My nightmare lesson: 'The worst thing you can do is grin and bear it alone'

2nd November 2015 at 11:24
One lecturer reflects on a hellish lesson with out-of-control students – and how, with the help of a colleague, she managed to rescue the situation

It really doesn’t matter how experienced you are as a teacher, or if you have a ninja-like response when dealing with difficult behaviour; there will always be those lessons that leap out and kick you up the backside. This was such a lesson. 

During my initial teacher training days in 2008, I dreaded Tuesday afternoons. Tuesday afternoons were a class of approximately 20 all-female, mixed-age students studying childcare, with a wide variety of needs and associated, particular behaviours.

Each week during the lunch break prior to my lesson, the students I taught had access to what was then called "The Buzz Bus". Students could board the stationary bus to access free health care, advice and, more importantly to my students, free condoms. A number of students from the group enjoyed visiting this mobile unit before my session and as you can imagine took great pleasure in discussing what they had acquired. Condom balloons were very popular in the class and there was even a time when one student actually tried to put one over her head. Health and safety, plus safeguarding issues, whizzed through my mind.

In addition to the buzz from visiting The Buzz Bus, there was a second, sugar-fuelled buzz supplied via fizzy drinks and bags of sweets consumed from our on-site confectionary shop. It always seemed a little bold that many students claimed poverty over their lack of pens and papers, while knocking back a fiver’s worth of treats.  

As the day wore on I’d had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and I barely touched my lunch, knowing this group was next; sadly this was turning into my Tuesday routine. I gathered my teaching file and collected my thoroughly prepared resources, took a few deep breaths and went off to the classroom. As I arrived, some of the students were already waiting, with the rest filtering in a few minutes later.

My session was based on developing the effective communication skills that are specific to being a professional in early years care and education, with a practical activity to practise children’s storytelling. With my learning aims and objectives plastered on the whiteboard, I stood in front of the group with my security-blanket board marker hot in my hand. I could see that at least three-quarters of my students were either rattling on a sugar rush or clutching condoms. Two sentences in and an inflated condom drifted across the room. Concentration evaporated instantly along with any semblance of control I had over the group’s behaviour.

It was mayhem; I tried desperately to regain their attention but panic began to sink in as I searched for a solution. There was no way they would listen to a humble student teacher, so I excused myself on the pretence of collecting something from the staff room and headed straight for my mentor. I explained, teary-eyed, what had happened and admitted I dreaded teaching this class. As she listened, agreeing with me that it was a challenging group, other tutors joined in and shared their experiences of difficult lessons with this group. A welcome flurry of advice arrived from everyone in the staff room.

My mentor suggested that I should re-establish ground rules but make it part of the lesson, linking it to students’ behaviour in college and to the professional standards required in a professional child care setting in order to complete the lesson.

So we returned to the classroom. My mentor entered first and informed the students that she urgently needed to discuss their pending assignment and that I would return after she had finished. After some time, I returned to a much calmer classroom and initiated the discussion on behaviour and professional standards. It went well. 

As the lesson ended I asked the four most disruptive students to stay behind. I explained why their behaviour was unacceptable and that if it happened again there would be consequences, such as formal verbal warnings and informing their parents. The students listened and apologised. To be honest, I still believe it was the threat of informing their parents that scared them into submission rather than the verbal warning.

As awful as that Tuesday afternoon was, I learned some valuable lessons:

I needed to stop worrying about being liked by the students. I was their teacher, not parent, friend or big sister. I was there to teach, guide and prepare them for the adult world and entry to the workforce.

I should not be afraid to challenge anything that breaks college and class rules, for instance bringing food into class. It is OK to re-establish ground rules if things have gone off track. You can go in, draw the line and start again with ground rules, even if it is half way through the year. Sometimes issues need to be addressed in order to develop a more positive relationship.

It is perfectly acceptable to ask for help. Communication and honesty are key. We are all sometimes afraid to ask for help or indeed admit that we are struggling with a class.  Admitting we need help is easier said than done – but if you can’t learn and move forward; if you don’t have support and guidance; the worst thing you can do is grin and bear it alone. 

Carolyn O'Connor is a lecturer in child, health and social care, and functional skills at Blackpool and The Fylde College. She can be found tweeting at @clyn40. This blog was taken from the UKFEchat Guide Book

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