The disaffected year

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Tune in if you want to turn on your Year 11s from hell, advises Sue Cowley


"These pupils have no inclination to work"

I love teaching and I really like the kids. I'm at a good school and I am, in the main, really enjoying my NQT year. My department are supportive in spite of the fact that we are all so busy, and I don't have too many complaints (meetings and report writing excepted). However, there is one area in which I seem to be having limited success. Bottom set Year 11! I feel that I have tried everything, but to no avail.

These students are 100 per cent disaffected. They arrive at lessons late, if at all. They don't have pens, they have no inclination to work. Some arrange to have themselves sent out by performing an indiscretion that they know is blatantly flaunting the rules of the science department. They are supposed to go to an allocated room where a member of the senior management team is waiting to receive them, but some never make it there. This results in detentions which are never attended, followed by head's detentions, but this is water off a duck's back to them. They couldn't care less.

My main teaching practice was at a school where behaviour management was top of the agenda and I learnt many strategies for dealing with difficult classes.

As a department we attempt to make science lessons as interesting as possible with demonstrations and class practicals. Pupils will sit entranced when you demonstrate colourful and smelly reactions in the fume cupboard. They love it when you generate hydrogen on a large scale and ignite it. As they love what we call flashes and bangs where you fill a can with gas and then set fire to it. The gas burns until eventually the lid flies off (hence the bang).

However, this can only be a small part of any lesson. There comes a time when we have to start discussing the science and, needless to say, this is the point where they turn off and start to misappropriate the pipettes, spatulas and glassware. I hasten to add that there are some students who are never allowed to take part in a practical because of their inability to respect the equipment.

(I can't tell you how long it took to unblock the sinks after I attempted to do a class practical concerning the melting of jelly.)

Trying to incorporate ICT into their lessons is a total no-no, they merely play games and plug their headphones in and listen to music. Some don't even have the decency to switch back to working when you approach them;

they just listen on in defiance.

How can I start to teach these students rather than just survive my time with them?

Claire Reidie teaches at a secondary school in Surrey


"As you develop a partnership with a class, you have every right to demand respect in return"

When it comes to managing behaviour, Year 11 are a special case, and disaffected bottom sets doubly so. By the last year of statutory schooling, those innocent former Year 7s have morphed into fully-fledged and worldly young adults. Although they are physically still in the classroom, some have mentally left the building.

These pupils have sussed the truth about school: that there is little reason to do as they are told, especially once exclusion starts to look more like a reward than a sanction. Pupils who are failing academically see little point in continuing the struggle to achieve, especially if they are likely to fail their exams.

The approaches you take with disaffected Year 11s must be adapted to suit the circumstances: learn to be flexible when necessary. Many of the strategies that I suggest here are not appropriate for children lower down the school. Consider how far you are willing to stretch the boundaries, and how much leeway your school will allow you to take.

As your pupils grow up, the relationship you have with them changes. You become less of a distant adult figure telling them what to do, and take on more of a mentoring role. Develop a partnership with your Year 11 group and incorporate a bit of bartering into the way that you manage behaviour.

Accept that they are going to try to get away with things and work out how you can turn potential problems into rewards. For instance, Claire is having problems with the pupils listening to music on their headphones.

Rather than allowing this to cause her stress, she might offer to put a radio on while the students do written work on the condition that they stay on task. Similarly, you might "overlook" chewing gum in return for continued hard work.

As you develop a partnership with a class, you have every right to demand respect in return. These pupils are more able to relate to a teacher's feelings so Claire might tell the class how she feels when they are openly defiant. She could explain to them the time and effort involved in planning lessons and let them know how hard she is working on their behalf.

The act of opening up and sharing her vulnerability will show the pupils that she is willing to move beyond the authoritarian teacherpupil role. If the pupils refuse to show respect, then this is the point at which you come down hard. Phone their parents, and insist that the pupils come in after school hours to clear up the mess that they have made.

Claire understands how to keep her pupils engaged - they love the drama of bangs and flashes. It's great that she is willing to take risks despite her pupils letting her down on occasions. Use the allure of practical work to encourage the students to behave - if they want to do the fun stuff, they must prove that they can be trusted.

Finally, don't take any misbehaviour too personally. Never forget that you are at the end of a long line of previous teachers, some effective, some less so. You are also bearing the brunt of the way in which our school system can cause disaffection. It's a hard lesson, but you can't change the world. With time and experience you will gain a reputation that makes these classes easier to handle. And by the time your current Year 7 pupils reach Year 11, you'll be sitting pretty.

Sue Cowley is author of "Getting the Buggers to Behave" (Continuum) FIVE TOP TIPS

* Be flexible: Adapt your approaches and expectations to suit the class.

Consistency and high standards are important, but there is always the chance you can bend the rules rather than break them.

* Adapt your teaching style: Take on a variety of "characters" depending on the age and attitude of the class. Learn when to play it "strict and scary"

and when a "softly softly" approach will be more effective.

* Develop a partnership: Make it clear that you're working with the pupils, not against them. Offer them adult rewards, but in return let them know that you expect adult behaviour from them.

* Find ways to engage them: Incorporate activities that they enjoy into your lessons. Don't get hung up on "getting through the curriculum". It's better to get some work out of them, and to focus on decent behaviour.

* Don't beat yourself up: Don't expect to perform miracles. There is only so much you can achieve with Year 11 pupils, so do your best but accept the limitations.

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