Picture the scene. Your students file quietly into class and one chooses a seat at the front. Another student walks up claiming it is "their" seat; before you know it, fists are flying and there are cries of "It's a free country, you know!" Then one storms off, leaving the other in tears.
So far, so teenage, you might think. But these students are adults. One is a grandmother of four and another works full-time running her own hairdressing business.
When I first started teaching adults two years ago, I remember saying (naively) that bad behaviour wasn't an issue. Problems arose not from disruptions within the classroom but from those outside it. Job commitments and childcare responsibilities prevented learners from attending regularly and staying the course. If I did come across a disruptive student, it was usually a younger person and any issues were defused quickly, especially when an older peer took on a calming, parental role.
Then I encountered a class that made me reconsider. At first it was just one student who disturbed the lesson. Yet, as she clashed with one person after another, more and more of the group would arrive in the classroom tense and spoiling for a fight. Before long, the tiniest thing (someone wants a window open, someone else doesn't) would trigger an argument.
I was confused, not to mention exhausted from constantly trying to appease and placate. After all, most of these people were responsible parents or grandparents and they could be perfectly pleasant on a one-on-one basis. What made them behave in this way? From all the books I had read during my PGCE, hunting for tips on how to deal with rowdy 16- to 19-year-olds, I knew that to understand bad behaviour I needed to know the reasons behind it.
I respect the fact that some of my students lead chaotic lives. They may be holding down tiring, poorly paid jobs while trying to keep their own children in check (some of whom have been excluded from school for their own bad behaviour). Some of my students are caring for family members, some are struggling to find work and others have just been released from prison. It's no wonder that their anger and frustration can spill out in class.
A major reason for bad behaviour is poor self-esteem. Everyone in my English class has already failed once before, at school. Confidence and self-belief can be low in the adult classroom and research shows this can result in bad behaviour, as evidenced by the catalyst for the troubles in my class - the grandmother in her 60s. She is of middling ability but finds it difficult to acknowledge her mistakes. When I correct her work, she says that I gave her the wrong answer or that it came from a student she was paired up with.
If she can't sit in her preferred seat at the front of the room, she says she can't learn properly. During class, she complains about the noise, the people, the cold, the heat - all the time disturbing others. By doing so, she fails to take responsibility for the quality of her own work. She's always telling me that it would have been better "if only" the room were quieter, or warmer, or colder. She lacks confidence and searches constantly for excuses.
Minor clash, major fallout
Cultural differences can also trigger eruptions in class: when many faiths are learning together, things sometimes get heated. One student with strong religious beliefs criticises people for behaviour he deems to be inappropriate. I've spoken to him about it but he also ducks responsibility, saying it's not his personal view but a religious doctrine. I tell him that the classroom isn't the place for this and we have to respect each other, but my words fall on deaf ears.
I wonder if the classroom environment makes adults regress to adolescence. Many adult students admit they were badly behaved at school, often to hide the fact that they were struggling with the work or had an undiagnosed learning disability such as dyslexia. In my classroom I'm Kate, not Miss, and there are no uniforms or parents' evenings. Yet we have registers, homework and exams, and it is still quite like school.
Disruptive behaviour may have an unpleasant effect on the classroom but it can have a devastating impact on learning. Adult students don't have to be there and if they're unhappy with the atmosphere in their class they simply stop attending. There are no detentions or threats of being hauled up in front of the headteacher. Yes, you can exclude them, but that tends to have an impact on your targets, results and, crucially, your funding.
Bad behaviour isn't just aggression and tantrums. It can be subtle, too, such as refusing to take part in activities. How do you make a 45-year-old read the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet if they don't want to? Or demand that they sit next to someone they don't like? I don't draw up seating plans, because they are difficult to impose if you change classrooms regularly. But I also worry that if I fill my lessons with countless rules and regulations, it's very likely that some of my students will stop attending.
So, I navigate the bad behaviour as best as I can. I remind the group frequently of the learning charter in which we agree to respect each other, and I speak to problem students in private, adult-to-adult.
Most importantly, I dish out lots of praise and reassurance to remind these people that they're not "stupid" or "unteachable", or all the things they were told in their youth. I stay upbeat, teach at a quick pace with regular laughs and dollops of fun, and remind myself of the issues that many of my students are grappling with. Failing that, I take a deep breath and remember that we've only got a few weeks to go.
Kate Bohdanowicz teaches adults in East London