Q: There is a boy in my top-set Year 10 class who seems determined to make me look stupid. It's all low-level disruption - talking when I'm talking, ignoring instructions at the first request, taking ages to start any work, going to the toilet without my permission. He's an intelligent boy and so knows how to manipulate situations in subtle ways. Other pupils are catching on and there seems to be a power switch. I have no control over him. Phoning his parents only made things worse - they accused me of picking on him. The head of year said I had to deal with it - because if he intervenes, it makes me look weak to the other pupils. Help!
A: You were right to go to the head of year and I'm sorry he disappointed you.
If he'd taken the problem away from you completely, then he would have made you look "weak". But if he'd been willing to share his experience, he would have helped you to develop your own skills and strategies for handling this pupil - and other similar cases in future. It's highly unlikely that you are alone in having problems with this pupil, who sounds like an accomplished manipulator. He's even got his parents under his thumb. Don't try to handle this on your own. Here are a few pointers to bear in mind:
* Explain the problem to your mentor or induction tutor. Explore the options you have within the boundaries of your school's policies - first to deal with the problem, then to develop longer-term strategies.
* A short-term work or behaviour report - ideally for all his lessons - would be useful. This will make it clear to him that his actions are being monitored. It may also generate useful evidence for possible later discussion with parents.
* Understand that you are involved in a power struggle and that the boy has set the agenda so far. Don't engage with his attention-seeking and attempts to get under your skin. If you react to his provocation, you reward him. He has succeeded in making personal what should be a formal relationship, so in dealing with him your focus should be entirely on learning.
* Don't confront him - he's clever enough to win any confrontation.
Instead, learn to deflect, possibly with humour, but don't be sarcastic or "put him down".
* Be attentive to his work. Give plenty of positive feedback and reward what he is doing well, no matter how little that might be.
* Stay away from the phone. You will probably need to discuss his behaviour with parents, but do this in a formal, face-to-face meeting - on your own ground, on your terms and with the presence and support of a senior colleague.