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?

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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.

The Five Best Ways to Spend Your Half-Term Break

Some activities those new to teaching should make a priority

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If you’re anything like me, you’ve been counting down the days and you can’t quite believe it’s finally here: half-term.

For teachers and students alike, no two sweeter words have ever been uttered. You’ve been slogging away for weeks and now all of a sudden… (for one week) you don’t have to.

How should you spend all the free time stretching out before you? Whichever way you see fit, of course. But here are my favourite ways of getting the most out of the half-term break:

Spend time with friends and family

I don’t often see the people I love most during term time. There is something about the momentum of the work week that means I rarely make them a priority (sorry Mum!). Even when I do, I find it hard to relax having just got off work the day before or knowing that I have work the next day. A whole week off allows me to properly relax so that I can truly enjoy the people in my life.

Keep a routine

I used to stay up late at night and then sleep through the mornings, but found this made it much harder to get back into the sleep routine needed for school. And then I found that once the routine of sleep goes, anything goes: junk food, alcohol, lazing around in pyjamas all day, browsing the web obsessively. To keep the good habits I’ve built up over the term, I try to go to bed at a reasonable time and set an alarm for the morning.

I will also make a quick plan of what to do each day, starting with the most important task in the morning. There will also be some non-negotiables, such as twenty minutes of exercise, ten pages of a book read or a meal cooked from scratch. Such ‘high-quality leisure’ prevents me from falling into the time sink of checking social media, web browsing or streaming entertainment for hours each day.

Exercise

I have found that one unfortunate consequence of abundant free time is that it can bring about periods of neuroticism. I find myself beginning to wonder whether teaching really was the best choice of career; or what my colleagues might think of me; or what was I thinking making that joke in front of the headteacher. A jog around the park or a 20-minute HIIT workout keeps those thoughts at bay and makes my time off more joyful.

Read

Read whatever feels important to you. Really good non-fiction has helped me to see the unseen; ideas which I hadn’t previously considered. I like to read around a topic I might be teaching next half-term or a book that could help me address weaknesses in my teaching practice. For example, I’ve been struggling with behaviour in some classes so I intend to read ‘Running the Room’ by Tom Bennett. Recently I finished reading ‘Never Split the Difference’ by Chris Voss who, as a former FBI negotiator, offers fascinating insights into effective verbal communication; some of which I’m excited to try out in the classroom.

Think ahead

Towards the end of the break I like to undertake some light tasks that will make the start of next half term feel a little less jarring. And I don’t mean plan next week’s lessons. Instead, perhaps I’ll get a haircut or make sure my clothes are clean and ironed. Anything that will help me hit the ground running on Monday morning.

It has taken me years to use my half-term break in a way that leaves me feeling refreshed and excited about the half term ahead. Just one of the ideas above could make a big impact on helping you enjoy yours. That said, don’t judge yourself too harshly. However you spend your well-deserved time off, enjoy it.

Personally, I’ll begin by taking some deep breaths and letting the fact sink in.

It’s finally here: half term.

3 Ways to Communicate Better with Parents

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Occasionally you will need to meet face-to-face with the parent of a student you teach. Never is this so they can congratulate you on a job well done (at least not in my experience). Instead, there will probably have been some sort of incident, usually behavioural, that hasn’t been resolved over the phone.

Understandably, this can feel emotionally and politically risky; what if they think you’re a fraud; what if they demand your resignation; or what if they lose their temper?

Here are some ways I’ve since learnt to communicate better in person with parents.

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place”

George Bernard Shaw

1. Make it safe

For honest dialogue to take place, parents must feel comfortable speaking up so they can say anything. Signs that parents do not feel safe are if they have resorted to either silence (avoiding the conversation, criticising you behind your back, use of sarcasm, cruel humour or giving evil looks) or violence (anger and other high emotions). Ask yourself: does this parent believe I respect them? If not, here are two ways you can make the conversation safer:

  • Apologise if you have done something wrong

‘I’m sorry I… __________’ or ‘I apologise for… _________’ etc. Be careful of ‘I’m sorry that you think…’ as this is not a true apology.

  • Use contrasting to make yourself clear

Contrasting is a don’t/do statement. For example, ‘[Don’t] The last thing I want to want to do is… ____________. [Do] I actually think…__________.’

2. Tell the truth

For a productive conversation to take place, all the relevant information needs to be on the table. If you withhold what you want to say, you will make stupid decisions. I used to tell myself that I had to choose between keeping the peace and telling the truth, but over the years I’ve learnt that, had I spoken up, there would have been a better outcome.

