Don't get marooned with failing strategies

Teachers tend to erect `keep off' signs around their approach to discipline - but no man is an island, so learn from others

Phil Beadle

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Strategies for managing student behaviour are often a teacher's own private island, which they strenuously defend against intruding philosophies and maintain is optimum for "their" students, even if some of those very same young people are proving the declaration false as they speak.

And there always will be students who prove it false - and do so frequently. While teachers may find a strategy that solves most of the problems most of the time, the paradise of a 100 per cent success rate does not exist.

This is because the needs of certain students will never, for whatever reason, be met by our own peculiar style of behaviour management. To these students - to quote an old Caribbean saying - "spirit don't reach".

The fact that "spirit don't reach" between you and a particular student (let's call him Leo) is often thrown into sharp relief by evidence that another teacher, one whom you regard as being much your inferior in terms of philosophy, skills and dress sense (well, everything), seems to manage their relationship with him in a perfectly friendly, functional manner.

The matter is made worse by your disapproval of the other teacher's methods. Your approach emphasises compassion, love and understanding, whereas she is of the sergeant-major variety: strict to the point of seeming inhuman, apparently vibrating on a string of permanent, barely suppressed rage and without any obvious love of children. You have often thought she would be better suited to the armed forces - or central government - but the sad truth is that she manages Leo's behaviour well and you, patently, do not.

Here, as in all things, your ego is your enemy: the bigger it is, the less confident you are. Throw it away and ask your colleague for help.

In the initial stages, immediately after you and Leo have had an argument that you have singularly failed to manage, you do this with a technique known in behaviour management circles as "swapping out". Simply ask your colleague to look after Leo for the rest of the lesson as you cannot handle him at this moment; your current skill set doesn't allow it.

The crucial part lies in admitting to your colleague that she is better than you at dealing with Leo. At the end of the lesson, after you have dismissed your own class, head for your colleague's classroom and see if it is possible to have a discussion with both her and Leo about how best to manage his behaviour.

This conversation should be led by your colleague so that you can observe what it is she does that makes her successful with the student. Learn from her, analyse her approach, ask her to unpack it for you, try it out in front of her, ask for formative feedback. Do not go so far as to get her to grade you, but you get the idea.

Her respect for you may increase as a result of this exercise and it will probably become mutual. Even if it does not, Leo benefits, as the professional in charge of his education has behaved like one and has sought to improve their skills.

Many teachers are afraid to engage in this kind of on-the-run training. Admitting weakness has suddenly become tantamount to saying you have failed in your profession. Nothing could be further from the truth. In being unafraid to ask for help, you improve your own practice, build relationships with colleagues and, most important of all, help your students. Admitting weakness and then doing something about it makes you a better teacher.

The lesson here is that just as we need to differentiate activities so that they are accessible to every member of our class, we also have to differentiate how we manage their behaviour. Students are individuals with individual needs, triggers and responses; one food group does not nourish all.

You may by nature be a hippy, but that does not mean you cannot occasionally wear the leather greatcoat of the fascist when it is in the interests of the child for you to do so. Equally, if you are of the disciplinarian variety, then, when the situation demands it, sometimes it helps to be able to don the hippy wig and the garland of flowers.

Phil Beadle is a teacher, broadcaster and co-author of books including the recently released Why Are You Shouting at Us?, written with John Murphy

What else?

If you've enjoyed this piece, why not try the author's article on fairness versus consistency?


In short

Teachers can be very protective of their behaviour management strategy, despite it often not working for certain students.

Those difficult students can be perfectly well-behaved for other teachers - colleagues who may have a quite different behaviour management strategy from your own.

Teachers should be unafraid to accept that another approach works better for certain students and also be comfortable about asking colleagues for help.

Differentiating your behaviour management strategy like this is crucial for the proper management of every student you teach: children are individuals.

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Phil Beadle

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