In my first year as a secondary school English teacher, behaviour was dreadful. I couldn’t get students to listen to me, follow my instructions or even take me seriously. Pupils seemed to view me as a clownish sort of character, a figure of fun deserving of nothing but ridicule.
Indeed, behaviour is the principal stumbling block for most new teachers. Behaviour is what keeps you up at night, nags away at you on Sunday evenings and draws hard on your energy resources throughout the working day.
Fortunately, getting good behaviour from your students isn’t rocket science. With a bit of organisation and a few strategies, you are guaranteed to make progress with even the toughest class.
1. Wait for silence before you speak.
In my first year as a secondary school teacher, students routinely ignored me. When I asked for their attention, they turned a blind eye. When I addressed the class, they continued their personal conversations. When I asked for an answer, they shouted and yelled.
My lessons were chaotic, and I felt stressed and overwhelmed by the end of each day.
It can be really hard at first, but try to wait for complete silence before addressing your class. Don’t speak a word until every student is quiet and you are confident that you have their full attention. Make sure everybody is looking at you and any distracting noises (humming, murmuring, tapping) have stopped. Be prepared to sanction any student who interrupts you, trying to communicate the message that your speech is sacred, hallowed, protected: it is not to be crossed by anyone.
Waiting for silence will bring a sense of calm to a chaotic environment. It will set a benchmark of respect and help to establish you as the person in command.
2. Have a clear system of consequences.
Behaviour was really bad in my first year because I neglected to enforce clear sanctions against misbehaving students. Students had nothing to fear when they discovered that their misbehaviour would go unpunished.
First, decide which sanctions you would like to use, when you will use them and how they will be carried out. Then, clearly explain your new system to pupils. During lessons, write down the names of misbehaving students on the board, before rigorously applying your sanctions. Try to adopt a pose of quiet confidence and steadfast efficiency, avoiding looking flustered or angry. Sanctions are not about taking vindictive, gleeful revenge against students you dislike. They’re simply the logical result of a failure to abide by rules.
The hardest part of sanctions is consistency. It’s tiring, but you must work really hard to stick with whatever system you adopt. When you’re exhausted, it can sometimes seem easier to let things slide, to let that poorly behaved student miss detention, to not make that phone call home. Unfortunately, your system crumbles as soon as you skip a beat, so you must do everything you can to follow through with any threat that you make. Be the stickler, be the pedant, be the teacher who won’t let anything drop. The sense of security and confidence this brings will certainly make up for the effort.
3. Establish an entry routine.
The start of lessons was always a nightmare with my tough classes. Lacking clear instructions, students would bounce through the door, wander aimlessly around the room and chat loudly to one another. Having failed to lay down any expectations, I would be left flailing, immediately on the back foot, struggling to regain composure. The intense feeling of despair at these scenes is palpable even now. Thankfully, with a bit of attention, it shouldn’t be too hard to tighten up your entry routine and keep the chaos of the corridor outside of your space.
Like with most things in teaching, it’s helpful to have a clear plan about what you want your entry to look like. Do you want students to go straight to their seats? Do you want them to collect books first? Should they write anything down or begin a starter task? Explain to students exactly what you want them to do when they enter your room and what the consequences will be for failing to follow your instructions. A student decides to run over to the wrong side of the room? Name on the board. They nick their mate’s bag and lob it over a desk? It’s a detention now. Establishing clear behavioural expectations will make it much easier to identify and sanction the students who are refusing to play ball.
A strong entry routine helps to establish your room as a safe, calm space. It also makes you feel more secure in those crucial opening moments of a lesson.
4. Embed a clear system of rewards.
Whether it’s an end-of-term certificate, a bit of verbal praise or a tick on the board, rewards can have a dramatic impact on students’ behaviour, attitudes and motivation. They are an essential weapon in your armory and a necessary counterbalance to a strong system of sanctions. Moreover, they allow you to bring a bit of sunshine and light into the darkest of situations.
