First Step - Command your troops

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
Fear you're losing control of what's going on around you? Keep your head by enforcing sanctions that are firm, fair and consistent

Government adviser Sir Alan Steer's recent report on school behaviour showed there is no room for complacency in tackling discipline in schools. "This means getting in early, on the front foot, tackling low-level behaviour before it gets worse," it said.

As an NQT, this can sometimes be hard to cope with. After all, age and experience are not always on your side. "Being older helps. I don't think I would have coped at 22," says Stacey Schultz, an NQT in modern foreign languages at a school in Derbyshire. Robert Birch, who won a Teaching Award in 2008, says it takes time and practice to develop good classroom management techniques, so it is normal for a new teacher to experience difficulties in their first year.

"Very often, the children will know that you are new and this can make you an easy target unless you are fair, firm and consistent from day one," he says. Mr Birch adds that it is vital to demonstrate good practice if a teacher is to build authority. "Simply walking into a classroom and expecting authority is unrealistic and most teachers have to earn it," he says.

By planning good lessons, managing the classroom environment in a fair and consistent way and setting reasonable expectations, a new teacher can gain respect.

But however well you've planned, there will always be some pupils who are intimidating. "They will exploit your weaknesses. You have to be patient and maintain a persona in class," says a teaching assistant, who didn't want to be named. Alternatively, you could turn your inexperience to your advantage. Mr Birch told his groups that he had some preconceptions around how they would behave because he was closer in age to them, and this helped build a better relationship. "As far as I was concerned, our first lesson was a fresh start. It is possible to use your new teacher status to your advantage," he says.

Make sure you refer to your whole-school behaviour policy, which will help frame your own strategies for dealing with discipline issues. A proactive approach can work best, believes Mr Birch. "Offering rewards and incentives for positive behaviour can go a long way," he says.

But don't expect angelic behaviour overnight - it takes time to get classes to behave well. "Tragically, many NQTs give up trying to control classes after a few months, thinking that what they're doing isn't working," says Tom Bennett, head of religious studies at Raine's Foundation School in London. "It's just that it takes time for results to be seen. It's like digging out of prison. Keep going. Never give up, and eventually they will."

Ceri Evans, who was named Teacher of the Year in a secondary school by The Guardian in 2006, believes the key is to take control of the classroom space. "When the pupils come in they have to stand by the door and make eye contact and give a smile. It might be difficult to follow through with sanctions but you have to convey belief, it's not negotiable." He adds that walking around the room is vital, communicating verbally all the time. Non-verbal cues also work. When somebody starts to talk or giggles, make a body movement, for example winking at the pupil, suggests Mr Evans. "If small things like that are not dealt with immediately it will escalate," he says. "Many NQTs tend to overlook small things. Pupils may be chatting at the start of the lesson, so act before it kicks off."

It's also important not to make assumptions about how certain pupils will behave. "I've had a pupil where the relationship has been tense and where I think `not him again' - but I always have to remember to give him another chance. Otherwise the pupil will pick up on that vibe," says Ms Schultz.

The most important thing is to act early and with conviction, says Mr Bennett. "Always be fair. Always follow up," he says. "As soon as they know you will never let them off - they'll give up."

Next week: School trips


- Firstly, don't panic. Not all pupils respond to sanctions in the same way. Don't expect change overnight.

- Ask for help. Other experienced staff will have dealt with pupils who are unresponsive.

- Don't give up. Changing behaviour takes time and patience.

- Get the parents involved.

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