'You're reckless' 'No, I'm stimulating'

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Even the experts cannot agree about the best way to control your class. So 'The TES' sat two of them down to thrash out what works and what doesn't. Dorothy Lepkowska acted as referee

He has described her advice as "a dangerous cocktail of useful and harmful hints". She says she is just "a teacher with a few good ideas" that she wants to share. You might have thought that, if Paul Blum and Sue Cowley agree on anything, it is that being a new teacher in a difficult school can be a nightmare. But once they got talking over lunch, they found, to their surprise, that they actually agreed on rather more than that.

Blum is the deputy head of an inner London secondary and an author on classroom management. He has expressed misgivings about the guidance given to new teachers in Cowley's book, Getting the Buggers to Behave. She also reveals where she is coming from in her TES column, "Things I wish I'd known", in Friday magazine.

Blum has taught in several challenging London schools during a career spanning almost 20 years, and has described many of Cowley's theories as "reckless and confrontational" and some of her comments about how to deal with disruptive classes as "facetious". He says: "A lot of what Sue Cowley says is spot on, but if you come at it from an inner-city perspective then some of it would be very difficult for a new teacher to carry out and may in fact lead them into far worse problems."

His book, Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms, which was published in 1998, is particularly concerned that new teachers and supply staff could lose control of a class. And he dismisses Cowley's suggestions that teachers should "wait for silence" before starting a lesson.

He says: "This might be potentially good advice for the seasoned, gritty professional. But, in effect, it punishes the children who are there to work and are paying attention because it eats into their time. Instead of waiting for the class to be silent, it isbetter to give them cues, for example, to get them interested and working on something."

Cowley believes that teachers, however young and inexperienced, have a right to expect good behaviour. She trained as a primary teacher, but has also taught in secondary schools. She began her career in London but now lives in the South West, where she writes and lectures on classroom management, interspersed with supply work.

She advocates waiting for silence because no teacher, however experienced, should have to shout to get a class's attention.

"At any point in my career, my expectation always was that they should be silent, and that applied to even the most difficult classes," says Cowley.

"No one should have to shout, 'Be quiet. I need to talk to you.' They need to use other strategies too.

"When I was newly qualified, I had a class I knew I could not get to be silent. But I also knew that most children wanted to learn. So I said to them: 'Right. If you want to learn, come to the front.' There were three kids left at the back, so I ignored them. Eventually, in the hour I had with them, I managed to get them all working because the ones at the back realised they were missing out."

Blum's answer to this point is that, far from waiting for silence, Cowley had actually used a strategy for regaining control. Both agree that, while gaining silence and pupil's attention is crucial, it is also one of the most difficult aspects of class management.

Cowley's preoccupation with discipline stems from her own school experience, the feeling that the behaviour of other children - and teachers' inability to deal with it - denied her the education she felt entitled to.

"I can remember how, in many lessons, the teachers simply couldn't teach," she says. "I sat in a corner trying to get on with my work and ignoring what was happening because of the disruption. I felt cheated because it seemed the teacher wasn't delivering the lesson."

She says the most effective way of reining in an ill-disciplined class is to deliver a stimulating lesson. "My philosophy is that you have to engage them. Even in my most nightmare classes I try to deliver interesting lessons. This is particularly important for a new teacher because pupils talk and situations can quickly escalate.

"Sometimes, however hard it is, you just have to deliver rather than whacking a worksheet in front of them. Kids talk to each other. Hopefully word will get out that actually your lessons are interesting and engaging."

Blum believes that, although students should not be allowed to step out of line, teachers should be prepared to compromise and recognise when a child is willing to co-operate. This might mean giving rewards to well-behaved children or allowing badly behaved youngsters the chance to redeem themselves by reinstating treats in return for improved discipline.

"You have to get across to them exactly what you expect," he says. "Your maxim has to be, 'I've started so I'll finish'. If pupils get disruptive while you are taking the register, forcing you to stop, then they have won."

Blum argues that teachers should not start children on a task before they are engaged. "However they duck and dive to achieve that, it must be in the spirit of no compromise," he says. But he also believes that discipline by itself is not enough: that when you get a chance for some clear and quiet time, you must have something interesting to fill it with. "Sometimes you might have enough silence to tell them something they will find vaguely interesting."

So both are agreed. What promotes good behaviour is high expectations by teachers that their pupils will behave, and a realisation by teachers that they have to engage their classes. Now, what was it they disagreed about so strongly?


1 Wait for silence Never address a class until everyone is listening and paying attention.

2 Stay calm It's tough, but essential. You'll deal much better with bad behaviour. Getting angry and shouting simply demonstrates that the students can wind you up, which gives them an incentive for further misbehaviour.

3 Focus on the positive It's tempting to become negative when faced with poor behaviour. Focus on what's going right, and on those children who are doing what you want.

4 Engage them Children are less likely to think about misbehaving when they are involved in learning. Devise lesson ideas that will grab the class's attention. (This doesn't have to be all the time, just enough to get yourself a reputation for giving interesting and enjoyable lessons.) 5 Use non-verbal signals Communicate with your class using your face, your body, the space, different levels, and so on. This will help you demonstrate a high level of control, and it will save your voice.

6 Give them "the choice" Put behaviour in your children's hands. It's up to them - they either do what you say, or they choose to suffer the consequences.

7 Use humour The teacher who makes things fun, and who can laugh when things go wrong, will get the children "on side" and encourage them to behave better.

8 Expect the best Be surprised rather than angry if a student doesn't fulfil your expectations. If we only expect our children to be what they already are, then that's all we'll ever get.

9 Put yourself in their shoes See things from your children's point of view. When things are going wrong, or if the class isn't appreciating your efforts, try to see why.

10 Keep a perspective Always keep the following in mind: "Even in my worst lesson, nobody died."


1 Be prepared You should even lay out the class to suit the pupils you will be teaching, as well as ensuring you know what you will teach.

2 Establish a clear routine The pupils should know what is expected of them every time they enter the classroom, in terms of behaviour and how they should approach their work.

3 Use a cue to gain attention If you wait for silence you could be waiting some time.

4 Try to relax If the pupils pick up that you are anxious or worried they will probably play on it and you could lose the whole class.

5 Have a system of reward to acknowledge those who behave and do their work, and to show others what's acceptable and expected.

6 Be clear about who is in charge Always give clear instructions so there is no ambiguity.

7 Use clear sanctions with warnings There is no point in going straight to the ultimate punishment of suspension or exclusion. Early warnings should include letters home to parents so that pupils know that poor discipline won't be tolerated.

8 Make sure the lesson has clear aims Give children tasks they are expected to complete within the lesson time to keep them focused and so they know exactly what the objectives of the lesson are.

9 Move around the room and check that every pupil is working Show children that they are being observed and that you will check to ensure they understand what they should be doing.

10 Be flexible and responsive Try to see every point of view if there is a dispute during the lesson and be prepared to deviate slightly from what you are trying to teach if it means engaging everyone.

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