Retention is at an all-time low and every other news report simultaneously spreads panic about this issue whilst extoling those ‘few’ teachers who do stay in the profession, despite such challenging times.
When I really think about this, I’m deeply saddened. An incredibly rewarding and exciting profession feels seemingly weakened. Although there is some truth to the media coverage, I believe it would be far more productive to spend some time analysing the ‘why’ and thinking about potential solutions, rather than adding further fuel to what is clearly a well-established fire.
In my experience working in a number of primary schools, one huge red flag for teachers ‘on the edge’ has become abundantly clear- behaviour. I was recently asked by a teacher, new to the profession ‘how do you cultivate a positive culture for behaviour in a classroom full of challenging pupils?’ The question threw me slightly. Having been a teacher for a while, I was unable to express the intangible stuff that made behaviour management, manageable. It really did remind me how difficult it is in those initial years (and still is!) as a teacher and how further guidance on behaviour management is essential if we’re going to keep enthusiastic and passionate teachers in the profession.
There was no straightforward answer to the question, so in a quest to offer practical advice that may strengthen this particular fault line in the teaching profession, I’ve broken down what I believe to be the critical elements.
A Class Culture of Perceived Fairness
It’s the age-old problem. A pupil misbehaves, a teacher responds with an appropriate behaviour management strategy, the pupil argues back, the teacher feels undermined in front of the masses and the cycle continues. How do we break this negative cycle? The advice I would always offer the teacher is to pause and briefly note how the pupils views this situation (wrongly or otherwise). The pupil experiences anger and this anger comes from a sense of perceived unfairness. Usually in the form of ‘but he was doing the same’ or ‘but you didn’t even hear my side of it…’ The best thing the teacher can do in this situation is to take the pupil to one side and share this ‘note’ of how the pupil has perceived this in order to express their objectivity as the ‘judge’ of the given situation.
We have to remember that we aren’t just teachers- we’re humans. Like all humans, we experience human emotion. Disappointment- when there’s no mugs left in the staffroom cupboard and we’re desperate for a caffeine hit but resentment and anger when a child has publicly undermined our authority. We need to separate this emotion from our ability to handle the situation in that moment. This is not at all an easy feat but one which will pay dividends when de-escalating a situation. As soon as you’ve heard that pupils’ side of things and they’ve had their say, you can clearly identify the choices and behaviours that the pupils made that were unacceptable and thus get them to take ownership. A great way of doing this is ‘pressing the pause button’ in their story to identify these choices whilst still calmly listening to and showing empathy for their perception of the situation. Perceived fairness- if they know that you are fair and equal in your reactions and behaviour management strategies with all pupils, it becomes very tricky for them to argue back so passionately (and sometimes convincingly!).
The best demonstration of pupils with specific behaviour needs came from a Principal that I once worked with. He stood in front of staff during a CPD session and shook a Coke bottle. ‘That’s having a fight with mum on the way to school.’ He shook it again. ‘And that’s not having any breakfast and being hungry.’ He continued. He then urged one of us to open the bottle. The point of the demonstration was that prior to even getting through the school doors, some of our pupils have experienced either small issues that have put them in a negative headspace, or even more devastatingly, much larger issues at home over a period of time. This really stuck with me…It is crucial that we separate our pupil’s behaviour from them as individuals. It’s not who they are; it’s symptomatic of other circumstances. Again- this is easier said than done but with time and experience this becomes second nature. Individual investment could be something as small as having a quiet word when the pupil comes into school, spending some of your time sharing in an activity the pupil likes to reward some great learning or sending a quick note home to celebrate a great day. Incredibly small gestures that show that actually we care beyond our role as educators.
Disclaimer: creating a strong rapport with pupils and investing in them appropriately shouldn’t come at the cost of having clear and definable boundaries or as I like to call it ‘the line’. As the teacher it’s really important to have the confidence to assert that ‘this is not ok’ and make it clear that a choice that has been made is unacceptable (with no room for negotiation on this). Therefore, it’s important to strike the perfect balance between the firm distinction between acceptable/not acceptable and your role as a nurturing teacher.
Consistency, consistency, consistency…
The most valuable tool in our teacher ‘toolbox’ for behaviour management in my experience is consistency. And it’s a frustrating one for us as teachers because it takes an extended period of time and during that time you will be faced with defiance and pupils challenging expectations and pupils testing the waters to see what they can and can’t get away with.
It reminds me of the runner’s analogy of ‘hitting the wall.’ The wall is the hypothetical barrier that stands between a distance runner and the finish line. It’s the moment where the runner feels like they simply cannot continue. They are fatigued, exhausted and worn down by the demands of the race. It’s similar with behaviour, I think. Consistency can be quite challenging to achieve because that low level behaviour can chip away at your patience and your ability to think clearly and logically but if we can recognise that this challenge will crop up and decide that we will continue to apply consistency in our language, our expectations and our clearly defined boundaries, sooner or later, the pupils will ‘get it!’. They’ll know where the ‘line’ is and won’t try to dance around it because they know it will result in the same response and the same outcome that it has always resulted in. Consistency is key!
Most importantly, this is not something that should be placed solely on the shoulders of our teachers. This has to be a whole-school and joint approach so that our teachers don’t feel alone in the pursuit of trying to understand their pupils and learners better. Yes, it is teacher’s responsibility to manage behaviour and this forms quite a critical part of quality first teaching but just like a competency in any profession, it is something that requires training, exploration and practice. By isolating our teachers and expecting them to ‘deal with it’ without support, we immediately establish that fault line, which over the course of an academic year gets more vulnerable and can lead to teachers simply walking away.
By articulating these strategies and joining our teachers in the classroom regularly to practice using them, we can make all the difference as leaders and keep truly wonderful teachers in this rewarding profession.