Courage under fire

27th August 2010 at 01:00
Your pupils are not listening, paper planes fill the air and you are wondering why you ever bothered: not being able to control your class is every new teacher's worst nightmare. But do not despair, TES behaviour expert Tom Bennett offers salvation

Pupils peeing in buckets during lessons. Groin-grabbing games. A boy called Fred Flintstone who bullies other kids because of his name. As the resident agony uncle on the TES online behaviour forum for the past 18 months, I have met and tried to deal with all of these.

Fortunately, most teachers will not be confronted with these problems, but behaviour is still the number one concern for many. And this is especially true for new teachers. Whenever student teachers get together to discuss their greatest fears, there is one thing that everyone agrees occupies their worst nightmares: what if they do not do as I ask?

Well all teachers should take comfort from this: you are not alone, and you most certainly are not as awful as you think you are.

One of the most depressing things a new teacher faces is the gap between what they expect of the pupils, and what actually happens. You may wonder how some teachers have the ability to walk into a room and the pupils all fall silent. This is the new teacher's dream come true but, the truth is, it all takes time and effort. Other teachers make it look easy because all their effort has been done in the past. Teachers you see around school will appear to have behavioural superpowers because their classes will already be drilled into compliance.

You need to get some perspective about what is expected of you, and what is possible. If you walk in with expectations of instant authority, you will be crushed by the indifference of some pupils towards your finely crafted lesson plans. So expect everything from them, but do not expect it instantly. There is a myth, usually perpetuated by people who have not taught challenging classes for a while, that you are a rubbish teacher if you cannot control the class. You have no power to control it: the class allows itself to be controlled. This can be achieved by many methods, and they all take time.

Gone are the days of instant, craven submission to authority figures. Pupils now wait to see what you are made of, and they quickly make their minds up. When they first encounter a class, even the most experienced teachers will be tested. Your job is simply to show the pupils that you care enough about their education and well-being to be tough with them. And keep doing it: never give up, even when you feel like it.

What if you do everything you should with classes, but they are still roasting you like a rotisserie ham? One of the most important things I tell new teachers is to do everything that their mentors and tutors have recommended (recording incidents, following up, setting detentions) and keep doing so.

For a while it might seem pointless: the same children keep repeating the same misdemeanours, and worse. The same class tears your lesson to pieces. The same pupils do not submit homework.

Do not think for a second that your methods are not working - they just have not worked yet. Did the slave workers at Giza tip one enormous stone block into position and then give up, saying, "It's not a pyramid yet, let's go home"? No, they did not. You are building a pyramid, but for a while it might seem like nothing is happening.

In one of my earlier classes, I turned my back to the pupils every time they asked me to write something on the board. And every time a small asteroid of paper would bounce playfully off the back of my head. It took me a fortnight to realise that turning my back to them wasn't a good idea. It took me another fortnight to find large pieces of paper torn out of one charming girl's exercise book. Lesson number two: take their books in more often. You are not dealing with Professor Moriartys here.

You also need to recognise that there are some situations that are beyond your control. Every teacher will face the devolution to the jungle-state that results from the arrival of any insect in the classroom larger than a fruit fly, and God forbid you should entertain anything as enormous as a bee. Imagine the Lord of the Flies diorama that followed a pigeon flying into one of my lessons in my training school. I could not have kept the pupils in their seats if I had promised them JLS were coming. The kids seemed to think they were filming for Saw VIII, with the plot revolving around a small bird perched in the rafters, looking stupid and terrified. In such cases, you do not manage the behaviour, you accommodate it, and make sure that no one breaks a leg trying to run through a wall like Wile E. Coyote.

You might not have to tame the whole class: they might be fairly well behaved with one or two who spoil everything. Congratulations, you have a normal classroom. In fact, this is one of the easiest problems to tackle (despite appearances to the contrary) because if the majority of your class are behaving well, you can temporarily focus your energy on resolving the situation with the lone wolf.

The few pupils who are kicking off need to be detained, punished, talked to and isolated. Parents can be called in. Special needs can be assessed professionally. What must not happen is to let them carry on misbehaving without consequence, otherwise their poor behaviour will infect other more agreeable children.

Yet sometimes you have to be prepared for the unexpected. I once worked in a school where I found a boy sitting by himself in a classroom at breaktime. He refused every request I made to leave, until I threatened to get "someone he did respect" to turf him out. It was only then he told me that he had accidentally soiled himself. There are times when sympathy for human tragedy overwhelms even the hardest of hearts.

One thing you need to be aware of is the whole-school behaviour policy. Every school should have one, describing what steps you should take in the event of misbehaviour, and what misbehaviour looks like in that school. This is an invaluable support for new teachers. The pupils will already know what the system is, so if you show that you have understood and bought into it already, you have got the full weight of the school behind you.

Some new teachers complain that they do not feel the school supports them particularly well and they feel abandoned to deal with their problems alone. Shame on those schools. New teachers are given next to no explicit, dedicated behaviour management training throughout their initial teacher training, so cannot be expected to know exactly what to do in all circumstances.

Teaching can usually only be improved and reflected upon by doing, and that means being in a classroom, trying things out, succeeding and failing, reflecting and improving. That is a sensitive process, requiring much observation, advice, and room to grow. What it does not mean is turning new teachers over to the wolves and seeing how long they last before applying to other schools.

On the other hand, teachers old and new need to acknowledge the responsibility they have to manage their classrooms. If you are not putting the time and effort into setting and attending detentions, planning lessons to avoid poor behaviour and reporting transgressors, you are not pulling your weight for the school and cannot expect your colleagues to solve your problems for you.

You need to all work together. So if you feel like you are not getting enough from the school, do not suffer alone. Speak to someone about it, and do not give up until you are happy with the answers you have been given.

Refusing to get others involved is just another way to beat yourself up. I suffered for a year as an NQT because I thought that asking for help would make me look like a failure. So week after week, I put up with my bottom set GCSE class making up their own lessons and texting each other gaily while I put fires out every 10 seconds. Eventually they started to come around, but that was more because they had warmed to me than because I had worn them down with rigour, rules and relying on the school policies. If I had tried the latter, I would have had them on course in about a term.

Another behaviour puzzle most new teachers will face is the problem of lazy pupils. What if they are behaving politely or manageably enough, but are reacting with slothful indolence to any task? One way to encourage them is to light a fire under their tails, figuratively speaking. Connect some kind of penalty with low output, such as keeping them in after lessons to complete work, if timetabling allows; or setting a detention for significant underperformance.

The other way to tackle it is to put a rabbit under their noses and let it race off. Incentivise them with rewards for good output: lots of praise for those finished first or to a satisfactory level of quality. And finally, the best way to get pupils motivated to work is to differentiate appropriately so they can access the tasks, and keep the tasks interesting and varied to drive pace.

These are just some of the ways you can turn the first fearsome few weeks into a gentler experience. Unless you are very lucky, you will have a testing, tiring time. That is the job: it is not glamorous, it is difficult at times, and to begin with you might wonder why you chose it.

But if you start it right, get into good habits, and - more importantly - get your pupils into good habits, it is the best job in the world.

Tom Bennett teaches at Raine's Foundation School in east London and is the author of `The Behaviour Guru', published by Continuum. He is also the resident agony uncle on the TES behaviour forum and will be hosting a live behaviour management clinic on on September 1 from 3-5pm. It is your chance to get behaviour questions answered. Find out more at

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