The more experience I gain as a teacher, the more clarity I feel about how to deal with tricky student behaviour, and the less impact it has on me personally.
Lots of us have experienced students’ disproportionate rage, surprise aggression, unexplained hostility, often in response to a seemingly benign request. You know the sort of thing. “Can you stop chatting and get on with it, please?” “Put your phone away, please.”
We all know that the real reason for this rage is pretty unlikely to have anything to do with events that have just taken place in the classroom. It’s more likely that the real source of an apparently unprovoked response runs far deeper, or alternatively is a reaction to an unrelated antecedent that has taken place, unbeknown to the teacher.
More on this: No teacher is perfect – so stop beating yourself up
Aggression: an unexplored support need
If you go with that line of thinking, aggression can be perceived as a potentially unexplored support need rather than a disciplinary issue. Rather than asking if the student thinks it’s acceptable to speak to another person in such a way, (it’s almost irrelevant that it’s a teacher who’s on the receiving end), perhaps what we should be asking is, “Are you OK? What can I do to help you?”
I am all for a trauma-informed approach, where it’s recognised that young people may be vulnerable to all manner of complex and traumatising experiences in their day-to-day lives. Where an individual’s disruptive, antagonistic or abusive behaviour flares in a situation that seems like normal classroom stuff to everyone else, it might be a coping strategy or even one of survival. That inclusive approach is not just an edu-buzzword for a more empathetic method of behaviour management – it’s simply being kind.
I truly believe that all of these approaches are the way forward. Obviously, meeting aggression with more of it doesn’t work. Obviously, entering into a war of words with a student is time wasted. Obviously, binning a student from the class because they’ve been a pain in the arse does not make their future self any less of a pain in the arse.
Behaviour: actions and consequences
HOWEVER… How. Ever… My older and far less tolerant self is very clear on what I will not accept. My students know what appropriate boundaries are, whether or not they adhere to them. We all have boundaries. Almost everybody knows what’s OK and what isn’t. If a student raises their voice to me in aggression, if they swear at me, they get a chance to apologise, explain themselves (outside the room, obviously) put it behind us, and move on. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone has bad days.
I’m a fan of forgiveness, of a clean slate, of starting again. Of not taking any of it personally, of knowing it’s not really about me. Of understanding that being a teenager is really, really difficult, for some far more than others. How do I know that I haven’t broached on a subject that has triggered a terrible time for them, or accidentally wandered up some other seemingly harmless but individually distressing avenue?
But if they cross that line a second time, speak to me in a way that I would never dream of speaking to them, or anyone else, that they know is out of order, then it’s “off you pop” time, followed by whatever disciplinary route is specific to the college. I can’t have that behaviour in the room. I’m unwilling to sacrifice the limited learning time I have with a group for the sake of a load of drama surrounding one or two individuals.
I’m not up for spending precious time on incidents that detract and distract from everyone else’s experience. It’s not fair. This stance also demonstrates to the rest of the group that they are safe, that you are leading the room, and that you respect yourself and them enough to be clear about actions and consequences.
And that’s the thing: it’s about being fair, being clear, consistent and following through with what you say you are going to do. Actions and consequences. You’ve got to keep your word. If you don’t have your word, then really, what have you got?
All the places where I’ve worked in recent years have had a supportive behaviour policy, not just supportive of students but of teachers, too. We talk about teacher wellbeing, but what does that mean in terms of managing extreme behaviour? None of us is paid enough to accept being sworn at, or spoken to like we are less than human. If a college policy doesn’t support that, then how much does that college really value its teachers?
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons