What If I Can’t Get a Class to Behave?

My teacher training made it seem like countdowns, class contracts and seating plans were the secret to good behaviour. But what if you find that none of that is working?

Photo by samer daboul on Pexels.com

Failing to manage the behaviour of a class impacted my self-esteem and my health. I was ignored, argued with, and verbally insulted. Fights broke out. Objects were thrown. Little was learnt.

I was anxious all the time, constantly worrying about school and sleeping poorly. My personal life was in tatters as I became increasingly difficult to be around. At work my colleagues regarded me as a liability. Parents (and even some students) complained about me to the Head of Department and even the Headteacher. I came very close to failing my initial training and NQT year due to my inadequate behaviour management.

I was ignored, argued with, and verbally insulted. Fights broke out. Objects were thrown. Little was learnt.

What did I do about it?

I accepted that it was (mostly) my fault

Nothing hammered this home like observing the same class with another teacher where they acted like different children. The upside to this was the realisation that the behaviour management equation was solvable. I understood that I was unlikely to struggle forever so long as I worked at it.

I persevered

Managing a class of children is a skillset which takes years to get good at so stick with it. Don’t judge yourself for not being good at it now. Who else do you know who is giving teaching a go? Probably not many. You chose to take a hard path. For that reason I liked to imagine that (in my mind at least) every lesson I taught was 1000/10.

I attended every behaviour management training I was offered

I could accept my colleagues thinking I was bad at behaviour management so long as I was seen to be trying to get better at it. I became a regular face at any CPD that was offered. Even when I had a stack of marking calling to me, even when I’d had a bad day and wasn’t in the mood. Even when the session was after school on a Friday.

I used my colleagues

I spoke to my mentor, Head of Department and the class’ Head of Year. They were all helpful. They observed my lessons and gave me helpful feedback; spoke to the students to reinforce that their behaviour was unacceptable; talked with me, putting the problem into perspective so that I didn’t just blame myself. Remember that you are part of a larger school system and ask for help where you can.

I took steps to better manage my health

I started taking regular exercise and eating healthier food. I tried to get more and better sleep. I made the time to talk to friends and family. I started trying to meditate. I watched comedies, listened to uplifting music and watched inspiring films. I read autobiographies of successful people and learnt that their lives were difficult too. I even saved the Samaritans phone number in my mobile. I got to a point where I was willing to do almost anything to safeguard my wellbeing.

I worked on having more gravitas

I reconsidered where and how I stood in the classroom, tidied up my appearance, considered my choice of words and how I spoke and developed my subject knowledge.

I found straightforward ways to recognise positive behaviour during lessons.

Two simple methods I’d recommend trying, if you haven’t already:

The sugar paper method – Find a large piece of sugar paper (A2 or A1 – you can ransack the Art department for this) and write the students’ names around the outside. Blue tack it on one side of the whiteboard. As the students enter the classroom, put a tick next to the name of each student who makes good choices. Reward the smallest actions: sitting in the correct seat, getting their equipment out. Soon most of the class will have one or more ticks next to their name and this will start the lesson in a positive way.

From the students’ point of view, the appeal is that you’re keeping score of their good behaviour in a way that they can see. These positive marks can then be translated into achievement points or merits (or whichever equivalent system your school’s behaviour policy uses). I usually say that three ticks equals one achievement point. You can use this to record negative behaviour too by putting a cross next to a name, but never remove a tick that has been earned.

The sugar paper method has transformed the behaviour in my lessons

Showing gratitude – Loudly thanking individuals, tables or groups for making good choices can prompt others to follow suit. Something like ‘thank you Stephen for getting started’ or ‘thank you to the back row for working in silence’. I prefer ‘thank you’ as opposed to ‘well done’ as the latter can sound patronising, particularly for older children.

What mistakes did I make?

As I gradually found solutions I realised what I was getting wrong:

Having an ‘Us versus Them’ mentality

When I was struggling to manage the behaviour of a class I felt that I was in conflict with an enemy. What I eventually realised is that we were on the same side all along. Rather than perceive the students with hostility I needed to show them that I cared.

Taking it personally

It made me angry which was understandable. Unfortunately, it also made me mean which prevented me from establishing a good rapport with students and my colleagues. Part of being a professional is learning not to take these things personally.

Trying to control students

My expectations were too high. I was never expected to control their behaviour, only manage it. I had to learn the difference between the two.

Depending solely on the behaviour policy

Issuing detentions is only part of the puzzle. I had to learn to balance sanctions with rewards as well as integrate other methods of managing behaviour into my routines.

Giving up on the behaviour policy

Just because it didn’t appear to work in the short-term, doesn’t mean I should have stopped doing it. In most schools the behaviour policy will be non-negotiable so you have to stick with it. But more importantly, being consistent in implementing the wider policies of the school shows students that you’re a part of the larger organisation, and not an individual acting alone. There’s power in that.

Every new teacher will come across a difficult class who seem to be against them from the start. And it’s going to knock your confidence. It did mine. In fact, as I’ve outlined above, it did even worse than that. But I’m a better teacher now because of them and, with time, you will be too.

Best of luck for the lessons ahead.

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