A TES Magazine Series - Behaviour Management - Leader of the pack

20th June 2008 at 01:00
The surprising thing about teaching is that a lot of what you do doesn't actually involve teaching your subject; it's about controlling the classroom
Stop! You can take control and tame an unruly class. It's easier than you think, says Tom Bennett in the first of a four-part series on behaviour management

The surprising thing about teaching is that a lot of what you do doesn't actually involve teaching your subject; it's about controlling the classroom. The sad fact is that many teachers feel they lack the degree of control that they would like to ensure better learning. You can spend years studying your subject, but only a few days on understanding how to control your classroom in an analytical way.

Behaviour management is a subtle art and takes practice, but it's not rocket science. It can be learnt like anything else, and only needs patience, persistence and the ability to believe in yourself. Tall order? Not a bit.

We are all, in one way or another, animals. That is to say, we might be complex, emotional, intelligent creatures with free will and complicated hopes and fears, but we are also basically mammals, smooth skinned primates that, in evolutionary terms, have only recently descended from the trees. Although human interactions are hugely complex, they can be deconstructed into basic animal desires and functions that explain the strange way we behave.

How on earth does this affect your Year 9s? You need to realise that they really are animals, driven by instincts and wants that have as much in common with alsatians as angels. But the good news is - so are you. Getting someone to do what you want is simpler than you think, as long as you remember some uncomplicated principles:

We crave authority and control almost as much as we resent it

Imagine that children are small animals learning how to be grown-ups - and never forget this simple premise, because it is the basis of understanding the techniques that follow.

Children will push you exactly as far as you let them. They are desperate to know where the boundaries are, and what they can and cannot do. Why? Because although they are inquisitive, curious and voracious learners, they are terrified by too much instability. They want to know who's in charge, they want to know what the rules are. How else will they know how to break them?

Where do you come into this? By understanding that no matter how much the most inattentive, unpleasant child might howl at the injustice of your classroom rules and values, be sure that they and their peers would much rather you are in charge than no one.

One of the most common characteristics that pupils say a good teacher needs is discipline. It's what the parents want and it's what you should want. You need to be the one in charge because when you are, pupils will feel safe. In a safe environment, relationships can develop, and pupils can explore issues knowing that they are free to learn, free from the chaos of a class with no rules.

If pupils are looking for an authority figure, you need to ensure that it's you

This seems obvious, but it involves basic soul searching that every teacher needs to do before they set foot in a classroom, in fact before they even start to train. The question is this: are you prepared to be a leader in the classroom? The answer has to be yes if you want to pursue a career in teaching.

Being a teacher is only partly about teaching, and anyone who walks into the profession expecting classes full of obedient robots hasn't done their homework. Policemen don't expect the public to be docile, compliant citizens, and neither should we. They're going to require managing.

Pupils need you to be the boss, so be the boss. If you have a problem with the idea of controlling a room full of young people, if you feel that you don't have the right to tell them what to do, then you need to re-think your motivation for teaching because the profession just isn't like that.

One thing which follows from that is that you need to think like an authority. You need to be top dog, and it's important to realise that you need to have a voice in your head that says: "I am in charge."

Why is this important? Because no matter how quiet inside your head the voice is, if you can hear it, then so will the children.

Pupils can smell indecision across the playground and, if they do, they'll start rushing up to your boundaries, testing every yard of the fences you have built to keep them in. They will look everywhere to see where they can manipulate you, or change your agenda to suit theirs.

Children respect strength

This is the unfortunate truth that can make you feel uncomfortable with exerting control, but it's true nonetheless.

Children will at first be motivated much more by the fear of chastisement than the promise of a reward. I say at first, because rewards are essential to developing relationships, raising self-esteem and building complex learning behaviours. But tests with animals and humans seem depressingly to imply that we fear the rod more than we crave a pat on the head.

Dog handlers know that every pack has its alpha male, the one that others defer to; sleigh drivers have to work out which of their dogs is the leader and place them at the front of the pack accordingly, otherwise they do nothing but snap at each other.

You need to be the alpha dog and the sleigh driver combined, otherwise pupils will never take you seriously.

Tom Bennett is the head of religious studies and philosophy at Raine's Foundation School in Bethnal Green, east London

Next week: Making the right impression from day one and how teachers can apply these simple psychological truths to their classroom routines to generate the kind of control that leads to great teaching and learning.


- Teaching children also means teaching them to behave.

- Respect their rights - but remember their right to an education means a safe, controlled classroom with boundaries.

- Be prepared to be the boss - otherwise they will be only too happy to take the role.

- They don't need a friend - they need a grown-up. So be one.

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