reading the odd text is absolutely fine but I assume that they won't take advantage of my trust in them. For most people, this strategy of subverting what they have come to know as the rules pays dividends. But it is high-risk and requires teachers to be confident of their own status in the classroom.
In a similar way to adult children returning to the family home at Christmas, older learners occasionally regress to a child-like role in a classroom setting. The environment can stir the rebellious teen within. When the student has recently left school and is used to traditional dos and don'ts, the use of inappropriate language, for example, can be swiftly dealt with. But it can be awkward to berate someone who has used the F-word as an all-purpose adjective for the past 40 years. Rather than saying "I am offended by that word", I move the focus towards the professional environment and remind them that their actions could cost them a job.
Who's in charge here?
Occasionally a mature learner confuses their role in the classroom with mine. There can be only one top dog. I publicly acknowledge their experience and reassure them that their input is valued, but firmly explain that there is a curriculum to stick to and certain tasks must be completed. If they continue, I hold them back for a frank chat at the end of the session.
A problem shared
Curious concern reduces tension and leads to the quick resolution of most behavioural incidents. You could say, for example: "Are you OK? I'm worried that something is happening with you as you don't seem yourself." In the discussion, I am specific when referring to the negative behaviour, I direct the learner to the correct channels of support if required, ask how they think we can move forward and listen to what they say. But I remind them that the behaviour of the minority must not affect the learning of the majority.
Sarah Simons works in further education colleges in Nottinghamshire, England
Read Tom Bennett's expert advice on sixth-form behaviour.
How to help students who are struggling with college.