The final few days of term can be an emotional rollercoaster. Predominantly exhaustion tempered with a last-minute reluctance to part with a class you have nurtured since September. This year was different, however. The only emotion I felt at handing this class into someone else’s care was one of deep relief.
Because teaching, this year, has mostly been about behaviour management. I was warned they were a challenging class but the first two days were fine (they always are). As soon as September’s behavioural honeymoon had worn off, the boundaries were tested. After that, it was relentless.
I pulled out all the stops, trying every tactic I knew to get each child on board with my expectations. It didn’t really work. I asked for help. I talked to the senior leadership team. After a while, I asked anyone who would listen. I read books on behaviour, I scoured the internet, I cut out magazine articles and followed numerous behavioural experts online.
Everything I read featured the same narrative arc: take a firm, consistent approach; hold the line; and, provided you apply your approach rigidly, all will be well. It wasn’t.
I tried everything. I went from determined to despondent to waking up at 4am from dreams of children who wouldn’t listen or respond to instructions.
The most senior member of staff recommended I “wow them with lessons so exciting that they forget to misbehave”. I tried hard not to bang my head on their desk. It was incredibly frustrating. I’m an experienced teacher. These were not (on an individual basis) unmanageable children. It was simply a big clash of personalities, a huge gender imbalance and a handful of children who would regularly resort to behaviour that completely transcended the term “low level”. The fact that I didn’t teach them full-time probably didn’t help either.
Feedback from lesson observations was good but I knew it was fraudulent: the class were quite capable of sustaining good learning behaviour for the duration of an observer’s visit. I started to doubt myself. How had I managed to teach for so many years without any significant behavioural issues? Had I lost the ability or had I just been propped up by other staff?
“It’s not you,” said a colleague. “When I taught that class, I seriously thought about quitting teaching”. A supply teacher left me a note saying how difficult his day had been. None of this helped. I knew deep down it probably was me. I knew that a better teacher would have worked and worked at it until they got full control. Worse still, I knew I wasn’t giving the really hard-working, well-behaved pupils the lessons they deserved.
Because behaviour trumps everything. When it becomes an issue, everything else you do loses its power. Displays, lesson planning, resources, different teaching techniques – their potency just evaporates.
I’m hoping next year will be easier. If nothing else, it’s been a learning curve. For the record, I can state that no teacher is an island. Also, you should never give behavioural advice unless you’re prepared to come and demonstrate its efficacy with the class in question.
Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym of a primary school teacher in the West Midlands