Behaviour - When chaos reigns, fear can be your friend

17th January 2014 at 00:00
The `big beasts' of the staffroom can strike terror into the heart of any student. Used sparingly, they are an invaluable resource

Every school has a "big beast". In some, they roam the corridors pouncing on straggling children who have become separated from the pack. In others, they are kept caged in their offices, ready at a moment's notice to savage badly behaved students who dare to challenge the status quo. You won't find these beasts in any policy document or behaviour strategy - they lurk beneath the surface: renegade, untamed.

We're talking, of course, about those teachers who have the gift of fear. They are the bogeymen and women whom other teachers use to keep itinerant youths in check. At the mere mention of the beast's name all bad behaviour ends in a horrified skip of the heartbeat.

Yet despite their prowess and effectiveness, some would have you believe that the big beasts of behaviour management have no place in the modern education system. Some say they are a relic of old-school brutality and should be ridiculed.

Not so - these teachers, when used carefully, are an essential instrument of good order and discipline. Here's why and how you should put them to work.

Identifying the beast

If you are wondering who the big beast is in your school, there is a simple way to find out. The next time there is a fire drill, watch carefully: big beasts love one of these. It is their natural habitat. They prowl with menace and intent, waiting for their moment. In a glorious bellow the roar of the big beast goes out, drowning out the idle chatter of 1,800 students. All is quiet. That is your beast.

When I was at school, Chopper Harris was the big beast: he had four fingers on one hand, the physical stature of a Yeti and the temperament of a battle-hardened sergeant. He was a man who loved violence, and through the medium of the board rubber he shared that love with us. I am not advocating this type of person by any means.

I've worked alongside some excellent big beasts who were much more appropriate role models. Diminutive deputies, attack dogs who could leave classes of gnarly teenage girls whimpering; heads of year whose own behaviour was so brilliantly unpredictable that it terrified and unnerved students in equal measure; and school leaders who could shout a cocky 13- year-old down to the floor from 100 yards.

Why you need them

In chaotic schools, a big beast can be phenomenally useful. Where the status quo has shifted and teachers are running scared of the students, someone has to take control. Beasts are magnificent at holding the line, re-establishing behavioural norms and leading "bollocking assemblies". For crowd control they are second to none. They generally have advanced skills in hard stares, quieting a raucous canteen or a boisterous corridor in the blink of an unblinking eye. In the jungle of teenage turmoil, when behaviour has really slipped, you often need these behaviour behemoths to pull you out of trouble.

Their approach works because children understand power and hierarchy long before they understand responsibility and restoration. You need a big beast to establish control through the former so that you have room to foster the latter.

Even in less troubled schools, the beasts are just as important, although they may be quieter. Regardless of how well ordered your school is, there will always be a place for someone with a different role: someone who draws the line firmly in the sand, who is the unbending face of discipline, who does not attempt last-minute mentoring, coaching or cups of tea. A calmer, more considered beast - often cold, but never aggressive - can be an invaluable tool for maintaining order and ironing out any minor indiscretions.

How to use them

A big beast can be very effective if you bring them in at the right moment. And that is the case no matter what the age or position is of the teacher they are assisting - this is not just a strategy to help newly qualified members of staff who are still finding their feet.

That said, it is new teachers struggling to maintain order who will arguably find the input of a big beast most useful. In the first year of teaching we all need a lot of help. The big beast creates the opportunity for new teachers to convince the students that they are capable of being in charge, carving out the breathing space of good behaviour in which new teachers can make themselves heard in order to deliver their instructions and get learning moving.

Never feel guilty about calling on the big beast for help while you are establishing yourself in a new post. They expect you to use them and you can guarantee that any teacher who criticises you for it almost certainly did the same themselves at one time.

For more experienced teachers, the big beast is still essential but their use has to be more considered. You have to accept that you are going to damage your relationship with a student if you send them to another teacher, so the behaviour has to be bad enough to make that sacrifice. You also have to acknowledge that the beast won't solve your behaviour issues; rather, they will get the child's attention, fast, so that you can address those issues yourself.

A skilful big beast will realise the impact they can have on a relationship and will smooth a path back into the class that allows both teacher and student to maintain their pride and begin the next lesson from a better position. The best and most effective beasts are the ones who will you to follow up incidents, support sanctions and repair damage.

If your school's beast does not do the above, don't use them. Their utility to you is dependent on these elements and without them you will be doing more harm than good.

What not to do

Whatever stage you have reached in your career, use of the big beast has to be properly rationed. Overuse them and you soon delegate power away from your classroom. If you persistently show the children that you are low down on the disciplinary food chain then they will take their orders only from higher up. For an experienced teacher, a big beast is most useful when they are standing alongside you, often gently growling but supporting rather than taking over. Ensure that you make this clear to the beast before they intervene.

Part of the key to a rationed approach is to use the beast more regularly in a way that doesn't require them to deliver a behaviour bashing. If you are experiencing a persistent problem, ask a big beast to drop by regularly, just to "see how we are getting along". Children don't like it when the big beast pops in. It raises the stakes, increasing the risks for those who are tempted to cause disruption. This creates a temporarily altered learning environment in which you have a chance to rebuild your relationships.

Another common misuse of the beast is trying to unleash them on the 5 per cent of children who ignore status and have no fear of adults. These children need skilful mentoring and calm, assertive leadership. They have met bigger beasts in their family lives and conquered them.

Just as pointless is setting the big beast on damaged and vulnerable children. Using a beast to discipline children who do not have the strength to recover from a mauling is cruel.

Beasts are born not made

Unfortunately, becoming a beast is not a decision you get to make. Of course you can practise your scary face, shout into the wind until you reach the higher decibels and perfect a strut that would have army commandos cowering, but unless the students find you frightening, it will all be in vain. And what a student finds frightening is not an exact science. Beast status is bestowed upon a teacher, they can't choose it themselves.

Paul Dix is a speaker and teacher wrangler at Pivotal Education, working in the UK and internationally.

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