3. Have the right motive

Often when faced with strong pressure and high emotion I would lose sight of our goal and instead look for ways to punish, avoid embarrassment, win an argument or keep the peace. Instead I needed to know what I wanted from the conversation and concentrate on that. Ask yourself: What do I really want for myself? What do I really want for others? What do I really want for the relationship? If your goal is shared then you both have a reason for staying civil. Remind yourself that you share more in common than you do in difference. Staying focused on the needs of the parent will help you avoid a useless and heated conversation that doesn’t lead to change. To establish a mutual purpose:

Suspend the belief that your choice is the best and only solution. If you find yourself arguing say, ‘It seems like we’re trying to force our view on each other. I would like to find a solution that satisfies us both.’

Uncover their true purpose. Ask, ‘What is your reasons for wanting that?’ You might find that their strategy is masking a goal which is compatible with yours. Finding something you share, no matter how small, can produce a lot of shared benefit.

Aim for progress. It’s unlikely both of you will get exactly what you want, so rather than aiming for perfection, aim to get a little closer to a shared goal.

Master your emotions. If you can’t control your emotions, matters will only get worse. Fortunately, we have more control over our emotions that one might think. Before we feel an emotion we automatically tell ourselves a story to add meaning to what we’ve just observed. It’s our interpretation of a fact, explaining what we see and hear. What we need to do is change the story we tell. Here’s how:

  • Notice your behaviour. Are you in some form of silence or violence?
  • Get in touch with your feelings. What emotion is causing you to feel this way?
  • Analyse your story. What story are you telling yourself that creates these emotions? Are you actually a victim? Is the other person genuinely a villain? Do you truly find yourself in a helpless situation? There’s a high chance that the answer to all of these is no and they’re about to lead you to an unhealthy action.
  • Go back to the facts. What have you seen or heard to make you tell yourself this story? Could there be another story that makes the other person seem more reasonable?
  • Tell the rest of the story. Openly and honestly discuss the problem instead.

In Summary:

1. Tell the truth

What you have to say is important.

2. Make it safe

Apologise: ‘I’m sorry I…_________’ / ‘I apologise for…________.’

Make yourself clear: ‘The last thing I want to want to do is…______. I actually think…____.’

3. Have the right motive

Listen to what they want: ‘It seems like we’re trying to force our view on each other. I would like to find a solution that satisfies us both.’

Discover their real purpose for wanting it: ‘What’s your reason for wanting that?’

Manage your emotions by sticking to facts and not stories.

How to Manage Your Mood in an Instant

Grace under pressure

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All ships have a ballast, a weight in the bottom of the hull which gives the ship an even keel during stormy weather. Your emotional ballast is the true understanding you have of yourself, your ability to recognise thoughts and feelings as they happen.

When I started teaching I thought I had a good idea of who I was. But it soon became apparent that I’d never truly been tested under pressure. When times were hard I didn’t have an even emotional ballast and so I would get angry and want to give up.

Here are some ways that I have developed a better understanding of what’s going on in my body in order to establish a better emotional ballast:

Pay attention to your inner compass

The Roman orator Cicero once wrote, ‘we must decide who we want to be, what kind of people, in what walks of life, know our particular genius and what we are good and bad at and behave accordingly.’ Put another way, we must direct ourselves toward what matters, understand our skills and find the right home for them in the world. We can do that by becoming aware of what we do, what we feel and what we think.

Do

Be present to your physicality as much as your thinking. There are three ways you could do this:

  • Root yourself to the spot

Imagine you have tree roots planting you to the floor. The stillest person in the room often exudes the most gravitas so abandon yourself to gravity and the support it provides. The stress of the classroom will take you out of your body and put you into your head, causing you to hunch-up and tense your muscles. The technique of putting your Feet On the Floor and your Bum On a Chair (FOFBOC) is a great way of getting out of your head and back into your body. Feel the weight of your feet on the floor and your bum on the chair (this also works by thinking just of your feet if you’re standing). You should feel safe and supported by gravity so relax into this contact.

  • Become aware of your breath

Notice the expansion and contraction of your diaphragm as you breathe. We breathe automatically, but we can also breathe consciously, deciding to breathe in and out or even hold our breath if we choose. Breathing consciously can develop new neural pathways in the brain which will help you to have greater awareness of other automatic processes in the mind, such as your emotions. A great way to do this is with meditation. I personally use the Headspace app which is free for teachers.

  • Imagine you have a dragon’s tail

As silly as this sounds, thinking you have a heavy tail at the base of your spine gives you a feeling of weight. Picture your tail coiling through the room to feel like you own the space.

Feel

Find your true north, your ‘this is me’ feeling. This means paying attention to what matters to you and what motivates you because when you’re doing these, you feel like you’re doing what you were meant to do: your purpose.

