How to make peace with the mean girls
I can handle badly behaved boys. Whether they are naughty, aggressive or generally disruptive, I can cope just fine. But girls who misbehave? They are a real challenge.
Female teachers in particular have an uphill struggle managing girls' behaviour. The fight for alpha status among girls doesn't stop at the classroom door; the queen bee will often try to use her top-notch position to undermine female teachers. And it is difficult to teach a girl who feels you should be her subordinate, especially when said girl believes that complying with the most basic requirements would mean showing weakness in front of her friends.
Boys don't have the same politics. They tend not to lose face when a female teacher pulls rank. But girls will fight female teachers every step of the way to get the upper hand and demonstrate their dominance.
Apparently, though, we should not worry: study after study tells us that girls' behaviour is improving. For example, a 2012 Department for Education report found that between the ages of 11 and 14, the gender gap for social-behavioural outcomes widened, with girls improving their positive behaviours.
In my classroom, the opposite is true. Boys are far more malleable. They are not perfect: the aggressive ones shout their mouths off and scarper, sometimes punching walls along the way. But girls are decidedly meaner and smarter in their approach. And they are getting worse, prompting me to adopt a fresh strategy, detailed below, which thus far seems to be working.
A good rapport is priceless in behaviour management but female teachers often struggle to develop a bond with girls who display negative behaviour traits. Nonetheless, getting students onside is a key aspect of controlling a class. This doesn't mean that girls are exempt from expectations - it is about being clear and stating intentions at the outset. Female students don't want to be lectured, and they don't want a pseudo parent telling them what to do. It can be effective to sit them down and explain that you are a teacher, not their mother. You won't cross the line into the latter and they should respect you as the former.
Lay down the law
A student in my class last year was a textbook example of a naughty girl - her uniform was always wrong, she talked back and she had attitude in spades. She was moved to my class halfway through the year, so before the first lesson we talked outside and I spelled out my rules in a non-threatening, friendly tone. She nodded and sat in the seat I had assigned her. During the lesson I checked in on her by standing nearby instead of shouting across the room. Now I just have to give a nod in her direction. I showed her the courtesy of treating her as an adult and she responded with respect. Admittedly this technique won't work with all tricky girls, but it is very effective for some.
Be firm but fair
With some unruly girls, firmness is the best approach. I often hear female students insist that teachers hate them and pick on them, so being firm but fair with everyone is vital. If you need to move troublesome students, make a new seating plan for the whole class so they don't feel singled out. Likewise, listen to their problems before making a judgement.
Take a time out
If all else fails, a time out could work for both of you. Quietly suggesting that the student spends a short spell away from the class is an effective way of putting some space between you, particularly if your relationship has broken down. This worked for me recently when I had tried everything with a student and had simply had enough. I sat her down after the lesson and we went over where things had gone wrong. We talked about my expectations and decided that she was going to be placed with the head of department for the rest of the week. We would return to normal the following Monday. It worked really well. She understood that we were making a decision together that would benefit both of us.
Keep your temper
Losing your cool is one of the worst things you can do in a classroom. We've all done it but it can lead to intense confrontation, particularly with girls. Keeping calm is hard, but possible. You must also ensure that you don't move too far the other way and end up being patronising. Simply stopping the row at your end can be highly effective. Students tend not to shout at silence. They may walk off instead - if so, leave them. Make time later in the day to clear the air with a one-to-one conversation in a neutral space, such as the school canteen.
Naughty girls are hard for anyone to handle, but female teachers can find it particularly difficult to get past the power struggles and maintain authority. Hopefully, these strategies will help you to get over those hurdles and keep control.
Georgia Neale teaches at a mixed secondary school in south-east England
Sammons, P, Sylva, K and Melhuish, E et al (2012) Influences on Students' Development in Key Stage 3: social-behavioural outcomes in Year 9 (Department for Education)
A teacher seeks advice about disrespectful giggling girls on the TES Connect forums.
Watch a Teachers TV video on the trouble with girls' behaviour.