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St Trinian's syndrome

Why is there always a "difficult class"? And how do you deal with it? Janet Murray provides the answers - and you'll need them, because sooner or later that group of churlish children is heading your way

I'll never forget 11W. A gum-chewing mob, seemingly intent on making my life hell. Three times a week I'd haul myself up in front of their sniggering faces and try to teach them something. They had other ideas.

An undercurrent of low-level disruption rumbled through every lesson. They refused to listen to anyone but themselves and I lost count of the times I was sworn at. I pinpointed the problem: a handful of ego-driven boys who lorded over the rest of the class, holding them in fear, like Mafia bosses.

I knew I was a good teacher. My lessons were well resourced: I even planned activities to suit their learning styles, for God's sake. What else could I do?

If this sounds familiar, you've already encountered the "difficult class".

If not, it's only a matter of timeI Dr Bill Rogers, an independent educational consultant and author of books on behaviour management, says: "Bring together a random mix of children and inevitably there will be problems. Some students will be disaffected and school may be something they don't particularly enjoy, which is common in adolescence. For others, it runs deeper, and those with special educational needs or social, emotional or behavioural difficulties may have low expectations, resulting in poor behaviour."

Eileen Ross, headteacher at Herbert Morrison school, a mixed primary in south London, thinks it's all down to personalities: "If there are strong characters in a class, they can feed off each other and set a pattern for poor behaviour. Once established, the class can become a firm rock to challenge."

Sue Cowley, a freelance writer, trainer and author, believes dominant personalities can set the class agenda. "Some individuals will be very influential within their peer groups," she explains. "They might be more physically advanced than the others or willing to challenge authority. If there are a number of students in the class like this, it can seem hard for the others to go against them, so they may join in with poor behaviour."

The history of a difficult class can also explain poor behaviour.

"Disrupted teaching and learning is a key factor," says Dr Rogers. "If a teacher has been absent for a long time and a class has been covered by a string of supply teachers, student behaviour can deteriorate. Similarly, if a subject has been disrupted or taught badly, student behaviour can be affected."

And according to Ms Ross, socio-economic and demographic factors can put behaviour beyond the class teacher's control. She currently has a difficult class containing 20 children - twice the average - who were born in the summer: having such a large proportion of pupils who are young for their year group has an impact on the maturity of the whole class. In addition, five of them have special needs, six have English as their second language and around one-in-three receive free school meals. "That all adds up to a huge 'need-factor'," says Ms Ross. "When they arrived, their achievement was very low, but because we use cohort analysis at the beginning of every year, we were able to direct our resources at a very early stage. They are now achieving against previous targets."

There is also the notion of self-fulfilling prophecy. If a class becomes "labelled", students begin to perceive themselves as "difficult" and behave accordingly. Teachers and support staff may not give them a chance and poor behaviour will continue to be the norm.

So while many teachers and academics agree there is such a thing as a difficult class, others are sceptical. One sceptic is Chris Watkins, reader in education at the Institute of Education at the University of London, who says : "A lot of this is loose talk by teachers. It's very rare to come across a class that is completely unmanageable by anyone. When you look into it, you usually find that a class is difficult in a particular context or part of the school."

He believes learning environments play a significant role in influencing behaviour. "Trying to teach in a room that is too small, poorly furnished, poorly lit or simply not being used for the purpose it was designed for can be difficult," he says. "I've worked with history teachers trying to teach in a room that was designed for home economics - it's just not going to work."

He advises teachers who believe they have a difficult class to observe them being taught in different contexts. He also recommends sharing ideas with colleagues - an undoubtedly useful exercise in the safety of the staffroom, but what happens when you shut the classroom door and you're alone with your little anarchists?

Ms Cowley believes good relationships are the key. "Start with the ringleaders," she advises. "Give them extra responsibility, make them feel important. If you can get them on your side, they'll pull up the behaviour of the rest of the group."

For Dr Rogers, it's all about good beginnings: "Student teachers and NQTs (newly qualified teachers) have to remember that 60 per cent of children will be OK and 40 per cent can be challenging. Winning round or losing the goodwill of that 60 per cent in the first few weeks can be critical. The key is getting the establishment phase right."

