Starting over with a clean sheet
70gsm of unperforated perfection
‘Are you doing an assessment, Sir?’
I wasn’t. But I could see why the Head of Year 7, having wandered into my classroom on a grey Wednesday morning, had that impression. The class were in pin-drop silence, a parody of student diligence: postured forward, eyes focused, pens poised. Some even had their tongues poking out the sides of their mouths.
The students appeared to be working as if the outcome of the task I had set them really mattered, like it was some all-important test. And while of course it did matter, in as much as any regular writing task in an English lesson might, what their Head of Year observed was a degree of focus he wasn’t expecting to see from thirty eleven-year-olds at the end of term.
I should say that this is not a boast about my prowess in the classroom. I do not consider myself to be ‘good’ at behaviour management. I certainly do not have a reputation in my school as someone for whom it is a strength. It’s one aspect of teaching I have struggled with the most and frequently still do. It was a cause for concern in my initial training and I almost failed my NQT year because of my apparent inability to get students working in a calm, orderly manner.
I was a bit of a liability, truth be told.
So much so, in fact, I was told to attend the weekly ‘Behaviour for Learning’ training at my school. And it was here I got introduced to this one lesson-transforming behaviour management tool:
A really big sheet of paper.
Wait! Come back! Before you judge, allow me to explain how it works:
Step 1: (this is the hardest part) Find a really big sheet of paper – the Art Department is usually a good place to ransack for this.
Step 2: (Before the lesson) Write each student’s name around the outside in a felt tip pen.
Step 3: Blu tack it to one side of the whiteboard.
Step 4: (In the lesson) As the students enter the classroom, put a tick next to the name of each student who makes good choices, rewarding them for the smallest of actions: sitting in the correct seat, getting their equipment out, beginning the task left on the board etc.
Essentially, I’m keeping score of their good behaviour. And the students can see that I’m doing that. These positive marks can then be translated into achievement points or merits (or whichever equivalent system your school’s behaviour policy uses for rewarding good behaviour).
During a lesson I will explain a task, model it, and then get students working. It is at this point the Really Big Sheet of Paper® comes into its own because I can stand in front of it, observing who is on task and start ticking off names.
Within seconds, as if by magic, the class fall in line and get on with what they’ve been told to do.
I also use this to record negative behaviour by putting a cross next to a name. Importantly, I never remove a tick that has been earned, nor do I allow the positive ticks to cancel out the negative crosses. Life simply does not work that way – if I mugged an old lady, the judge would not reduce my sentence if I had then helped her to cross the road.
Really Big Sheet of Paper® spared my sanity (and perhaps my career) when I was an NQT. So I made sure to use it quite often with some tricky classes the year after. And then a bit less the year after that. Soon I pretty much forgot about it, perhaps naively thinking I had outgrown it.
But recently last term, when I couldn’t get most of my Year 7 class to be quiet and concentrate, I remembered this and vowed to unfurl it next lesson.
And without fail those chatty students turned on a dime.
So it’s just a behaviour grid then?
No – I’ve used behaviour grids before and find they don’t work as well. The difference here is that you need to have every student’s name on the board. This is more powerful because it’s a constant source of explicit information for each student on how they are doing behaviour-wise.
On a regular behaviour grid I might board a student’s name in the ‘positive’ column for doing something right, or the ‘negative’ column for doing something wrong. But in a typical lesson the majority of the class might not get featured at all, leaving room for some students to drift along idly.
Really Big Sheet of Paper® allows every student to clearly see where they’re at from beginning to end.
Why it works
This method works so well, I think, because the teacher is making explicit what is so often implied – namely, that we are pleased when students behave well: being quiet, following instructions, working hard etc.
Students, as people, are driven to follow their peers, particularly those who are being encouraged and celebrated. So, when I make it plain early in a lesson that the majority are co-operating, and celebrate that with a tick, the peer pressure encourages other students to join in.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting this is the only behaviour management tool you will ever need. It works best amongst a range of classroom strategies within a good school-wide behaviour policy. But what I find so exciting is that it’s the closest thing I’ve found to a ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to shifting classroom behaviour quickly in the right direction. And, touch wood, it has yet to fail.
Now, where’s that blu tack?
PLEASE NOTE: I did not invent the method of managing classroom behaviour described above. It was passed down to me by more experienced teachers and it’s origins got lost in the process.
If you happen to know who came up with this, please let me know. I’d love to credit them here (and thank them from the bottom of my heart!)