Friday, 10 April 2015

Dealing with behaviour issues - a guide for new teachers

I bet you don’t feel like a teacher yet, do you? No. You feel like a fraud. It’s as if the pilot just fainted and someone put the joystick in your hands. You’re wondering when a grown-up will be back to take the class. Well, buster, the grown-up is you. Their lives are in your hands. Suddenly, life is no longer a training exercise; suddenly, you are live, on air.
But what if they don’t do what you want them to? Because they won’t, I promise. Unless you possess the telepathic glamour of Professor X – and I will assume you don’t – then they will, however biddable, resist your intentions.
It’s terrifying, I know. You’re inhuman if you tacitly assume that they will tap dance to your command. Most new teachers I know could barely give a flying fig about whether they know enough about the topic. What they care about is behaviour. And they should; because good behaviour is intrinsic to good learning.
Believe me, a well-planned lesson is useful, but it is not the way to guarantee good behaviour. It helps, but so does a deep voice. It’s a tool, but it isn't the power drill. Almost without doubt, you’ll experience misbehaviour.
Children misbehave because they are children; because they can; because they, like any human, want to pursue their own interests, not other people’s. If you think the default sentiment of humanity is altruism and mutual cooperation, then I have some real estate on the Moon I would like to sell you. What most children want doesn't involve sitting at desks, learning maths, or practising verbs and vowel sounds.
But the fact that they would rather be doing something else doesn't mean you’re a failure; it doesn't mean you’re weak or pathetic; it just means that you’re going to have to get them into your habits, not theirs. And that takes time.
Remember that although some of them will come from backgrounds that have gifted them an impeccable sense of socialisation, many others will be less obedient. Their family home may be unstructured; they may compete for affection and attention; they may have learned survival habits at home that are positively peculiar when they come into the more rigid maze of your lessons. So don’t assume they’ll comply; don’t assume deference; don’t assume anything, except that you have a job to do.

What behaviours can I expect?

Some of your children will be natural teacher-pleasers. You’ll spot them in about two minutes; they devote themselves to anticipating and meeting your every demand, and for a moment you imagine that this teaching lark is a cinch. Be warned; if you get a full hand of these Jacks and Jills you are fortunate indeed. Most decks come with a few jokers. And it only takes a few for the teaching experience to become very tricky. One egotistical time bomb can sink your ship for a lesson or a day. But mostly, the real troublemakers are few and far between, and the class will probably follow a bell curve of compliance.
Here is some wisdom; you’ll get to know the names of the naughty kids in about five minutes flat. And you know what? That’s exactly what they want. Most kids who misbehave are looking for fun and attention and often don’t care what the source of either is. It doesn't make them devils, merely childish and selfish, which is to some extent the natural inclination of the human spirit.
The most common type of misbehaviour is what is often referred to as “low-level” misbehaviour which makes it sound relatively harmless, until you realise that it is kryptonite for your lesson because it’s the kind of misbehaviour that doesn’t justify the riot squad, but is just enough to keep them in your room.
It’s low level in the sense that a river running over a slab of granite is low level, until eventually it cuts it in half with persistence. It’s whispering, humming, chair rocking, pen tapping, turning around, arriving a few minutes late, throwing a pen at someone...this is what you’ll face. To an outsider it sounds like nothing; to the insider, it’s Chinese water torture. Make no mistake; ignore this, and your lessons will crumble.
Far more unlikely, yet looming large in the average new teacher’s nightmares, is high-level disruption, ranging from a rolling scrap to actual confrontation. Chair chucking is rare, but it’s like being struck by lightning – unlikely on a given day in mainstream schools (in special schools it can be common), but terrifying when it rains and you’re on the roof fixing the aerial.

Mistakes you mustn’t make

For God’s sake, don’t try to be too pally with them. The whole “Don’t smile until Christmas” thing has become dogma, but I assure you it is wisdom. Of course you can smile; it isn't a catalyst for mayhem. But take it slowly. Kids want to know many things about you, but high on their list is: “Is he/she strict?” If they decide in five minutes that you’re not, then good luck to you, and you certainly won’t be smiling before Christmas, you’ll be weeping. Don’t forget to set out your rules and boundaries. Don’t assume that they know how to behave; they probably do, but they need to see that you do too. Remember, they’re testing your boundaries as well.

How do I show them who’s boss?

Act like one. Be prepared for teaching: a tidy room; resources prepared; smart appearance; lesson ready for them as they walk in. Be on the door; make eye contact with them as they enter and say Good Morning, but don’t smile. Not yet. Resist the temptation to answer their questions; merely indicate that they should go to the back. When they are all in, get them quiet and then give them a seating plan. They will fuss and moan, but this is nothing to you. Get them into their seats, because that means you can learn who they are. Like demonology, naming gives you power.
Then – and I assure you this is wise – spend a good amount of time introducing yourself and telling them what the rules are. Don’t negotiate with them; don’t ask what rules they think would be wise. This doesn't get you buy-in; it merely shows them that you’re open to persuasion. Why should you? I know what the rules of the room should be because I'm an adult, and so are you. So tell them what you want. You can find a good set of basic rules on my resource list on TES Resources.
Tell them what the consequences of meeting and breaking the boundaries are. And make sure you tell the truth. Don’t shy away from talking about detentions, calling home, losing “golden time”, whatever. Go in hard in the first few days and you will reap the benefits later on. Don’t do it, and you’ll spend the rest of the year persuading them that you’d like them to behave. In the first meeting, I tell kids I care deeply about them; so much so that I'm prepared to police their behaviour with vigour. My room, my rules. If you’re uncomfortable with that then get used to it, because it’s essential to the job.

Learn the school behaviour policy

Don’t be afraid to get help, because that’s how we become mighty. The kids aren't master criminals and all but the most adamantine will succumb to being worn down. But you must be persistent. This is the magic ingredient. Don’t give a few detentions and think “it isn't working”. It just hasn't worked yet. We play the long game. We’re here to change their lives. That doesn't happen in a day or a week. Sometimes it takes months and years of dedication, guts, mindless repetition and fraught hours of confrontation and stress. But it’s worth it. So are you. And so are they.

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