What keeps me awake at night - Don't make quiet kids carry the can for chaos

3rd January 2014 at 00:00

When I first started my career in teaching, my recurring nightmare was that I was standing in front of a class who were working well when suddenly, and for no discernible reason, pandemonium would erupt. I would stand at the front, wringing my hands and pleading with students to behave in a plaintive voice that they always ignored.

This nightmare almost certainly arose from the experience of my first teaching practice, which was in an inner-city school populated by hardened students who were all much bigger than me. I could never predict when the latest family feud or battle with the neighbours would spill into the classroom, resulting in scenes of carnage and chaos.

It's the same for all new teachers, of course. They rarely voice concerns about their subject knowledge or lesson planning, but their anxieties about disaffected students seem to pepper all their conversations with colleagues in the staffroom.

The trouble with this preoccupation is that it hampers the very thing they are worried about: behaviour management. Three weeks into my first job, I was approached by a cheerful, hard-working student who wanted to know why I told him off if he so much as whispered to his neighbour - while the troublemakers were able to get away with murder.

I immediately recognised the truth of his remark. Because I was so anxious about class management, even the mildest signs of inattention by good students filled me with trepidation. After all, if they were getting restless, what hope of survival did I have against the real mischief-makers? Thus I overreacted, at the same time as playing down my reaction to much worse behaviour in order to avoid confrontation.

Nowadays, with the benefit of experience, I am not afraid to confront the worst behaved if it is necessary to do so. But sometimes, in the early hours of the morning, that young person's remarks come back to me.

Disruptive students are always quick to complain that a teacher is "not fair". The reality, however, is that it is often the quiet, hard-working students who could legitimately claim we are "not fair", because they are robbed of our time and attention by those with the loudest voices and most challenging behaviour.

The writer is an English teacher in the South East of England.

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