The secret to behaviour is that there is no secret

1st July 2016 at 00:00

I taught for my first three years in conditions that I can only describe as suboptimal. My 40 days in the desert were extended term after term as I struggled with the behaviour of my classes. Some were a gift, while others were a gauntlet.

My experiences were no more or less extraordinary than those of many teachers, which is to say I drowned from 9am until 3am every day. But because I was an idiot, or just new (delete as appropriate), I kept most of my troubles to myself, scared of being seen as a bad teacher. Meanwhile, in my private hell, children ran around me like I was a maypole.

Being charitable, older me now looks back at slightly younger me with sympathy rather than judgement (although there’s been plenty of that). I didn’t know what I didn’t know. The expectation that you will pick up behaviour management as you go along is not uncommon among the teaching profession and is one of our most significant weaknesses.

Now, I realise that behaviour management is something that can be transmitted from one teacher to another, albeit with heavy components of coaching and reflection. It is, at heart, a practical matter, not something that can be gleaned from a lecture or behaviour book alone. It is quite like riding a bike: the parts can be named, and practice can be guided by a more expert mentor, but no one can fall off, wobble, get up and try again apart from you.

What it isn’t is some magical Jedi mind trick. Nor is it lightning in a bottle, mysterious and magical, and impossible to unpack or explain. It’s closer to a book of spells: there is always an element of the mysterious about it, and there are forces you cannot quite control perfectly. But there are also incantations and gestures that can – and must – be taught in order for our system of teacher training to consider itself a professional one in any sense.

And what it definitely isn’t is a series of tricks. When I was howling in the crucible of my infant career, I turned in desperation and perfect ignorance to any witch doctor or seller of magic beans who lay within my view. I read every book I could find that promised calm classes, and dynamic-yet-peaceful pupils brimming with zeal but capable of sitting still with a text for long periods. I spent years lurching from one strategy to the next, never quite understanding why sometimes my classes put their shoulders to the wheel of learning, and other days rebelled against it, or me, or education, or the system, or God and every edict ever.

As I struggled, some wisdom started to emerge. The first thing was that students appreciate and respect rooms and relationships based on peace, order and trust, and that in order to achieve this in any way they need consistency, and they need to know that you are reliable. Children need to know that certain things will be done the same way every day.

Whether that’s lining up, or how to construct an argument, or how they enter a room or transition from one activity to the next. Routine is the vertebrae from which the flesh of learning hangs.

And that wasn’t a sexy discovery, but it was a powerful one. Better, it was a useful one. Children don’t look to you for surprise or uncertainty. They need you to be there for them. They need to learn to trust you. They need your help to inculcate the practical magic of good habits. And I wish I’d known that on day one.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71

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