The chattering classes

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Don't let talkative pupils cramp your teaching style. Behaviour management expert Sue Cowley advises


"While I was observing, I was dying to jump in all the time"

My problem is with establishing my own teaching style, when the previous teacher has taken an approach that is quite different to the way that I intend to work. My NQT year is with a Year 2 class and I was lucky to spend the last three weeks of term with them before the summer holidays. They are lovely children, with no specific behavioural needs or difficulties.

The one thing that did strike me is that their Year 1 teacher seemed to have a fairly lenient and relaxed approach with them. They were quite chatty when she was trying to teach, and they were slow to follow instructions, such as tidying up. While I was observing, I was dying to jump in all the time. The problem seemed to be with the whole class, rather than with just a few of them. I'm worried that they will carry this attitude over into my lessons when I start my NQT year.

When I taught them before the summer I took a sterner approach but this had no effect. I tried rewarding them with stickers and team points for tidying up but this didn't seem to have any impact. When I was teaching them on the carpet I stopped talking until they were all quiet, which worked, but as soon as I started teaching again they carried on. I persevered with this approach but I lost momentum towards the end of term.

The children who behaved well and always listened were getting fed up with it. I pointed out those who were "doing the right thing" as a model for those who weren't. This worked on a couple of pupils... for about a minute. I did the obvious thing and rearranged the seating, but the problem was that there were so many of them talking that they ended up sitting next to a new friend, chattering again.

It was difficult for me as a new teacher - they were still the previous teacher's class and I didn't want her to think I disagreed with her way of working. Hopefully, this September I can get it sorted. I am bringing in a teams system so they earn points for their groups and I think this will help. I also intend to introduce a "you waste my time, I waste your time" approach, as my boys love their playtime.

I spoke to the teacher and she said that they were so chatty because it was the end of term. I guess I'm worried that they will be so used to this behaviour that I'm going to have a tough time getting them out of it.

Have you any tips on how I can sort this out quickly and effectively without them thinking I am a monster?

Gemma Jones is an NQT at a primary school in Birmingham


"From the word go, train your children in the way that you want them to behave"

Just as we each enjoy a particular style of music or have a particular way of dressing, so we all have our own individual styles of teaching. You will come across teachers with a whole range of styles - some that fit perfectly with your own favoured model, others which are the complete opposite of how you would hope to teach. From the authoritarian "old school tie" method to the libertarian, laissez-faire approach, you must find your own point on the spectrum between total control and total freedom.

By the end of the year, many newly qualified teachers look back and say "I didn't start out strict enough". This is all part of the learning process.

You won't know what your preferred style is until you've had the chance to experiment and make some mistakes. Being strict is not about shouting and being mean, though. It's about the clear, calm and consistent setting of boundaries, and about knowing exactly how you will respond when the children push at the limits. In theory, it sounds easy; in reality it can be incredibly difficult.

There is a clear window of opportunity at the start of the school year in which you can establish your own teaching style and your own set of good habits for your class. In those first few weeks, the children are busy "sussing you out", deciding how they are going to behave for you, based on the way that you treat them and work with them.

The tired and sloppy class that Gemma saw at the end of last term hopefully turned up fresh and keen to learn. She can quickly get on with moulding them into her own ways of working.

If you can establish positive patterns of work and behaviour, this will set you up for a successful year and lessen the potential for stress caused by misbehaviour.

From the word go, train your children in the way that you want them to behave. For example, in the film Kindergarten Cop, Arnold Schwarzenegger trains a class of young children as though they are police recruits. This is the kind of effect you want to achieve. Get the behaviour sorted in a clear and firm manner so that you can get on with the teaching and learning.

Naturally, you will want to talk about your expectations with the class at the start of the school year. You need to establish where the boundaries are and give the children advice about sticking to the limits. But don't forget that you demonstrate your expectations just as clearly through what you do as through what you say. It's amazing how quickly children get into good or bad habits: if you allow just one child to talk over you while you are teaching, you will soon have a whole class of chattering pupils.

Be very firm about your standards at the start of term. It can feel like it is taking forever to sink in, but stick to your guns and it will be worth it in the long run. Sensibly, Gemma has a clear expectation of silence when she is talking to the class. If there's only one standard that you set for your children, then make it this one. It signals a teacher who demands respect, who insists that the learning must be allowed to take place.

At the start of your career, it can be tempting to judge other people's teaching styles adversely. You are full of energy and enthusiasm - surely with a bit of hard work and commitment you will soon have the class eating out of your hand? But teaching, and behaviour management in particular, is likely to prove rather more tricky than you might have imagined, and by the end of the summer term you will have realised just how demanding the profession can be.

Hopefully, what Gemma saw of her class is a result of tiredness and that "end-of-term" feeling, rather than any indicator of likely behaviour issues. She has the chance to establish her own style now - to take charge and make this class her own.

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


* Take advantage of the "fresh start" feeling: Make the most of the first few weeks - establish good habits and routines as quickly as you can. Put your own "stamp" on the class in a positive and enthusiastic way.

* Be crystal clear about what you want: Talk over your expectations of behaviour regularly with the class. Make the boundaries clear through what you say and what you do.

* Get them silent: This is by far the most important issue in a classroom - expect total silence from your pupils before you talk to them. Make this a priority in your first term, and it will gradually get easier to achieve.

* Be persistent: Often the strategies you use to manage behaviour will take a while to work. Don't give up on rewards and other positive approaches - given time they will start to make a difference.

* Don't leap to judgment: The vast majority of teachers do their best under what can only be described as very difficult circumstances. Accept that the job can be more complex than you might yet appreciate.

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