“NQT advice: take a deep breath and walk away when someone says 'they behave for me'.”
The above tweet by Tes columnist Tom Rogers received thousands of likes, retweets and responses from teachers across the country and the world over, with many supplying their own stories of hearing either those exact words or variants thereof: “They’re fine for me”; “I’ve never had a problem with them”; “You just need to know how to deal with them”.
Any comment that implies we have substandard classroom management skills cuts deep. Our ability to control the classroom doesn’t feel to be purely a professional skill, but one that almost says something about our worth as a person. I won’t forget in a hurry the laconic comment of one of my mentors when I was a beginning teacher: “I’ve worked out your problem… It’s your personality…”
The coup de grâce was still to follow: “You haven’t got one.”
Teachers should, of course, be more tactful in their comments to colleagues experiencing difficulties. But looking back, 14 years on, my mentor had a point, albeit expressed in such a way as to be buried under several layers of offence.
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Because I was new to teaching, every lesson was a countless series of challenges that were new to me. My attention was diffused across any number of these at all times, and I was understandably anxious and uptight as a result.
With more experience under my belt, what had once needed my full attention became habit. My confidence grew, my attention was able to turn from keeping order to accelerating learning, and I am reasonably sure that had my mentor observed me again some years later, he might even have been able to detect the beginnings of a personality.
Doug Lemov, with his Teach Like a Champion series, has sought to accelerate this process by collating and sharing examples of effective classroom practice he has observed. But practice is the operative word. It takes time, and failed or semi-successful attempts to automate for ourselves crucial micro-behaviours – such as facial expression, tone of voice and in-the-moment judgements – which, in aggregate, make all the difference.
Of course, it’s not just about years served. Pupils will often gel with some teachers and clash with others. Anyone who has undertaken the exercise of tracking a pupil or class around their day’s lessons will have seen this for themselves. Good schoolwide systems and a reflective approach by individual teachers can ameliorate the effects of this phenomenon but are unlikely to eliminate it entirely.
Because of this human aspect of pupil-teacher interactions, we might also consider another reason to cut some proponents of “they behave for me” a little slack. They may have known the pupil or pupils in question for some time, hold them in some affection and genuinely be a little hurt to hear a colleague talk about them in a seemingly disparaging manner. Empathy in each direction can be helpful.
“They behave for me” is a phrase that teachers should endeavour to remove from their lexicon. In most cases it is crass, self-aggrandising and unhelpful.
But it is also very often true. The ubiquity of the phrase should serve as a reminder that the vast majority of pupils can be reached. It may take time, it may be intermittent, and we may not manage it at all with certain pupils before they leave our charge. But where they behave for someone, there is hope.
Andrew Foster is a secondary school and sixth-form teacher and head of education at Tougher Minds. He tweets @AFosterTeach