A monster of a class

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Behaviour management expert Sue Cowley advises on dealing with a high quotient of wrong 'uns


"It was a great mistake to think I could manage so much trouble on my own"

I met 8L on my second day as a new teacher, and I knew at once that this was tough class. The trouble-makers came to light very quickly - in the first hour I learned various names. Every lesson was a battleground. My authority was constantly challenged and questioned. Pupils turned up late and there were bullying issues. Few pupils seemed to want to achieve and many had weak literacy skills. Objects were thrown across the room whenever I turned my back. It was awful, and I had to become ever more vigilant.

Every lesson involved long and painful periods, waiting for silence.

Despite sanctions, pupils often forgot to bring books and equipment. They were rude, interrupted me and insulted each other's ideas. Many pupils were very needy and became angry if I didn't help them straight away. In other classes, poor behaviour from a minority was checked by the well-behaved majority. Here, the few eager pupils kept their heads down to avoid being noticed.

I tried all the behaviour strategies I'd learnt on my PGCE, but in vain. I praised the few who did as they were asked and set up behaviour "contracts" with certain pupils. Detentions during break-times caused resentment. Phone calls home had some positive effects, but in one case a parent responded by saying: "Was the lesson boring?"

I spent many hours devising interesting, well-structured lessons and activities. After some very poor assessment results, I began to question my teaching ability. So I spoke to my head of department. It was the best thing I could have done. She was very supportive, offered an informal lesson observation and removed the four most disruptive pupils for a week.

That gave me an opportunity to get to grips with routines and discipline.

She highlighted issues... hadn't considered, such as the clarity of my instructions. I explored activities that didn't involve too much writing, to minimise disaffection. I displayed more work in a bid to foster pride.

Some pupils were placed on report to the head of English, and copies were sent to parents. The group's form tutor was also helpful and gave me strategies to handle the difficult pupils.

I'd like to say that 8L became enjoyable to teach, but they were not. For a few weeks, lessons were much closer to my ideal but pupils' enthusiasm slowly waned. Now and then I had an excellent lesson, but many remained fraught and unsuccessful. Eventually, 8L did become a class that I could just about manage.

Looking back, I can see that I did not establish rules forcefully enough in my first few lessons. I should have looked for support sooner, rather than waiting until I ran into real trouble.

Nicki Taylor teaches at Preston Manor high school in Wembley, north London


"With some groups, the dice will be loaded against you, but there are ways to minimise these negative dynamics"

Every class of pupils has its own "personality", and teachers do sometimes encounter a class that is a "monster". A class will often get a reputation throughout the school and make staff shudder at the thought of facing an "8L".

Before you blame yourself for poor behaviour, you must consider why it is happening. As Nicki has realised, positive peer pressure from the majority can help to keep the troublesome few under control. But in some classes the balance tips too far in the other direction.

When enough pupils decide to challenge the teacher's authority, the rest tend to follow like sheep, rather than risk being labelled as the odd one out. In a primary school, you could have a tricky mixture of characters in class. At secondary, pupils in the bottom set might come to you with a poor self-image, their "weak" label helping to colour their expectations of your subject.

Where teaching groups are the same as form groups, pupils are used to the relatively informal atmosphere of tutor time. This can filter into the lessons, with social discussions taking the place of on-task behaviour.

If you are teaching a monster class in your first year, use lots of positive behaviour-management strategies. Concentrate on developing good relationships, use plenty of rewards and aim to minimise negative encounters. Be as confident and clear as you can about the behaviour you expect. If pupils do push at the boundaries, respond in a calm and consistent manner. Try to calm your own emotional side as problems often arise when we overreact to relatively low-level misbehaviour.

If you engage children's interest, they are less likely to mess around.

Find out what they enjoy and incorporate this into your lessons. For example, with an English class that loves football, ask the pupils to record their own match report on a tape player or produce a football magazine. Make your lessons start with a "bang" so that latecomers feel they have missed out on something special if they don't arrive on time.

And, like Nicki, ask for help from an experienced member of staff if you need support. If things are going wrong, the quicker you seek assistance, the better.

The class from hell can be very wearing, and can pull you into a spiral of self-doubt. Your confidence takes a knock and pupils can sense this. Like sharks that detect a drop of blood in the water, they move in for the kill.

Put yourself first, and find ways of teaching that don't require too much teacher input. Have an engaging starter activity on the desks to begin the lesson, rather than spending hours trying to get silence. Designate a "late seat" near the classroom door to keep disruption from latecomers to a minimum.

When you are trying to turn round the "class from hell", a good time to re-establish control is just after a holiday, when pupils will be more receptive to a fresh start. Shift the furniture around and ask a senior colleague to come in at the start of the lesson. Talk to the pupils about your expectations of their behaviour, and make it clear what will happen if they do not comply.

As an NQT, you should not be given a class in which behaviour is a huge challenge. If you feel you've had a raw deal, talk to your induction tutor.

It may be too late to change your timetable, but there should certainly be scope for extra support.

Finally, when faced with a monster class, keep things in perspective. Tough classes help us to develop a useful repertoire of strategies - and never forget that even in your very worst lesson, nobody died.

Sue Cowley is author of 'Getting the Buggers to Behave' (Continuum)


* Stay positive at all times: Challenging behaviour can easily pull you into a maelstrom of negativity and defensiveness. Focus your vital energy on those children who are doing what you've asked them to do, and offer plenty of rewards and positive comments.

* Keep calm: If your pupils realise that they can wind you up, they will be happy to do so as often as they can. Retaining control of your own emotions will help you to control the class.

* Don't blame yourself: You shouldn't allow a negative situation to dent your self-belief. Poor behaviour is often rooted in circumstances that are beyond your control.

* Put yourself first: Find ways to make lessons easier for yourself. Do your best, but don't beat yourself up if you fall short of perfection.

* Keep a distance: Aim to leave your worries behind at the end of the school day. Take up an activity that will help you to relax, such as swimming or kick-boxing.

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