Create the reputation you want

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Mike Fielding offers practical advice on building your distinctive teaching style.

What's the biggest difference in the secondary school?" two Year 7 girls were asked when they returned for a visit to their primary school. "Getting used to the different teachers," said one without hesitation. "Yes," said her friend, "they're all different: some let you talk while others want you to work in silence." "And," said the first," some get angry and some seem to smile a lot."

Within six weeks of transfer they had worked out that there is no such thing as "a teacher" and by then were developing the range of skills required to meet the the expectations of at least 12 different adults. They would have come to those conclusions from a mixture of their own observation and what older children had told them.

They were discovering that all teachers have a reputation which directly affects the response they get from children. "Mrs X is really caring." "Mr Y always shouts." "Miss Z can't control us," and so on. Armed with this knowledge, most children can adjust their behaviour to the circumstances. Difficulties arise when individuals or groups misread the signals or forget whose class they're in.

Of course, if expectations of behaviour differ too widely from one teacher to another there is an unreasonable lack of consistency in the school which some students will exploit and others find confusing.

But, there are bound to be differences and it is from those that children create reputations for their teachers.

The new teacher, of course, has no reputation and this can be dangerous because students may either try to impose their own norms on the classroom or else assign the new teacher temporarily to a stereotype.

Therefore the first few weeks in a new school are vital and may affect the way successive generations of students view the teacher. Unless you are clear from the start about the kind of teacher you want to be and what kind of standards in and out of the classroom you want to convey, you could find yourself with a reputation that surprises you.

"I never thought of myself as particularly strict," said one teacher at the end of his first term, "but some Year 10 told me they thought I was 'real hard'."

Children's ideas about a teacher are not restricted to what he allows in the classroom. Dress, appearance, personal hygiene, habits and even the kind of car you drive can all contribute to the child's eye view of you and affect their behaviour. A group of girls assigned to a new teacher already knew of his reputation for smelling of cigarettes and went to quite deliberate lengths to ensure that they never had to spend time close to him.

Whenever he sat down near one of them to discuss their work one of the others would distract him. This meant, of course, they received very little individual attention during the year he taught them. In a more extreme example, a teacher with a reputation among students for being over-friendly with boys had to suffer the agonies of a formal and lengthy investigation which eventually proved that no impropriety had occurred but nonetheless left him sullied and unable to function effectively.

Staff, of course, also impose reputations on their colleagues. Assessments such as "he is reliable", "she talks a lot but never does anything" or "she is very good with paperwork" can become the prism through which an individual is viewed and determine what they are asked to do or when they are deliberately bypassed.

For the new teacher, it is usually their reputation for classroom management which has the biggest initial impact. And here it is not just the classroom problems you have but the way you go about tackling them which will shape what colleagues think of you. The teacher who pretends the mayhem everyone can hear just isn't happening will quickly be judged inadequate. The one who admits the difficulty and asks for help will both receive support and develop a reputation for reflective practice.

Likewise the person who shares her ideas in a way that does not appear to undervalue the experience and insights of longer-serving colleagues will be considered imaginative. The one who keeps telling people how successful his brilliant ideas are is likely to develop a reputation for conceit and staff will long for the day when it all goes wrong for him.

So decide how you want to be known in the school and think carefully about how your behaviour in different situations contributes to or detracts from that aim. After you've been there a while find some way - probably through your mentor - of discovering whether your reputation is what you want it to be. You may be surprised.

Mike Fielding is principal of the Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon.

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