Skip to main content

The price of peace

Terry Haydn on the importance of the working atmosphere in the class.

There are few things in professional life more unpleasant than being (effectively) locked in a room with 30 children who are not fully under your control. The working atmosphere in the classroom - the extent to which you are able to create and sustain a relaxed, purposeful, controlled and co-operative environment for learning - will be a major factor in your quality of life as a newly qualified teacher.

The idea of my 10-point scale (set out below) is to help teachers think carefully about the working atmosphere in the classroom, and reflect on the factors which influence it. The emphasis on self-assessment is essential if staff are not to feel threatened and defensive about the levels of control in their lessons. The model is based on the belief that it can be helpful to have some idea of where one stands on the continuum between relaxed and assured control, and anarchy. It also gives some idea of levels to be aspired to.

Used constructively and thoughtfully, it could help to reduce the disruption, chaos and noise which limit the effectiveness of the educational process and the professional satisfaction which teachers can derive from their work. Thinking carefully about what levels you are working at is obviously only the first stage in this process, albeit an important one. Hopefully this will lead to reflection on the factors influencing the working atmosphere, casual observation of colleagues' strategies, the sharing of ideas and good practice, and even the development of concerted action to support colleagues working with difficult teaching groups.

If you are at level 9 or l0 with your classes, working together towards shared objectives, teaching can seem a very rewarding and enjoyable job; anything below level 7 and you will be counting the minutes to the end of the lesson, and structuring the lesson around control factors rather than learning objectives. The working atmosphere is also important for pupils, who learn most effectively in a calm and ordered atmosphere. Anything below level 5 and it is difficult to see how any meaningful educational objectives could be achieved; it might be as well for all concerned to just go home.

Like the 10-point Task Group on Assessment and Testing scale which it mimics, this model is an artificial construct; though levels 1 to 5 do not occur at many schools, I have seen lessons which would fall even below level 1.

It should be stressed that the model measures the working atmosphere in the lesson, not the quality of the classroom management skills of the teacher. An unsatisfactory working atmosphere can be caused by a group of difficult and disruptive pupils, an inappropriate curriculum, a playground fight before the lesson, a badly planned lesson, poor school support systems, unclear hierarchies of sanctions or snow falling outside.

It is important for new teachers to gain an honest and realistic grasp of the extent to which deficiencies and problems are due to their own failings, and the extent to which the failure to reach level 10 is due to factors beyond their control. A key factor here is looking at the working atmosphere in colleagues' classrooms; why are some people better at this than others? What are they doing which you aren't? It is important to remember that if someone is a deputy head or long serving head of department, with established reputations for good discipline, this confers some unfair advantages.

Like many other facets of teaching, classroom management is an area where the reflective practitioner is more likely to develop and improve than a teacher who does not continue to look at, and think carefully about teaching skills. Some people have taught for 30 years and not attained even reasonable levels of competence, and others have quickly got to levels 7 and 8 with their classes, but not progressed beyond. After qualifying, it is important to carry on developing classroom management skills.

Having myself taught at a difficult inner-city school for many years, and witnessed hundreds of colleagues grappling with the problems posed by reluctant and disruptive scholars, there are three factors marking out more successful colleagues.

First, the manner in which you address pupils makes a difference. Some teachers gratuitously antagonise pupils by talking in a hostile but undirected and ineffectual way, without specifying sanctions or giving a clear warning. Accomplished teachers seem able to be firmstrict in a calm and polite manner.

Second, new teachers can underestimate the prosaic virtues of remorselessness, patience and determination. Successful teachers are generally those who are prepared to put in enormous amounts of time, between lessons, and outside the classroom, in following things up, getting in contact with other teachers or parents, writing things down, tracking pupils down the next day. The temptation to just get out of the room and not even think about a difficult teaching group until the next time you teach them is understandable, but needs to be resisted. It is important to develop a reputation for being someone who will follow things up and do whatever is necessary to get the standards they want in the classroom, even though this makes life very hard in the short term. It doesn't reform pupils, but eventually they will learn to pick on someone else who can't be bothered.

Third, there has recently been some debate about the lengths which teachers should go to to make their lessons enjoyable, interesting and relevant to pupils. I can only say that in my experience, teachers who could do this at least some of the time, and who generally arrived at the classroom with a conscientiously prepared lesson where some thought had been given to relating it to the children on whom it would be inflicted, are more successful at earning respect from their pupils.

Teaching, though, is not like playing a backhand slice volley in squash, with one correct way of playing the shot. The most successful teachers are those who keep on learning, learn from their mistakes and improve on their percentages through reflection and trial and error. You don't necessarily get more money for being good at maximising the working atmosphere in the classroom, but it makes it much easier to enjoy teaching.

Terry Haydn is lecturer in education at the Institute of Education, University of London

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you