The three Rs of classroom control
A new teacher is trying to teach history to an unruly secondary class. "Sir, 'ave you been teaching long?" one of the boys calls out. "No, as a matter of fact, I haven't," he replies. "I didn't think so," the lad continues, "You're letting them girls get away with too much."
Shortly afterwards the lesson erupts. "Annette Furman, go out of the room," the teacher shouts, trying for the umpteenth time to restore order. She protests that she is not the only one talking, so he threatens to keep the whole class in after school.
At this every pupil in the class bangs desk lids and sings: "Why are we waiting?" in unison. The door opens. In walks a senior teacher, bellowing:
"What's all this noise, eh?" He notices the hapless new teacher standing at the front of the class. "I'm sorry Mr Knowles," he continues, "I didn't realise there was a teacher in the classroom."
A real-life event one wet Friday afternoon? No, it is actually a scene from the television series Grange Hill. I always show it to student teachers just before they go on teaching practice, because losing control is every newcomer's nightmare. Yet it happens far less frequently than people fear.
The episode of Grange Hill is well acted and skilfully filmed, but not quite true to life. I have taught and watched lessons all over the world, in New York, Boston, Hong Kong, Munich, as well as in Liverpool, London, Birmingham and Manchester. I have never seen a lesson go from orderliness to a riot in a couple of minutes, nor have I ever witnessed every single pupil in a class misbehaving so badly at the same time.
In real classrooms, unruliness tends to build up when teachers fail to nip trouble in the bud. Even in badly behaved classes there are usually several children sitting quietly, often wishing the teacher would restore order so they could learn something.
Management in schools is not just something done by senior people. Even student teachers and NQTs have to manage resources (such as books and equipment), time (deciding how long an activity should last) and space (who does what and where), as well as determine their own teaching strategies. It is the management of children's behaviour, however, that often causes greatest concern.
The evidence from observation studies over many years is very clear. The analysis of disruptive behaviour in more than 1,000 lessons in primary and secondary schools shows that the biggest single category of misbehaviour is not rioting or physical violence; it is noisy chatter. Children simply talk too loudly to each other, often about social rather than academic matters.
The next most common "crimes" are illicit movement (such as walking around without permission), inappropriate use of materials or equipment, and defiance, usually in the form of an objection to a teacher's decision or command. More serious misbehaviour, such as physical violence towards another pupil or insulting the teacher, occurs in less than 2 per cent of the disruptions observed.
Most classes are orderly. In the relatively small number where there is disruption, the level of noise will usually build up over time. The teacher then announces, "There's too much noise, quieten it down." The noise lessens and then increases again, and this pattern is repeated.
So how do most teachers manage to avoid unruliness? The answer is the three Rs - relationships, rules and readiness. Where relationships between teacher and pupils and between the children themselves are good, there is usually little or no bother. Teachers in orderly classes have often worked hard in September to establish a positive climate. Later in the year it may look effortless, but it was usually hard-earned.
Classroom rules are many and varied. Sometimes it is worth sitting down with a class at the beginning of the year and drawing up a code of conduct that all agree would help learning. Children have no difficulty suggesting a commonsense code - no calling out, put up your hand if you want to say something, don't interrupt, no running or pushing, especially in workshops and laboratories.
These need to be two-way contracts, however. If children sit with their hands in the air too long, they lose patience and may wander over to the teacher. The rule not to leave your seat without permission will work only if teachers are vigilant and spot pupils needing help. Consistency is the key. Research shows that teachers who have problems are often inconsistent, so pupils continuously have to test the limits to define the rules - to discover what they may or may not do.
The third R, readiness, requires teachers to anticipate problems and make sure they have prepared thoroughly, so that the task or activity is appropriate to the pupils concerned: not so simple as to be tedious, not so complex as to be baffling.
A perfect match is an ideal not easy to obtain. Skilful class managers, however, are good at differentiating, helping slower children when they need it, extending those who find the task easy. One inspiring primary teacher who was observed would mouth words to help a poor reader make an intelligent guess, but she also encouraged a good reader to take home several books at half term.
So is life in a modern school too tough for new teachers? What about that school where the pupils wanted to go to a concert and the head refused to let them go? They barricaded themselves in the building and the army had to be brought in to get them out. Then there was that dreadful case of the boys who blew the door off the head's study with gunpowder.
You haven't read about them? That may be because it was Winchester School in 1818 and Rugby School in 1797.
Ted Wragg is professor of education at the University of Exeter, and a regular columnist on the back page of The Times Educational Supplement. He also writes teaching notes on The Big Picture, a weekly teaching resource in TESFriday magazine