When it all goes wrong: 6 tell-tale signs you have lost control

One teacher-writer recounts the catastrophic attempts at trying – and failing – to maintain class control, and argues for greater genuine support in schools

Thomas Rogers

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1. You send a child out – just out

I’ve done this a number of times; if you haven’t, you are doing well. A child enters your lesson with no intention of learning or showing you no modicum of respect. Instead of going through a series of sanctions and warnings, set down by some whole-school behaviour policy, you shout “Get out” with all the gusto you can muster. If he or she moves, you are lucky. You can leave them outside for five minutes while you figure out your next move.

If they won’t move, you have to call for a colleague or SLT and explain why you didn’t go through the normal sanctions system without saying, “I just wanted to get rid of this child without going through the normal sanctions system.”

Oh, another danger with this one, and I’ve done this before too; sending the child out and then forgetting about them. Thirty minutes later, a child in the class politely reminds you that their peer is still outside. Acting as though that was all part of the plan, you nonchalantly wander towards the door.

2. You threaten them with copying out

You know silent copying isn’t learning and you would like to think you would never do it. But sometimes, it’s just easier to control 30 non-compliant young people by resorting to one of the oldest tricks in the book. You feel guilty because you know that the minority who want to get on with things are also subjected to this tedium, but your ability to single out the ringleaders suddenly becomes a lot easier. Nevertheless, you end the lesson feeling like a failure, knowing that you weren’t able to control them in any other way.

3. You blow up

It's 10 minutes into a lesson and literally no one is listening to a word you are saying from your carefully illustrated PowerPoint presentation and accompanying resource. You feel lost, frustrated and alone. You fall back on your old friend: the hysterical rant at the class.

You slam the board duster on a desk and shout as loud as you can: “This is not acceptable!” One of two things happens. One: the children are shocked into a stony silence. You can’t hear a pin drop. You lambast them for a solid five minutes and then tell them to get on with the work. Very gradually, noise levels go up, the sniggering starts again and the realisation that the joker in your pack has caused little more than a temporary ripple dawns on you. Now, you might resort to seeking a colleague.

Or, two: the initial shock factor of your opening salvo fades so fast that one student says “Calm down”, to which the rest of the class start sniggering. You turn your attention to that child and in so doing, don’t see one of the students throwing a banana skin at another, who now complains loudly about this infringement that you failed to see. Meanwhile, conversations break out about all sorts as your theatrical villain piece is dismantled. Your cheeks are now red, the class are still ignoring you and you feel so small, it genuinely hurts.

4. You use the warning system like a machine gun

The wild soldier, suffering from shell-shock, wielding an AK47, firing it frantically in all directions with the thousand-yard stare on his face. That’s you as you recite the warning system at various children like a version of the Hail Mary. “First warning, second warning,” you say to one student. “Second warning,” you say to another. “Third warning,” to another. All the while, you’re relying on your power of memory to remember who has warnings and who doesn’t. Within minutes, students are arguing the toss over how many warnings they're on.

While trying to maintain your veneer of control and surety, you proclaim “you have two” before realising you may have mistaken this particular student for their twin sister, sat adjacent to them. Staring at the two children, you wonder if you are seeing double or you have just cocked up. Either way, now that nearly everyone in the class has accumulated at least one warning and you have no record of their indiscretions to hand, you are lost in no man’s land, with no distinction between enemies and friends, and no ammunition left in the chamber.

5. You issue a whole-class detention

“Right, you’re all staying behind at the end.” I did this, once, back in 2009. I won’t forget it, because a parent came in to make a complaint on behalf of their daughter because she had to pick some crayons up off the floor having done nothing wrong. I knew said parent was right. It was a hard lesson, and one I didn’t repeat again. However, the allure of the whole-class sanction is like being George Bush with the little red button shimmering on your desk saying “push me”. The temptation is always there to just place the punishment blanket over the whole class. The consequences are never good in the short term, or long.

6. Mr Nice Guy

In a desperate attempt to be respected, you hatch an ill-conceived plan to make the children like you. “Can I go to the toilet sir?” is met with “Certainly”. “Can I sit next to my friend over there? (the one chewing gum and swinging on their chair) is met with “Absolutely – as long as you promise to work”. You smile reassuringly.

As requests become more and more ridiculous, you wander around the class, becoming a sycophantic slave to those whose influence you feel you need to win; the naughty kids. Everyone else takes a back seat as you pander to their every need and want, asking them if they need help every couple of minutes while they successfully engage you in conversations about anything other than the work for the majority of the lesson.

Soon, your presence resembles background noise – it's as if you don’t exist. Your desire to be liked and avoid conflict has created a monster as children start to take the mick. Suddenly, your attention turns to the clock on the wall, as you count down the minutes until the bell rings and pray that nothing bad happens in the meantime because you sure as hell aren’t going to stop it.

I will freely admit, these scenarios aren’t foreign to me personally. I would beat myself up over much less, so when they played out, you can imagine the stress.

I can giggle now, but the serious story is that thousands of teachers are the “you” in this story, day after day, week after week. Whether its because they have particularly tough classes, they have little support from anyone or they just don’t know what they are doing because no one has told them how, this is the reality for many. It shouldn’t be. Rather than judge or pity, support should be real, genuine and swift. 

Thomas Rogers runs rogershistory.com and tweets at @RogersHistory

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Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is a history teacher

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