Easy way to make them obey

14th February 2003 at 00:00
It's possible to tick off disruptive pupils without losing your cool, writes Paul Blum

Deep in every teacher's subconscious lurks a primeval fear. It can surface in the night and intrude upon our dreams. And it doesn't matter if you're newly qualified, a head of department, or a headteacher - losing control of the pupils is the ultimate nightmare.

Heads or deputies might quail at the thought of losing control in a packed assembly hall or while supervising a lunchtime queue. Class teachers are more likely to dread losing it with a difficult group or in a cover lesson.

And the fear is magnified when a colleague might be watching.

I have lost count of the times I've seen a teacher handling a rowdy situation confidently and calmly until a senior colleague comes into sight.

Then it's all change. The teacher stiffens and starts barking commands like a sergeant major on the parade ground. The inevitable result is confrontation, and it could so easily have been avoided.

So, how can you sidestep confrontation and take control calmly? Or, to put it another way, how can you give someone a telling-off without making a fool of yourself?

There is no easy answer. You will have to accept that you will learn from experience - and that means making mistakes. But there are ways of making the learning experience shorter and less painful.

It's important to learn a sense of timing. Some situations demand a stern response; pupils and colleagues expect it from you. But you must be careful how you deliver it. It's best to separate individual pupils who challenge your authority, and move them away from their peers, an audience they will be anxious to impress. Use your knowledge of the group. It's easiest to separate the most compliant individual. One student obeying you will encourage others to follow suit.

In a classroom or corridor, back off after you've made a command; pupils need time and space to save face before they follow it.

Watch your body language. Don't try to ape the flamboyant or aggressive style of a colleague. There are few things worse than copying somebody else's methods and falling flat on your face. Try to keep your shoulders from tensing up and giving away the panic, inadequacy and frustration you might feel on the inside. Avoid shouting, but repeat instructions calmly and purposefully while standing your ground.

A telling-off is most likely to work if you keep a sense of humour and coax pupils along. Making light of a situation helps teacher and pupils stay relaxed. This isn't the same as giving in or condoning unacceptable behaviour. If a pupil continues to blank you and show dissent, warn there will be consequences for failing to follow your instructions. But it's best to avoid being too specific about what these are as you could tie your hands by threatening actions you find difficult to follow through.

Follow-up is vital; it takes the pressure off you to win a do-or-die confrontation. You can let a pupil disobey you, ignore you, or simply storm off because you know you can find and deal with them later. Most importantly, though, without proper follow-up there is no point in the initial chastisement. If you can't get to the pupil later that day, deal with him or her as soon as possible the following day. Then, when you do meet, it will be at a time and place of your choice and in circumstances you've chosen and thought about.

Be ready with the arguments you will use to take the moral, intellectual and emotional high ground. Come prepared to take the student away from his or her friends. If you are still worried that the pupil is likely to be unrepentant and abusive, have reinforcements with you such as your head of department or the student's head of year or form tutor. It's empowering for teachers when recalcitrant pupils see them working as a team.

Paul Blum is deputy head and special educational needs co-ordinatorat Islington Green school, in the London borough of Islington. He is the author of A Teacher's Guide to Anger Management (RoutledgeFalmer pound;13.99)

How to keep your head

* Don't jump in feet first and stoke a big confrontation. You are just as likely to lose as win it.

* Always follow up. If you don't, it's as bad as losing a confrontation.

You'll lose your creditability in front of the pupils.

* See pupils on your home territory, not theirs, which stops them playing to the gallery of friends. Instead, interview them in a quiet corridor or a colleague's office. Keeping them waiting and guessing about what might happen to them, is even more psychologically effective.

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