'Why are we so bad at teaching teachers to manage behaviour?'

Classroom craft, behaviour management, or simply running a room - whatever you call it, we're terrible at training NQTs in it. But if we get it right, it will be education's magic bullet, argues the government's behaviour tsar

Tom Bennett

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You wouldn’t teach someone to fly by boosting them out of the cargo hatch of a Hercules and shouting something about your arms. You wouldn’t hope the pilot was learning how to fly the thing for the first time, mid-flight.

But, this is how many new teachers are supposed to pick up one of the most vital skills they will ever need to possess: classroom management.  

Some people call it behaviour management; I call it the craft of the classroom (after Marland’s out-of-print masterpiece) or just running a room.

The art, science and craft of directing the behaviour of twenty five children to work in ways that optimise learning and provide stability, calm and security for an environment that can easily tip into turbulence. It’s crucial to the success of the pupils, the sanity of the teacher, and the return on the investment of time, love and wisdom that teaching systems represent.

If the class is chaotic, not only is teaching time reduced by fire-fighting, but the quality of teaching drops off a chalky cliff, as complex, cooperative tasks become impossible in the choppy waters of disruption.

Good behaviour doesn’t just mean ‘not misbehaving’, although it also means that. Good behaviour is, simply put, when we act in a way that promotes our educational and social flourishing, within a community. 

Non-existent training 

I’ve been in scores and scores of schools and unis across the UK, and seen a lot of teacher training; as part of my ITT reform brief with the DfE we reached out to many providers to find out how behaviour management was being trained. My own training had been next to non-existent- a one hour lecture followed by a cheery ‘Good luck,’ and the hope that we would pick it up as we went along. I didn’t.

Sadly, I saw that this wasn’t an isolated case. I already knew this, from years working on the TES behaviour forum page as an online advisor. But the reality still horrifies me. 

Many teacher training institutions, both HE and school based, offer a reasonable core training in running a room; some even offer a good grounding. But many still leave it to chance, and some even train in such a way that would make a teacher less capable of running a room, not more. Nationally that’s a disgrace. This is one of the most vital things a teacher can do; its not some optional extra, needed only by teachers destined for PRUs and combat zones. 

Why has this situation emerged? My belief is that behaviour management has fallen out of fashion, as it became associated with authoritarianism and coercion. The liberation model of pedagogy suggests children are natural learners, and their instinct to do so only requires facilitation, not direction. This kind paradigm is instantly dispersed the moment you stand in a real classroom. Children are just like…people; they need persuading for some things, support for others, and challenge to exceed their default levels of effort. They need understanding but also boundaries governed by concern for their well being. To abdicate this responsibility as an adult is to condemn the least able to the least progress; to deter social mobility rather than accelerate it.

Three key aspects 

With the ITT behaviour Working Party, I was asked to come up with a core ITT package that would represent the minimum knowledge and skills that a teacher should be expected to have upon the inception of their career. What we produced was, I think, a great summary of exactly that. We suggested that all teachers should be made aware of three aspects of their craft:

Routines- how to imbed habits of conduct and learning that maximise the good of both, without the need to constantly create them on the spot. This means rules and consequences, but also micro-behaviours like how to scaffold essays, work in groups, or speak to a visitor.

Responses- the strategies that work best to restore order, promote a return to learning, and deal with crises when they occur

Relationships- interpersonal skills, body language, for example, but also the appropriate use of prior data, personal well being, and working with parents, carers etc. 

But this isn’t enough. To be understood in a way that supports implementation, these skills should be trained through practical application: real classrooms, or role plays, or coaching models based on video portfolios. It needs to be taught like this throughout the training period, not as an after-dinner mint. That takes time, and skill bases that some providers don’t have. But I’ve spoken to many providers who are absolutely up for the challenge. 

None of this is compulsory- the DfE accepted the recommendations but stopped short of making them mandatory. What I’d like to see are these core standards gradually adopted by all providers, on the grounds that they are essential, not optional, and that teachers trained in this way will be better teachers. Children will reap the rewards. We all will. This is the investment magic bullet that can transform learning, not unicorns like grammar schools or vouchers or selection. Running a room: the most basic skill we need. That’s how we drive a rising tide to raise all ships. Behaviour.

Tom Bennett is the TES adviser on behavior and author of four books on education. He tweets as @tombennett71  

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