Raffle tickets worked really well for me, particularly with difficult classes. Each day I would award ticks on the board to students who followed instructions. Students who scored three ticks in a lesson would win a raffle ticket. Every friday, the raffle tickets would be placed in a box and the winning student would receive a small prize (usually something sweet that I grabbed from the nearby cornershop). Students delighted in racking up raffle tickets over the course of the week, maximising their chances of winning the Friday prize draw.
A system of rewards like this will give students the motivation to behave properly. It also enables you to present yourself as a force of positivity, providing a nice sense of balance from the other, meaner, disciplinarian version of you.
5. Praise all positive behaviours, even the small ones.
Praising is the simplest reward that you can offer. Students love hearing it, and they are far more receptive to instructions when they hear it frequently. Tactful use of praise in the classroom brings good vibes into the room, taking the heat out of an emotionally charged environment.
Look for the good things that students do. In even the toughest class, there will be students who are dutifully following your instructions and doing everything they can to participate positively. Thank students for entering the room sensibly. Thank them for paying attention to you when are talking. Thank them for starting their work without a fuss. Thank them for working independently and avoiding distractions. Visibly reward students, ticking off names on the board and commenting on how well students are doing throughout the lesson.
It can be really hard to feel positive when you’re fighting tooth and nail with badly behaved students. Praising is a cheap and easy way to bring back the feel good factor.
6. Make your lessons accessible.
In my early days, I often presented students with material that was inappropriate for their needs. I planned work that was too difficult; I failed to break tasks down into manageable steps; and I expected large cognitive leaps that students weren’t capable of. As a result, students were not keen to participate in lessons, and the behaviour problems escalated uncontrollably.
As soon as possible, try to get a feel for the abilities and learning needs of your class. Plan classroom activities that are accessible to students: you should thinking at all times about whether or not the students in front of you are able to complete the tasks you are setting. Praise students lavishly when they participate in learning, and don’t be afraid to start a lesson with something basic in order to generate a sense of success in the room.
7. Don’t bother with ‘whizzy’ things.
In my early years, I developed a number of unhelpful beliefs about teaching. Chief among these was the belief that traditional teaching styles were outdated. I searched diligently for experimental, quirky activities that I’d heard about on my course or read about in TES: conscience corridors, cooperative learning, drama, peer-teaching. All had a spin in my Frankenstein’s Lab of a classroom.
I feel confident enough now to say that the results were universally disastrous. The students’ attitudes weren’t right, and the quest for weird and wonderful teaching methods prevented me from simply getting a grip of the room.
(I’m not suggesting that the aforementioned activities lack inherent value, merely that they are not the priority in tough classes.)
When you’re working with a tough class, focus your attention on well-pitched, appropriately challenging tasks and activities, rather than activities that involve experimental feedback methods, unusual resources or movement around the room.
Don’t be afraid to seat the students in rows. Some people see this as very outmoded and inhibitive, but it’s really a life-saver. Avoid group seating arrangements. Instill a clear ‘hands-up’ policy for answering questions, and don’t worry about the plethora of feedback methods that you saw on Pinterest. Save those for your well-behaved groups.
8. Explain things in a clear voice.
While you may think that what you have to say is deeply important, many students are simply not listening. For many, lessons pass by in a haze, and your voice is just another droning blur in the background. Many are content to allow information to wash over them, only hearing the loudest of headlines. To be the most effective teacher you can be, you need to ensure that your instructions are loud and clear, not lost in the fog.
Ensure that students are looking at you before you speak. Wait for complete silence before addressing the class. Adopt a loud, clear voice. Speak as slowly as you can, resisting the temptation to rush. Visibly sanction any student who interrupts.
It might take time to master this strategy, particularly when you feel flustered during the rush of a school day. It takes a level of confidence in yourself and your message: you need to believe that what you have to say is worth saying. However, by ensuring students know what they are expected to do, you give your lesson a much higher chance of succeeding.