I have always believed in the power of the circle in my teaching. The circle symbolises equality, inclusion and sharing of ideas. There are no barriers. When students find listening difficult, I move them into a circle to share information before setting them their tasks. Where there are problems to be discussed, I often ask my tutor group to form a circle to discuss them. And after a death in my school I sat with a bereaved tutor group in a circle sharing memories of a lovely student.
This belief in the power of the circle prompted me to write a behaviour modification programme for our Year 7 tutor groups at a mixed comprehensive.
In the spring term of Year 7, I ask the students to complete a confidential questionnaire. I remind them that they have been together for more than a term so no one knows their tutor group better than they do. I explain that the purpose is not to get anyone into trouble, but to make things better for everyone. They are entitled to enjoy their work and to take part in lessons which no member of the group spoils or disrupts. I believe they have the power to put things right themselves.
The questionnaire asks each pupil to write down the names of three students who they feel upset things. I also ask them what sort of behaviour spoils or disrupts lessons, and how the errant pupils' behaviour makes them feel.
Their answers to this third question are important for the circle time that follows the next day.
"It makes me feel sad and angry."
"It makes me angry. I come to school to learn, not to be distracted."
"I feel sorry for him."
"It makes me feel frustrated. They are taking up the teacher's time, so I am not learning."
"I feel she let down the class."
When I collect the questionnaires, I tell the group that we will meet for an hour the next day to correct the problems and help the students who are spoiling the lessons. I ask them not to discuss what they have put on the questionnaire with anyone.
Most tutor groups seem to contain three problem students. Fellow pupils' descriptions of them are often vivid and detailed and staff are sometimes surprised by the names that come up. More often, there is just the confirmation that the tutor group really does know their class well and that the majority just want to get on with their lessons.
I always ensure that three adults are present the next day - the form tutor, the head of year and myself. The tutor group sits in a circle. Everyone can see and hear each other, including the three members of staff. I have a flip chart by my side.
First, I read out the questionnaires to the class and name the child who has been mentioned as disrupting lessons the most. I read out all the descriptions of what he or she is doing wrong - for example, "answering back", "name-calling", "spoiling every science experiment". I then read the section of the questionnaire in which his or her fellow students have conveyed their feelings about the disruptive behaviour.
Sometimes there are 24 slips to read out as every member of the tutor group pours out their frustration. I then ask the named student how it makes him or her feel. The usual answer is "ashamed", "sad" or "I have let the tutor group down".
I admit this has an aspect of "naming and shaming" about it. Sometimes students cry, others sit in shock. Most hang their heads. In some cases they are surprised to find themselves named. They had not realised how angry and upset they made the rest of the class. Any concern I have that this may be too cruel is countered by the fact that these students have gone from lesson to lesson being rude, selfish and sometimes bullying. However, I quickly move on to the positive section of the circle time.
I tell the tutor group that this is the day the bad behaviour stops. Important changes have to bemade - there is no choice. But I have no magic wand. It is up to the tutor group to tell me how to change it. I now have 26 students who really believe that the solution lies in their hands. The ideas come fast and furious and I list all their ideas on the flip chart.
"Every time he looks as if he is going to call out or walk around I'll give him a look or a nudge."
"I'll help her write the homework into her planner and check that she understands it."
"I'll phone him up every night and remind him to do his homework."
"I'll walk with him to lessons and make sure he is not late."
"She can come to homework club with me on Tuesday and Thursday" (we later discovered that the child just wanted someone to go with).
I often ask the tutor group to nominate strong students to be buddies, checking with the form tutor that their choice is sensible - it always is.
Having heard all their ideas - expect some you never thought of before - the group votes on the best ones.
I guide them to use the buddy system. For once in their schooling, naughty students are not being allowed to gravitate towards other naughty students, but are sitting with the strongest, most hard-working and sensible children.
The strength of this system is that the tutor group comes up with all the solutions - they are not imposed by teachers. They are excited by the challenge. The "naughty" students are also involved in suggesting solutions - they ought to know what will work. Again the tutor group is allowed to take charge of modifying behaviour.
The session ends with my final question, which is the key to monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of this approach: "How will I know that in a fortnight's time the behaviour is better?" Having been entrusted with providing solutions, the class quickly sees that they should keep the record of improved behaviour.
I ask the class to vote for two students who are well organised enough to keep a detailed record of the behaviour of the three students for two weeks. They always choose sensibly.
These two are given a "circle time logbook". All teachers know of the project and that some pupils are keeping a log. The group meets two weeks later to hear how the first two weeks have gone. Again, we meet in a circle. This session can be a wonderful boost to morale.
"X has really changed. He hasn't forgotten his homework once."
"Z is really trying hard. He has only called out twice in two weeks."
"F is like a different person. He has made good friends with his buddy and they do their homework together."
All these comments need appropriate responses - enormous thank-yous to the buddies and lots of praise for the students who were misbehaving and who are making such an effort. The targets are reviewed. Do we need to change any of the buddies? Are there any ideas which are not working that should be reconsidered? Who will keep the logbook for the next fortnight?
At this stage the head of year and I bow out. It is in the hands of the form tutor to review the next fortnight's progress and decide if the programme needs to continue. Some tutors keep it going for months, others leave things as they are. And sometimes there is no improvement in pupils' behaviour.
But I have seen dramatic changes in one or two students. They greet me in the corridor and tell me with pride how well they are doing. I try to write home every half-term and celebrate their successes with their parents.
It is this dramatic change for a few that makes the circle time worthwhile. So much is gained by the scheme in terms of involving students in the behaviour programme, setting targets, monitoring and evaluation that I believe it is worth sharing with other schools.
Althea Draper is deputy head of Thirsk school, north Yorkshire. For copies of the Circle Time Behaviour Modification pack, contact her at the school.