Harness the power of positive talking

Be clear from day one about what you expect from pupils and the rest will fall into place, says Tom Bennett

Millions of years ago, computer programmers used the acronymic adage GIGO, meaning Garbage In, Garbage Out. It was a way of indicating that the computer would simply mirror the quality of your input. This maxim is perfectly serviceable for the classroom teacher, too, especially when you have just logged on to your class for the first time.

At the start of the school year, teachers have a vast number of things to do, all of them apparently essential. In this scenario, it's common for some tasks to fall off the table - sometimes with a nudge - as stress and time issues roar away, demanding that the most apparent tasks be completed to the detriment of the most necessary ones.

Let's be honest. A lot of what we need to do to keep a class in good order is an enormous pain: all that paperwork, phone work, reconciliation, confrontation and so on is about as fun as sliding down a thin banister. It's no wonder that many of us start to cut corners to cope with all the pressure. But this attitude is exactly what will sink you.

If you let behaviour management dissolve in the first few weeks because, well, it's a bit boring and difficult, you will find that your classes won't respond with a mature tolerance for the pressure you're under. To the contrary, they will sense that you are weakening.

And power is a zero-sum value: if you relinquish it in the classroom, it doesn't vanish. It just goes somewhere else, and I suspect that you don't want it vanishing up the exhaust pipe of the naughty table. So what are the non-negotiables of running a new class?

The initial encounter

Make sure that the first time you meet your class formally, you give the best possible impression. Be early, be ready and be as near perfectly planned as you can. Know the class list. Be aware of special educational needs, broad bands of ability and any statemented children who might require assistance. This is also when children will assess in a cold second what kind of teacher you are. And at this stage, the majority of them have an uncomplicated taxonomy: are you strict or soft?

Don't imagine for an instant that you want them to see you as a cuddly chum. While some children have the maturity to respond to this with kindness and respect, the majority of them will take it as a cue to re-enact the sacking of Rome. So, be strict and set out a clear manifesto for the kinds of behaviour you expect - and those you don't.

Make your bark the same as your bite

It's all very well to tell children how to behave in order to learn, but eventually some of them will put their paws in the mousetrap to see what happens. And this is a Rubicon moment. If children misbehave and you set the sanctions that you said you would, they learn that you mean what you say.

If, however, they get the cheese and the arm of the trap doesn't move, they learn a different lesson: that the cat's asleep, maybe forever. And then they act accordingly. So, make sure that if you set a sanction or reward, it happens.

Teaching is attrition

You will never achieve instant results with all students (and with some, never), but don't think that because a child has misbehaved twice or more, or because a punishment has not had an effect, the system isn't working.

This is another perpetual Rubicon for you to cross. Do not stop being firm just because they haven't responded. They are simply seeing how far you will go up Straight Street. Some pupils will push you very far indeed. Very well: prove that you care by being even more adamantine, and keep on exactly as you are. Eventually, all but the toughest nuts will crack.

We do this because we care about children's educational well-being, and because we want them to receive the best possible education we can give them. That's why we invest the sweat: not because we relish authoritarianism, but because giving them boundaries is an expression of our compassion. As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Get sowing.


Tom Bennett wrote The Behaviour Guru and Not Quite a Teacher.

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