Lost your cool? Learn to regain authority

21st June 2013 at 01:00
When you blow up in front of your students there are no short cuts to regaining their trust - the first step is to say you're sorry

Every teacher has, at some point, lost control during a class, be it with a tearful run from the room or an explosion of irrational and indiscriminate anger. There is no quick fix to regaining your authority after such a loss of face. You could call in the big hitters and police each lesson with growling heads of department. You could pretend that you still have authority. But, in reality, until you do the hard work to rebuild trust and relationships, everything else is just a pantomime.

The first thing you should do is apologise to your students: this is an assertive act that models appropriate behaviour. If you have become frustrated and acted in anger, been inconsistent or unfair, or have thrown your toys out of the pram, admit your mistakes and say sorry. You may be surprised by the positive reaction you get, both immediately and some time later. The students will begin to see you as reasonable, fair - human, even. The apology does not need to be reciprocated, although in practice it often is. In behaviour management, humility is a sign of strength.

Apologising may also prompt you into some essential self-reflection. There will be elements of your behaviour practice that you will want to change. You may choose to reveal your plan for moving forward or agree it with the class. Either way, give yourself time to implement changes, drip-feeding new strategies and monitoring their effects honestly. Simply replacing one regime with another is unlikely to solve difficulties in the medium or long term. Look for what is working and then build on it.

This last point is crucial: just because a behaviour plan has failed you once, do not throw it all out. Minor tweaks can lead to substantial transformations. Ask a colleague to help you look dispassionately at how you provide structure for the children and examine how you develop and reinforce existing routines. You should also provide clarity on rules, reinforcements and sanctions, schedule proactive communication with parents, target specific students and learn from strategies that are working for other teachers. It is useful to make a visual statement that reiterates your commitment to the classroom climate and the students, too. You can do this by spending time on displays and asking students to help.

This is all about rebuilding trust. When classes have been through rough waters with a teacher, trust will need to be repaired. Tell them that despite past troubles you care about them and their achievements, and that you are committed to building positive relationships. Be prepared to tell them the same thing again and again. Some classes will need to hear you say this repeatedly over a long period. For those students who have learned to mistrust adults outside school this is particularly important. Building trust will sustain your authority far better than punishment ever can.

It is worth noting that most teachers who find themselves in difficulty realise that they have let things slip over time. Inconsistencies have eaten away at relationships with students and the climate in the classroom. Sticks and sanctions were delivered with too much emotion, carrots of recognition lay unpicked and withered. The solution to regaining your authority lies in your ability to pull out of this cycle of sanctions and punishment by shamelessly and enthusiastically recognising and celebrating the learning attitudes that you want to see - in every lesson, on every day.

It is useful when rebuilding your authority to give the process some structure with a 30-day plan. Within this period, be consistent and predictable: make sure that your words match your actions; communicate accurately, openly and transparently; and share and delegate responsibility for classroom tasks. It is important to nurture a common identity for the class and create a sense of unity but, most of all, to focus on a single, identifiable learning attitude that you intend to acknowledge whenever you see it.

Digging your way out of the hole is going to be hard work. You need the energy of the hare and the dogged persistence of the tortoise in equal measure. But rest assured, there is a way back if you are willing to take the time, and to be humble enough, to work at it.

Paul Dix is lead trainer at UK training company Pivotal Education and author of The Essential Guide to Taking Care of Behaviour

In short


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