Whenever you find yourself getting off track, you can use this feeling to guide you back to where you need to be. So tune into your values. When you follow them you’ll feel good and going against them will make you feel bad. You can tune into this by considering what you’re grateful for at the end of each day.

Think

We create our world largely by how we think about it. Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, wrote that ‘the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts’. Moving away from destructive thinking to constructive thinking is key to having a more positive outlook

Notice the voices in your head. Young children often express these voices aloud as they chatter to themselves, but as we grow up we learn to keep them to ourselves. There are two distinct voices:

Your inner coach

This is the voice in your head which calms and celebrates. Say something kind to yourself, some positive advice. Turn it up when you feel down.

Your inner critic

This is the voice in your head which does refinement. It helps you to step up and improve so you don’t repeat your mistakes. Learn to turn the volume down because if it’s too clear it will raise your anxiety levels and cause stress. Use it to make yourself better, not worse. Refine when you listen to it and what it says. If it’s saying ‘You fool. You really messed that lesson up. They’re going to hate you’, train it to say: ‘That didn’t go well, but don’t worry. You’ll do better next time’

Pull them together

If, for example, you’re worried that you’re bad at behaviour management and your inner critic says ‘you can’t control a class’, change it into an ‘If…’ question. So it might say ‘If you could control the class, what would you do differently?’ Then the answer might be: ‘I’d be more relaxed and we’d get through more of the lesson.’ Listen to this answer because if you were more relaxed and you got through more of the lesson, behaviour might improve.

If your critic says ‘You’re never going to figure this out’ talk back to it with your coach. ‘What if you do? You’ve managed other classes well before.’

How to Become a Better Teacher in Just One Week

Silver Bullets

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Getting good at teaching, like all difficult pursuits, takes years. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some small things you can do in the short-term that will make a big impact immediately.

Go to bed

The biggest mistake I ever made as a new teacher was thinking it would be a good idea to sacrifice sleep. While I managed to get a lot done, I was a terrible teacher when tired and it only took a couple of days of insufficient sleep for me to be unproductive, ill and miserable.

Exercise

Many of my colleagues work out. It is not unusual to glance around the staff room to find marathoners, hikers, weightlifters, martial artists and yogis. And it is usually these teachers who are darn good at their job.

Carve out a small period of time each day to take some form of exercise. One minute of air squats is a great workout and requires no equipment. Neither do jumping jacks, push ups or any other simple exercise that can be done anywhere. Choose something you think you will stick to and do it a little bit every day.

Meditate

If you’re anything like me, you might have some scepticism towards this, but it is worth trying as the ability to calm your mind when you’re stressed should not be underestimated. And when a meditation session can consist of as little as one minute concentrating on nothing more than your breath, there really is no excuse.

But if that really doesn’t appeal, there are many other activities which can help you clear your mind. I find that cooking a meal from scratch or washing up dishes have a similar effect to meditation. The heat and sensation of the steam and the repetition of chopping and stirring stops me obsessing over that rude email I read at the end of the day or the poor behaviour that took place after lunch. It stops me feeling anxious about it all happening again tomorrow. And it lets me be a better husband to my wife.

If you’re new to meditation, I recommend using an app at first. There are many on the market. I personally use the Headspace app which is free of charge for teachers (see https://www.headspace.com/educators for more information).

Take a Vitamin D supplement

The human body produces Vitamin D when the UVB radiation in sunlight makes contact with skin. If you live in the UK like I do, then between October and March you will be going to work in the dark, teaching inside away from direct sunlight and then heading home in the dark. Consequently, I developed a Vitamin D deficiency which impacted my immune system. Supplementation has been a simple way to remedy this.

Drink more water (and less caffeine)

Dehydration will elevate your stress levels. Sipping more throughout the day is simple way to help keep calm so invest in a nice big re-useable water bottle to remind you. Caffeinated drinks, on the other hand, have a diuretic effect causing you to excrete water. More concerningly, caffeine can cause hyperactivity which can be disconcerting to a room of children. I have found that teaching after consuming caffeine made it much harder for me to teach with gravitas and so for that reason I only drink coffee at the very beginning of the day at breakfast and at the end of the school day once lessons have concluded.

Read

Taking responsibility for my own self-development was one of the most exciting parts of being a new teacher, and I found that the most practical way of doing this was to read books.

The good news is that this doesn’t have to take hours. I read for about fifteen minutes each day and find it to be a great way to relax and re-energise myself with some exciting new ideas. I do this when I find I have dead time, such as my train journey to school, but even if you drive, you could listen to an audiobook, a podcast or TED talk.

While there are dozens of books written specifically for teachers, I personally enjoy reading up on topics to address my many weaknesses. Over the years I’ve read books about health and fitness to help me have more energy and books about productivity to help me get more done. I even read a book about producing better Powerpoint slides. The options are endless.