Don't just seethe - share the problem

23rd March 2012 at 00:00
Teachers often believe that low-level disruption is their fault. Gerald Haigh favours a whole-school approach

I have just received a heartfelt letter from a secondary teacher about her constant battle with misbehaviour. An experienced specialist, she is fed up with having to deal with stroppy children more or less unaided, convinced that the people on the top corridor either do not understand the problem or have run out of strategies for dealing with it.

Plenty of teachers feel the same way. They see senior leaders so preoccupied with grand strategy that only the most severe incidents of misbehaviour filter up to them. The chalkface worker is left with the impression that, when it comes to keeping pupils in order in class, the message is: "You're on your own, pal."

It is not a new phenomenon. I recall my own years in the secondary classroom. There were many great times with lovely children, but there would also be days when I felt left to fight on alone. When it came to customers like Robbie, for example, I had no real help and little sympathy.

Robbie would come banging in just as the class was settling down, disruption incarnate, laughing, pointing at his friends, cannoning into desks, eliciting cries of protest. He would sit at the front, sprawled on the chair, legs apart, arms folded, staring at me and grinning.

I would put on a stern face and stare back.

"What, Sir?" he would say, looking around, milking giggles from his cronies. It would be downhill from there.

Just remembering that scene brings back a real hint of the blood pressure spike I felt then. Yet my instinct was not to seek help but to withdraw and brood on my failure to cope.

Part of the problem here is in the language used to describe the classroom-based stuff: Robbie's macho posing, covert scuffles, laughs, conversations, "accidental" falls from chairs. It is all a big deal to the despairing teacher, but it is too often labelled "low-level disruption", which is by definition, apparently, within the competence of any trained teacher.

The trouble, of course, is that not every teacher is equally good at dealing with disruption. There is an inconsistency that puts up a barrier between teachers and leaders, causes divisions in the staffroom ("Well, he's no trouble when he's with me"), is unfair on pupils and contributes to a lowering of standards across the school.

So what is the answer? Paul Haigh, director of the Hallam Teaching School Alliance at Notre Dame High School in Sheffield, has written a very useful blog post on behaviour (http:bit.lybehaviourstrategy). He is in no doubt that the first priority is to remove the assumption that teachers should cope alone.

"It's not just a classroom issue for the individual teacher, it's a whole-school issue because, if a child is doing it unchecked right across the timetable, they are stealing the education maybe of hundreds," he writes.

Of course, the quality of the classroom offering is part of the solution, but there will still be some who remain switched off from learning, however exciting the lesson. Their petty nonsenses need to be picked up and pinned down, and the reporting threshold, says Haigh, should be set quite low.

"Pretty early on there has to be a way of logging disruptive behaviour so that the leadership can take a whole-school view of it. Trigger points can be reached that bring out the cavalry in support."

There is a clear role here for IT and, in fact, many schools run behaviour systems that teachers can use easily in class, on their laptops or mobile devices, building up school-wide patterns of both positive and negative actions. Every school has a management information system, which will have either a built-in behaviour management feature or an easy link to one.

Not every school, though, uses what is easily available. Another teacher who wrote to me described how a tracking system was only introduced as the result of staff pressure. Importantly, such a system must be supported by a consistent sanctions process of warnings and detentions, balanced by a parallel structure of rewards.

There is, of course, an elephant in this particular room, which is that, as soon as you track behaviour across the school, you create a league table of teachers. Or at least that is how teachers will read it if the process is not carefully handled. Asking around about this issue, I was told of one school where some teachers felt threatened enough by the introduction of behaviour tracking to leave for more comfortable berths.

Haigh says that the way to stop teachers feeling exposed is to be ahead of the game, to see the anxiety coming and make sure in advance that teachers help and support each other.

"We try to flip it round so it's not top-down pressure but a team approach. Teachers who are having success are encouraged to present to their peers to share their ideas," he says.

I reflected on this, thinking of my failure to deal effectively with Robbie. Had my problem been clinically and technologically exposed to view, I would surely have been embarrassed. But I would also have been relieved that others were having the same trouble and that people were weighing in with ideas of what might work for me.

And I would certainly have had more sleep.

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