Zen and the art of behaviour management

20th March 2015 at 00:00
The path to teaching enlightenment is a long one and is littered with disobedience and detentions. But nirvana can be reached

Had some bad behaviour days lately? Are there times when teaching is more like attrition than education? Have there been moments when it feels like your students are more in control of the class than you are? If so, it may be time to seek a karma way to educate.

Meditate on this

It is lunchtime and Ms Zen is clearly on a higher mental plane than either Mr Fierce or Mrs Wavering. See how she nibbles her guacamole and vegetable wrap with the quiet calm of someone who has had a relaxed morning? That's because she's not had several run-ins with Ryan, dealt with a zillion petty arguments between Charlize and Roxanne or failed to teach most of her class how to compare fractions using lt;, gt; or = symbols.

Unfortunately, Mr Fierce has suffered all of the above and more. And to make matters worse, he has just burned his mouth on the remains of last night's pasta supper that he left too long in the microwave and which now has the texture of rubber and the taste intensity of napalm. Could life be any worse if he suddenly found himself reincarnated as a cockroach? The answer is yes, because he could be Mrs Wavering, who is currently frazzled, worn out and destined to miss lunch altogether.

Sun Tzu and the art of war

There are times when a classroom ends up feeling more like a battleground than a learning environment. Confrontation surrounds us and teaching becomes a bitter, protracted and exhausting process.

The wounds caused by unresolved issues fester and refuse to heal, and post-traumatic school disorder makes a good night's sleep almost impossible.

At such times we are left with two choices. Either we follow in the way of the great Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu and immerse ourselves in the art of war, or we assume the lotus position, close our eyes, breathe slowly and prepare to be enlightened in the subtle art of behaviour management.

Turn away from the path of the warrior

Mr Fierce casts a long shadow over his classroom. He has the loudest voice and makes the darkest threats. His philosophy is "do unto students before they do it unto you".

He is one of the teachers who choose the dark path that leads to tyranny. They are driven there by a morbid fear of losing control. He knows there are difficult children out there who will present challenging behaviour; they must be defeated at all costs, even if it means bullying them into submission. But will going into battle with children ever succeed in securing a lasting classroom peace?

The armour of the warrior teacher is but an illusion. It is no more protective of his dignity and authority than the emperor's new clothes. And when it comes to spotting and exploiting embarrassing weaknesses in adults, nobody does it better than children.

Avoid the road of indecision

Mrs Wavering is instinctively a pacifist. She resists the ways of Mr Fierce in favour of democratic freedom, protracted negotiation and the right to protest - and spends most of her lunchtimes dealing with the consequences of such a philosophy. That is why her cheese sandwich is still in the fridge at half-past three.

Mrs Wavering has taken the road of indecision. She asks children to do things but does not insist on it. She cajoles, pleads and occasionally begs for compliance, redrawing lines in the ever-shifting sand. She changes her mind more than some people change energy suppliers and her threats dissolve every time a child promises not to do it again.

Mrs Wavering is lost and alone in the wilderness. She sets out time and again in the vague direction of hope but cannot forge a path to the sunlit uplands of a well-behaved class.

Take the way of cunning assertiveness

To succeed in the art of behaviour management, Mr Fierce and Mrs Wavering should follow in the way of Ms Zen and learn the mantra of cunning assertiveness by heart:

l I will be assertive and insist that children comply with my instructions.

l I will establish clear expectations of behaviour and reinforce them regularly.

l I will never ignore bad behaviour in the forlorn hope that it will go away.

l I will remain calm at all times and use a severe tone only when necessary.

Repeating the above creed several times daily and meditating upon its teachings is essential. Only by doing this will it become established in philosophy and practice; only by this path will the lunchtimes of Mr Fierce and Mrs Wavering become almost as calm Ms Zen's. I say almost, because she's been out of class all morning on a behaviour management course.

Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield

What else?

Use these visual reminder cards to reinforce classroom rules.


Follow Paul Dix's expert behaviour tips for a calm classroom.


Remind pupils about appropriate noise levels with this traffic light guide to what's acceptable.


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