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Rules of engagement

I spent the last few weeks of term reading Gene Kemp's The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler to my class. It's a fabulous book and there's a line in it that really struck me.

"Why we gotter 'ave students?" Tyke and her classmates ask their teacher. "They can't keep quiet and then we get into trouble."

I sympathise. With both sides. Children, especially the well-behaved ones (which is the vast majority), deserve a teacher who is going to keep order and provide a safe space to learn. It therefore stands to reason that teachers - especially new ones - deserve a whole load of support in this.

It sounds obvious but the importance of classroom management cannot be overestimated. I know this because as a newly qualified teacher I severely underestimated it. Although my course tutors referred to the need to get the students to sit still and listen, I still secretly believed that if they liked me and my lessons were fun then everything else would probably just fall into place.

It didn't. Kids are not self-regulators. You can stage "Reflective Symmetry on Ice" in the classroom and it still won't stop them from carving grooves in the desk with their rulers. This took me a while to grasp. It wasn't a total disaster - nobody actually rioted - but in terms of rookie mistakes, I made some absolute howlers. I started talking before the pupils started listening, I was too informal with them and made too many jokes, I used to yell "stop shouting" without any trace of irony and I once told an eight-year-old off for being childish.

Luckily, I was in a school full of lovely, kind, experienced teachers who helped and encouraged me without undermining or taking me apart. By the time my second class arrived, I understood the importance of sweating the small stuff. As soon as I started pulling them up for tiny misdemeanours (fiddling with rulers, looking the wrong way), things improved dramatically.

You never totally crack it, though. The battle for behaviour is more Hundred Years War than Charge of the Light Brigade.

Of course, if you're struggling you should always ask for help. The prescription is often to watch other teachers in action, although the danger is that really great teachers make it look easy. The better they are, the harder it is to spot the cues. What you can do is harness the power of these teachers to help your own cause. Stand by them in assembly, ask them to pop into your classroom and glare at offenders; essentially, create your own behaviour Gruffalo.

Find out what works for you and your children: grab their attention with stories, de-escalate tension with humour, stand on your head if that helps, but remember that it's your classroom and you're in charge. If you want to win their hearts and minds, you have to get them to put their rulers down first.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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