Ask yourself how you got here

21st September 2012 at 01:00
It may be early in the new term but it is already time for a behaviour progress check, says Tom Bennett

Have you seen the 2000 neo-noir film Memento? You should. In it, Guy Pearce plays a man with little short-term memory who has to piece his life together backwards to find out what his mission is, using a set of clues tattooed on his body. We've all been there, I know.

It is the second or third week of the first term of the year. Take a minute and mentally snapshot the state your classes are in. Now, using the scars and scrapes on your classroom wall, and your own quivering ego, we can reverse engineer how your classroom got to its present state.

Are you happy with the behaviour after a few weeks? Unless you are Mary Poppins (or you have given up and settled for survival) I suspect not. In some schools, children acquiesce happily like the Swiss Family Robinson. In most they wriggle like a jam jar of live eels.

The first encounter a pupil has with a teacher is vital in defining the relationship from then on. Here are some questions to ask about what has happened in the few weeks since then.

1. Have you taught them that you do not know what you want?

The first thing you should do with a new class is make explicit what kind of behaviour will be applauded and what abhorred. Many teachers fall at this hurdle. They plough into their lessons gaily, hoping that the pupils will intuitively appreciate the rules of the room. Do not assume that this sorcery will take place. Of course they probably know what good behaviour is, but do they know that you know? So, tell them.

If you have not had a session with them where you define the rules of engagement, do not be surprised when they are not shy of tumbling over the boundaries you failed to define. I spend a whole first lesson talking about conduct and character, expectations and boundaries. That might be a bit much for some, but spell it out somehow.

2. Have you taught them that they are in control of the room?

At the start of the year, did you allow them to sit where they pleased? Did you challenge them when they left the room unannounced, or opened windows or flicked lights like a budget YouTube remake of Hostel? Then you have taught them that they have a broad margin of autonomy in your room, and that it is their room, too.

This is where the hard work begins for some teachers. It takes guts to step up to a confident child who wants to see how far they can push things. But if you do not, they realise something that is hard to erase: they own the class. And I do not mean that as a bunny-hugging metaphor for independent learning. I mean it like Lord of the Flies. Your room, your rules. In my class, I decide who sits where and who moves what. When I know they are responsible enough to decide for themselves, I allow that, too.

3. Have you taught them that you do not mean what you say?

It is important to lay down the law at the start of the year and describe the permutations of laurel and lash they can expect, but the minute they realise that you will not do as you said, some children will bolt for the borders. If you have assured them that shouting out will result in half an hour on the naughty step, but fail to ensure this happens, then even the slowest of wit will deduce that you do not mean what you say.

So make sure that any boundaries you describe are electrified, revisit them lovingly, and if you set a detention, attend.

If you want pupils to believe that bad behaviour will incur sanctions, and good behaviour will generate blessings, they need to see both happening. If the jokers are still wild after a few weeks, ask yourself if you have been speaking with a forked tongue.

If this sounds like I am hanging the albatross of blame and shame around the teacher's neck, I am not. Children are, however small, in charge of themselves; they are increasingly, as they age, captains of their own choices.

4. Have you asked for help?

Have you demanded it? Because teachers are not mesmerists; we have no power, however slight, over pupils' minds. Our powers only exist in the context of how well we recruit others into our endeavours. If a pupil fails to attend a detention, you need to involve heads of year, form heads, the senior leadership team or whomever carries the largest mallets in your sanatorium of learning.

Two weeks is a long time in a classroom. After two weeks they have the measure of you; and you should have the measure of them. So unbutton your shirt and look at the tattoos and marks on your skin. If you pay attention, they will tell you what to do next.

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