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Opinion: 6 ways to deal with an abusive class

An FE lecturer reveals their top tips for when things go badly in the classroom

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During a routine FE teaching day, we as educators experience the whole spectrum of emotions and behaviours. It’s certainly unlike any other job that I have ever done before.

When things are going well our job is one of the most rewarding careers that we could hope to have but unfortunately, and naturally, this is not always the case. When things go badly, the negatives of the job can produce feelings of self-doubt that are, for too many nowadays, so destructive that the only option is to leave the profession they love. I know for a fact that I am not the only lecturer in FE who has found the past academic year particularly testing. Well-documented changes have shaped FE for the worse and many lecturers are finding sessions to be more challenging as a result.

Apathy and disdain

At my college, the past academic year included the usual mix of subjects and levels but with one addition, that of a direct-entry schools group, aged 14-16, who were resitting part of a qualification owing to failing to achieve the previous year. This group were always going to have their challenges, but I thought I had planned to perfection for any issues that might arise.

A collection of disgruntled teenagers who felt aggrieved at having to resit a unit soon made their feelings known and despite my best efforts they were very difficult to control. This wasn’t just one bad session, it was a bad session every week and overall a bad year. Every teaching and learning method I knew was planned and executed, and each was met with the same apathy and disdain. I reported the engagement issues to managers very early and then at regular intervals, but unfortunately I failed to receive any constructive feedback. The most common response was the reminder that these students had been let down before, as well as the question of what I was going to change to ensure that targets were met.

For most of the year, my support colleague and I were subjected to verbal and, on more than one occasion, physical abuse. This had a huge effect on me, causing me to withdraw from projects and making me physically ill. Despite this I duly attended each class with a new set of tactics and renewed hope that this would be the breakthrough that was desperately needed. The students had a blatant lack of respect for themselves and for others, and more worryingly for safety. This was a major problem as they were in a potentially very dangerous machine shop. This worried me more than anything and although I managed these situations as required, I did not have the ability to invoke sanctions that were fully supported by the department. I was at a loss and quite frankly I was scared.

The year ended, students finally achieved and the precious targets were safe but what have I learned from these experiences?

  1. Take time to reflect

    Space to reflect on one’s experiences is becoming devalued at a time when more and more is demanded from lecturers. I learned that reflection is vital.

    After each class I wrote a summary of events and my own thoughts about them. This served two main purposes. First, the document was freely shared with the school managers to evidence experiences in an attempt to effect change. Second (and to me more importantly), I could use this process to clear my head of self-destructive thoughts and feelings, using the notes to plan a way forward, not only for this group and year but for the long term.
  2. Remember that support is all around…

    I learned the value of having a trusted network of colleagues who could advise and support me, so that feelings of isolation were diminished. I sometimes felt out on a limb when things were not going well but support is everywhere, not only within my institution but via social media in communities such as UKFEchat and through fellow professionals that I have had the privilege to meet over the years.
  3. …and you are not the cause

    Most of these students had extremely difficult lives. They were often unsupported or rejected by parents and peers, were socially awkward, were the principal carer for parents and family, or were living in a home where drug and alcohol abuse was present. These were just some of the issues behind the behaviour and disaffection within that cohort. I learned the importance of considering how the learners’ social and cultural norms could have an impact within the FE environment. 

    Learning to "read" the students and to discover what triggered the bouts of extremely challenging behaviour was very important.
  4. Be prepared to go off-script

    I asked myself one question: "Does the student need to be on task, to my plan all the time?" The answer for me is "No". Why can’t they be tasked with a totally unrelated job such as tidying a tool cupboard or photocopying some papers for the rest of the class? Using these distraction techniques can give individuals much-needed space. You may choose to praise the student for their help or just simply allow them to steer any conversation. It doesn’t even really matter how well they carry out the task as long as the student has not had an unduly stressful or dangerous outburst.

    If these "off-task" activities are planned you can use them to good effect by agreeing with the student that next week they will do a task relating to the course. This also creates capacity for you as a lecturer to devote more time to the engaged students while not worrying what others may be doing while your back is turned. Of course the added advantage is that you may not need to spend an hour at the end of the class sorting cupboards or chasing photocopying.

    By allowing students this space and also giving them the autonomy to determine which task they will choose to do in a particular session, I have found that levels of engagement generally improve.
  5. Communicate 

    Students often progress from courses and levels with little or no information surrounding their learner journey. Surely we have a duty to supply this information when students are passed on to a different department or institution? If I had been made aware that a student had a history of behaving in a certain way or reacted more positively to specific behavioural interventions I could have planned my contingency to better effect. As a department we have already started to be more proactive in sharing past experiences to help inform staff in readiness for progression planning. Ideally this should become normal practice. 
  6. Plan for good and bad days

    Every year we enrol young people from a wide range of backgrounds and group them according to our needs, mostly blind to prior educational experiences and life outside the college that steers their needs. We expect them to follow a rigid structure of study in accordance with our scheme of work and then we are left wondering why it occasionally goes wrong. It is bound to, so plan for the bad days and hopefully they will not be as bad as they could have been.

    I strongly believe that pastoral care is one area that FE does well. After all, the ability to adapt to varied situations is our bread and butter. However, regardless of how good we are at being empathic to the needs of individuals, nothing prepares you for 30-odd weeks of misery. 

    I had only planned for ideal sessions, only for success. In my planning, there were no bad days. It is my hope that planning for these bad days will allow the students to have more good days – good days that will hopefully become infectious, leading to a feeling of safety and self-worth for all.

The writer is an engineering lecturer who works in an FE college in the North of England

This blog was originally featured on UKFEChat.

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