Negative pupil attitudes

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Behaviour management expert Sue Cowley advises on how to keep an even keel in choppy waters


"The general consensus among pupils is that it's uncool to be good at school work"

Throughout my training I loved teaching. I could teach using starters, individualised activities for different learning styles, and plenaries. The pupils enjoyed the lessons (they told me and said they didn't want me to leave) and I got immense satisfaction from seeing them learn.

I'm finding this difficult to repeat at my current school. I'm beginning to feel that I'm regressing as a teacher and that I am unable to teach good lessons.

Any attempt at a starter that is not a bog standard question and answer session leads to chaos, with pupils throwing flashcards around, ripping up crosswords and tearing pages from their books. They have no respect for resources or for the classroom environment, yet they complain that the school is run-down and lessons are dull.

My department has had a tough time over the past couple of years. We inherited schemes of work that are not differentiated appropriately. We don't have the resources that I'm used to teaching with, such as interactive whiteboards, ICT access, enough textbooks per pupil.

The pupils have reading ages from six to 16. They are not used to differentiated learning and question individualised learning. If one pupil is doing an "easier" task, they feel that they should be allowed to do the same, and then muck around when I refuse to allow this. When I challenge their behaviour and lack of work, they question my teaching and start arguing back.

I have given numerous detentions and written many incident reports, but the same things occur each lesson by the same pupils. Senior management get called out to the same classes each week. I have tried many different strategies: rewarding good behaviour, golden time at end of lessons, treats at the end of term, merits and praise. The general consensus among pupils is that it's uncool to be good at school work so these strategies fail miserably.

For a substantial amount of time last year, there was no subject specialist for citizenship. I am the only one in the school. Cover and supply staff taught many lessons. As a result, pupils have little or no respect for the subject and treat it as a "doss" lesson. It doesn't help that citizenship is only half a GCSE and, therefore, pupils only feel they need put in half the effort.

I've always believed that in citizenship, pupils need ownership of their learning environment. I've been trying to achieve this by using fundraising, peer mentoring and so on. This is working with some older pupils, but the majority are very cynical and therefore play up each lesson.

How do I get through this apathy and deal with the behavioural issues?

Louise Sutcliffe teaches citizenship at a secondary school in Hillingdon


"Retain your belief that all children matter despite their attempts to push you away"

With behaviour, there is no magic wand, no simple answer that will solve all your problems. Getting it right is a complex and long-term business.

As a student, Louise was fortunate to experience positive learning environments. Now she's seeing the other side of the coin. Poor pupil attitudes and a negative ethos can pervade a school, making life difficult for teachers and for those children who want to work. Even for experienced staff, it can be hard not to give in to cynicism.

It's tempting to blame the children for their negative attitudes, but what these really reflect is a poor school ethos. This might be caused by a range of factors: an ineffective management team (past or present); a run-down school environment; a tricky mix of children; the loss of key members of staff. Once negative attitudes take hold, it is hard to swim against the tide. Schools get stuck in a vicious cycle: behaviour is poor, the teachers struggle, there is a high staff turnover, and consequently the pupils never build up trust in their teachers.

The difficulties Louise faces now will improve her classroom management skills for the future. She might ask to observe successful teachers at the school - those who are able to overcome negative pupil attitudes. Seeing others cope with tricky behaviour can be instructive and will give Louise a sense of perspective about what she can achieve given time. If she sticks it out, the children will build up respect for her. She will be able to "train up" the younger pupils so that each year group becomes easier to manage as they move up the school.

Louise is finding it tough going, and she's convinced that her strategies have failed. The reality is that positive approaches will work, but it takes time. Stay focused on the positive: at least some of the children will be trying hard. Be persistent: stick at it when times get tough, and accept that the results might not be immediately apparent.

It's a good sign that senior management are supportive and willing to come into lessons. Louise should also find lots of ways to get to know the children outside the negative ethos of the classroom. If she has time to involve herself in some extra-curricular activities this will help build positive relationships with the pupils in an informal setting.

With a relatively new subject such as citizenship, Louise has the chance to make her mark. She can be responsible for creating innovative schemes of work and helping build a department from scratch. Some time spent on updating those schemes of work to incorporate differentiation and a range of learning styles will pay dividends in the long run.

There is the option of leaving. The end of your NQT year is not the best time to move, but be realistic about what you want from your job. Some people will decide to jump ship in the hopes of finding a better boat on which to sail. Others will stick it out for a while, plugging the holes as best they can. And a few will decide to stick around in the hopes that they might help rebuild the ship.

Sticking it out at a "tough" school has some advantages. You'll develop top quality classroom management skills. With a high turnover of staff, you may be offered promotion at a relatively early stage. Be clear about what you're worth to the school - if they want to hold onto you (and they will if you're an effective teacher), then insist that you get recognition for your work. Above all, retain your belief that all children matter despite their attempts to push you away. At the end of the day, that's what teaching is about.

Sue Cowley is author of "Getting the Buggers to Behave" (Continuum)

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