He advises student teachers and NQTs to use a seating plan, devised with their line manager, before meeting a known difficult class. An opportunity to agree clear, workable class rules should be built into the first lesson.

"Entry to a class should be calm and settled," he says. "Stand at the doorway or corridor with a pleasant greeting and eye contact - don't let them barge in. It's important to make the distinction between social time and classroom learning time."

Positive language is another must. If students are chattering, don't complain that "too many people are talking". Instead, use a pleasant tone to say "A number of students are talking. You need to be looking this way, thanks."

Avoid disruptions: if a student is late, don't interrogate him or her at the door. Acknowledge the lateness as a statement, direct him or her to a seat and wait until the class is on task to discuss lateness. "Dealing with a difficult class is all about confident, respectful leadership," says Dr Rogers. "Never use put-downs. Be appropriately assertive, but always respectful. This will achieve better results."

So what happened with the dreaded 11W? I imposed sanctions, invited members of the senior management in to watch me with the class, but they always behaved impeccably when another adult was in the room. So I decided to listen to the way I talked to the class and heard myself moaning, nagging, threatening, belittling. It was all so negative. So I invested in a job lot of fun-size Mars bars, a set of rubber stamps emblazoned with "You're a star", and "Super work" (they still love them, even in Year 11), greeted students at the door with a bright "hello", and made an effort to find out a bit more about each of them. I also made a point of smiling - even when they were driving me mad.

And you know what? It worked.

Janet Murray is a freelance journalist. She formerly taught English in Kent.'Getting The Buggers To Behave' and 'Getting The Buggers To Behave 2'

by Sue Cowley (both Continuum International Publishing Group - Academic and Professional, pound;12.99)'Cracking the Hard Class' by Bill Rogers (Sage Publishing, pound;17.99)

Power points

* Establish clearly the rights, rules and responsibilities within your classroom

* Intentionally minimise embarrassment and hostility

* Maximise students' choice over behaviour

* Develop and maintain respect

* Be aware that our expectations affect our behaviour as classroom teachers

* Keep your sense of humour

* Follow up and follow through (consistency)

* Use wider support (peers, senior management, parents) Dr Rogers' rules

* Maintain eye contact

* Speak in a respectful tone (clearly and firmly)

* Watch proximity (not too close or overbearing in body language)

* Refer to the class rules. Avoid arguing. Assert, take the student aside, give a clear choice or follow up later

* Don't over- or under-react (match teacher behaviour to level of disruption)


Rachel Hudson, teacher of religious studies and assistant headteacher at Monks' Dyke technology college, Lincolnshire

"A class that has had many teachers can experience difficulties due to the impact on learning. Many changes in form tutors also have an influence on the pastoral side of students' development and can impact on their behaviour. Students appreciate continuity, particularly those for whom school provides one of the most stable aspects of their lives."

Terry Creissen, headteacher at Colne community college, Essex "It really is a myth that there are good and bad classes. The secret lies with the teacher. Teachers need to develop tactics to deal with any group and make sure that they develop a good rapport with their students. Boredom in the classroom is a recipe for disaster and soon leads to a breakdown in the relationships between students and teachers. Relying on traditional teaching methods can demotivate students and make them switch off. It's important to look for ways to make learning fun."

Phil McTague, headteacher, South Bromsgrove high school, Worcestershire "Difficult classes occur as a result of inappropriate settings. Some schools 'set' students based solely on their academic ability, taking no account of their emotional needs or individual learning styles. Setting students in this way can create bad chemistry within a class, leading to poor behaviour. Schools are often hung up on IQ, but rarely on EQ. Taking account of children's emotional needs is more likely to produce groups that gel."

Ali Doddington, teacher of English at Gravesend grammar school, Kent

"If a class gets a reputation for being difficult, that can be very hard to reverse. The students get used to hearing that they are difficult and may even exaggerate their behaviour to fit the label. While the disruptive behaviour may be down to just a few students, the other, more pliable individuals will follow suit. So it's important for teachers to treat students as individuals and avoid labelling classes as 'difficult', otherwise a situation can escalate unnecessarily."

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