Choose your battles carefully

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Power games won't help in pupil-teacher confrontations. To avoid anyone losing their cool or losing face, keep calm, stay fair and remove serious conflicts to a neutral arena outside the classroom, advises Lindsey Thomas

It is in the nature of teaching that you will at times ask pupils to do things they don't want to do: to be quiet, to empty their mouths, to do some work. Inevitably this will sometimes lead to confrontation. How you handle it will determine the outcome: whether you "win"; how far your lesson is disrupted; your future relationship with the "confrontee"; your stress levels and so forth.

Here are some gems of confrontational dialogue: General talkingfidgeting etc There's the straightforward affronted-by-audacity-of-student reprimand for use on a strict day.

You: How dare you be so rude as to . . . (fill in the blank with the offence) while I'm talkingwriting on the board (recovering from a hangover)?

Pupil: Sorry, Miss.

The slightly more sarcastic you: Sorry, I didn't realise I was interrupting. No, sorry, I'm the teacher here, you're meant to be listening to me.

Them: Eh? (This kind of sarcasm is often lost on anyone below bright Year 11s.) The rather threatening you: How do you think your parents would feel if they could see you now? Not very impressed I'll bet.

Them: Er, no, Miss.

You: What would they do if I rang them and told them how you've been behaving? Them: Dunno, Miss.

You: Would they ground you? Stop your allowance?

Them: Probably.

You: Well, I'd stop . . . (insert offence) before I feel the need to pick up the phone.

The obvious and well-worn you: What is it that you're talking about that's so much more interestingrelevanteducational than the Third Reichthe Krebbs cyclequadratic equations? There are two possible types of response here: a Er, nothing, sorry Miss.

b Actually, we were wondering whether entry into the single European currency would benefit the nation as a whole or whether the central control of interest rates would lead to another collapse in the housing market.

Response b could clearly cause problems. You would then have to follow up with either: You: Don't you know a rhetorical question when you hear it?

Them: No, what's one of them?

Or you: I will not tolerate insolence in my classroom. Get out. (Followed by irate reports to the head of year.) Homework related situations You: only three people out of the 31 in this class could be bothered to do their homework. It's pathetic. I don't set the work for the good of my health you know.

Or you: I spend hours sitting at home planning a lesson which will be interesting and help you learn so you can pass your exams, and you thank me by not bothering to do the preparation work. We don't have to do it that way you know. We could just spend the rest of the term copying out of the textbook.

Or you: So, how long did you spend producing this then?

Them: Dunno.

You: Three, maybe four minutes?

Them: S'pose.

You: And you're expecting me to give up my evening, when I could be going out or relaxing in front of the television, to mark this?

Them: Er.

You: Do it again, properly and have it on my desk before 9am tomorrow.

More serious crimes It is important to build the tension. First, send the pupil out of the room in the most dramatic manner you can muster. Leave them to sweat for a couple of minutes then go out to them. When you begin the interrogation, remember to start with the three key "This-is-a-major-lambasting" cues which should be shouted as loudly and sharply as is decently possible in a corridor: "Stand up straight. Get your hands out of your pockets. Look at me when I'm talking to you." You should then proceed to make the offence as heinous as possible, involving mention of criminal charges if possible. For example, swearing can constitute verbal assault or threatening behaviour; copying can be called plagiarism; writing on the desks, criminal damage.

Once the offender has capitulated and confessed their guilt, you must always finish with the classic and almost mandatory: "I'm disappointed in you. You've let me down. You've let your parents down. But worst of all, you've let yourself down. Get out of my sight."

To a new teacher these may seem good ways of dealing with problems in the classroom. Starting a new post you are bound to want to stamp your authority on a group. Shouting is one way. It gives out a message: I'm in charge. I'm allowed to shout. I have the power to humiliate you and I'm not afraid to use it.

It is, perhaps, not the best way and is more likely to be counterproductive. If you think about it more carefully it's obvious why. You wouldn't feel too motivated in your job if the head gave you a rollicking and left you looking stupid in the middle of a staff briefing: "And you, Jones, what have you got to say for yourself? Call yourself a teacher? I'm trying to run a school here and you couldn't even be bothered to complete the attendance statistics in your register last week. I know it's not the most thrilling of entertainments, but we all have to do things we don't want to in life and we just have to get on with them." You would feel like complaining to your union about workplace bullying.

What is a better way? First you have to win the respect of the pupils and this is not going to be done with sarcasm and humiliation. In survey after survey, students have said that what they want in a teacher is someone who can control a class and who respects them. How do you do that without being a woolly softie?

Choose your battles carefully. Is Johnny Herbert dismantling his ballpoint while you explain the work really worth the stress of a full-blown rage and all the time you will waste? Ask yourself too why you're doing it. Is it really because of what the pupil is doing, or has it more to do with the fact that your central heating has broken down and you're having the devil's own job getting an engineer out to fix it?

Think about where what you're saying is going to lead. If you ask a rhetorical question, there's every possibility you'll get an answer, which is likely to escalate the incident unnecessarily.

If you decide a confrontation is necessary, choose your arena with care. Taking the student on in front of the class is a risk on two counts. First you are taking them down a peg or two in front of their mates; while this kind of ego deflation may seem a good idea, it may seriously damage your relationship and cause more problems in the long term. Second, you're putting on a performance for the whole group, they won't be getting on with their work and if you come out worse they will see it and remember it. Dealing with the student outside the room has a number of advantages. It gives you both time to cool off; it takes the confrontation out of the public domain so the pupil can't look to their friends for support and it allows you time to think through what to say.

Getting them out of the room can be awkward. Better than just bellowing "Get out!" is to say calmly: "Please leave the room". By retaining your composure you show you are not phased by the situation. Remember that pupils are likely to try to wind up a new teacher to see how far they can push you. If you lose your temper then they've won and they'll try it again. You will often get a "Why?" or "What have I done?" If you get into this it's going to carry on. The broken-record technique often works well. Ignore the response and just repeat the instruction: "Please leave the room", calmly. You can add: "I'm asking you for the third time, please leave the room." If you're not responding to the pupil's protests, they will sooner or later realise they're futile.

Once you get outside, you have several options. One is to catalogue, calmly, exactly what the student has done wrong. They all know what constitutes unacceptable behaviour but if they think they are out there for nothing they will be resentful. "You came into the room noisily and it took you far too long to get your books out. You then flicked paper across the room while I was talking. I asked you to stop but you didn't." You then remind the child such behaviour is unacceptable, allow them to apologise and let them go back into the lesson. Make sure they stick to your agenda.

Don't be drawn off by "Everyone else was doing it" or any other attempts to draw you off track. Keep it short. Keep it calm. Avoid lecturing.

If a pupil's behaviour is out of character, there is probably a reason and it may be worth taking the time to ask. "It's not like you to behave like that. What's going on?" It will show that you know them, and that you are concerned. It may save you from putting your foot right in it. "What would your mother say about this?" "She died last week."

If you don't feel confident that you can "win" in the situation, you would be well advised to call for reinforcements; it is important that you are aware of the best way to do this. Usually the first port of call will be your head of department.

Remember, though, that someone else may choose to handle the situation in a manner other than the one you were expecting for reasons which may not immediately be apparent. If your head of faculty decides on a quiet chat when you were hoping he or she would bellow at the offender it does not mean you are being undermined.

In any confrontation in a classroom, the one who controls the pace and decides what to respond to is the power-holder. There are times when shouting is appropriate but it is best to avoid it. If you are secure in your position, or making a good fist of pretending to be, you shouldn't need it often, and the students know it.

Lindsey Thomas teaches English at Lord Grey School, Bletchley

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today