How to keep control

Learning how to maintain discipline in the classroom can be a new teacher's most valuable lesson - and one that's best learnt on the job
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The Independent Online

Fleur Pickering was on break duty recently when she challenged a pupil about his behaviour. "I'd had trouble from him before. He was climbing fences, climbing on benches, kicking a ball where he shouldn't be. Then when I reprimanded him he was very rude and insolent. It was all, 'What have you done that for?'"

Fleur Pickering was on break duty recently when she challenged a pupil about his behaviour. "I'd had trouble from him before. He was climbing fences, climbing on benches, kicking a ball where he shouldn't be. Then when I reprimanded him he was very rude and insolent. It was all, 'What have you done that for?'"

But even though she has only been teaching a term, she knew better than to struggle alone. "I passed it on to the head of the year, who dealt with it straight away. The boy came back to me and apologised."

For new teachers, dealing with bad behaviour is one of the biggest challenges of the job, especially because much of it can be specifically designed to test a raw recruit. Whether it is talking, whispering and fooling around in class, or the much more aggressive behaviour that many of today's children favour, like swearing or refusing to co-operate, new teachers can find it a daily battle to get pupils to behave. And those working in tough areas can have an even harder time.

"I've learned so much since I started," says Pickering, 22, who teaches English at Trinity School, a Catholic, co-educational secondary school in inner-city Nottingham. "A lot of it is about body language and presence. You learn from looking at other teachers, although in the end it really boils down to what you expect from pupils."

But wisdom often has to be acquired the hard way. "I sent someone out of my class in the first three weeks. He was a difficult young man, and I think I'd been shouting at him. Then I learned that he responded much better to the softly-softly approach. It definitely helps to know your pupils." It's the same with different year groups. While she has good relationships with her Year 9 pupils, she is finding her Year 10s trickier. "They're older, so I need to talk to them differently. I know I need to work harder to build relationships with them. Not to be their friend, but to know a bit more about them and be interested in them. At the moment they can be surly with me, and pull faces when I ask them to do things."

Not all new teachers so freely admit problems, but Pickering is intensively supported by her school, which gives all its newly-qualified teachers a weekly opportunity to "air and share" problems, and to think about ways of tackling classroom situations. They also attend external training sessions at Nottingham University.

"New teachers are the lifeblood of the profession, so we need to look after them," says deputy head Gerry McMahon, who runs the programme. "I do a lot of role modelling of situations. From the moment pupils set eyes on you, they are judging whether you're in charge of them, or whether there's room for manoeuvre. We talk about developing confidence in their bearing, about having eye contact with every child, and we talk a lot about presence, but it's a difficult thing to pin down. It's not something you learn from a book."

Trinity keeps discipline on a tight rein, and new teachers are taught the real nitty-gritty of classroom life: how not to make threats, but promises; to note down everything that happens; and always to follow through on instructions. They are shown how to use their voices effectively, going down and going quieter when they want attention, and how to micro-manage classroom movements so that mayhem doesn't break out every time pupils are asked to fetch a Bunsen burner.

Fleur Pickering says her friends teaching at other schools get nothing like this, and it's a common complaint from new teachers that they join their first school having been taught nothing about behaviour management.

Rachel McCoy, who teaches at Glencoe Junior School, Chatham, says, "You learn all these theories, but when you start teaching, you find different things work for different children. You have to find which works for which child - but on the first day you're just faced with 30 children! My class is really chatty. You get them to line up quietly one day, and you think you're really making progress, but the next day it's back to square one."

She has been helped by a workshop on behaviour management, run by Medway local authority, and by support in school. "You get all these practical ideas and try them out. Like using stars and points as rewards, or having a special Teddy who goes to the table that has done something the best. Some work. Some don't."

Andy Hamlyn, assistant head at South Dartmoor Community School, teaches behaviour management to students and newly- qualified teachers in Exeter and Plymouth, and finds the same questions arising: how to get pupils to be quiet, and how to get them to move around in an orderly fashion.

"People say there's a lot of similarities between teaching and acting. You can't be a shrinking violet in the classroom. It's your space and you have to make your rules work. Then it's about being fair and consistent. After that you can be as firm as you like.

"I don't find that the volume of bad behaviour has really changed, but there is much more familiarity now. There isn't the automatic respect for teachers that there used to be, and there's much more questioning of everything, so then a young teacher has to decide, is this questioning valid, or being done disrespectfully?"

But strategies can help new recruits project themselves. "You don't say, 'Sssh'. Whatever that means! You say, 'Please stop talking.' And you use the same phrases over and over again. It's very basic, but it's what people need."


Elizabeth Holmes, the author of the 'NQT Handbook' and agony aunt, says that managing behaviour is all about relationships. Her top tips include:

* Be proactive rather than reactive. Reinforce the positive and explore motivation strategies to see if these would help to avoid the need for behaviour management.

* Create rules and routines as a team with your class(es) that you can all commit to.

* Think about your classroom presence. Do your clothes, posture, body language, delivery of speech, movement round the room and environment in class all convey the message that you are in charge and working with, and for, your students?

* Don't relax your expectations.

* Devise strategies to pre-empt interruptions when you are addressing the whole class, such as raising your voice slightly or standing in front of the chatterer's desk. Do this without stopping your flow.

* Keep lessons moving by avoiding discussions about behaviour with individuals. Expect them to respond to your requests instantly and save the discussions until a later time.

* Read up about emotional literacy and the role that emotions can play in children's behaviour and teachers' responses to it. A good place to start is

* Long-term changes to behaviour take time. There are no quick fixes so don't give yourself a hard time. Get support from colleagues and be strong in your resolve!

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