“Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
I was in business for a few years before I came into education, and I have a lot of these little aphorisms to hand. But this one is spot on. Many battles are won and lost in the planning phase, and I’m not just talking here about lesson planning. You can go a long way to ensuring Strictly Positive behaviour management before you even meet the kids you are going to teach.
Here is the beginning of the Strictly Positive Teacher’s guide to setting up your students for a Strictly Positive learning experience. Firstly, let’s look at how you create the environment for positive behaviour management, even before your students walk through the door.
Look at the classroom, not as it is but as it ought to be:
If you are lucky enough to have your own classroom, all of this can be applied. If you have to trail around the school with your sad box of belongings then it’s more difficult, but there are still elements which you can apply.
So: Your desk needs to be strategically placed so that you can see, and be seen by, all pupils. It should be tidy, if possible. If, like me, you’re someone whose desk can go from tidy to ridiculous in 24 hours, timetable 20 mins a week to sort it out. Ensure that you can get easily to a board you can write on, and which the students can all see, even if they have to turn around in their seats. Arrange student desks and chairs so that you can teach in the way you teach. Look at laying things out in such a way that you can easily change things around if you want to surprise your students, or teach in a different way, or just generally shake things up. Disrupting the physical environment is a very positive way of marking your territory. Changing the desk layout or changing seating plans is assertive and emphasises that this is YOUR environment. Don’t be afraid to do this within a lesson in someone else’s classroom. You can always get a couple of kids to help you push everything back to where it should be afterwards. Ensure that you can easily get to any student in the class, either to help them academically, or by function of your presence to help them to behave. (This is my problem with rows; there are always some students you can’t magically appear besides…) It goes without saying that the classroom must be easy to evacuate in the case of a fire drill or similar. If possible, keep one ‘time in’ desk and chair on its own, ready in case you need to separate a student from the rest of the class. For reasons which will become apparent later when I talk about Attachment Disorder, I believe it is really important for students to be given ‘time in’ rather than ‘time out’. Ideally this table and chair face the wall. Ideally there will be space nearby for an LSA, should the student need someone to help them. This desk must be kept clutter-free and available at all times. You don’t want to be having to clear it when you need to use it. Maintain display, relevant to what students are doing in class, and include examples, preferably with marking, of students’ work. Change it regularly. I recognise that this is a counsel of perfection, and on that endless to-do list, it is definitely in the ‘important but not urgent’ category. However, if you want to get students to LOOK at display, it has to be changed regularly. Ensure that the space is kept tidy and litter-free. One of the early routines that you set up could be to ensure that at the end of every lesson, once your class is waiting to be dismissed, you get them to pick up and dispose of any litter around their work-space before anyone leaves the room. Have spare pencils, pens and rulers. You shouldn’t have to supply them, but in practice it will hinder the smooth flow of your lessons if you don’t have them. Either make them desperately unattractive to pinch, or label them clearly with your name or classroom number. (I use the old chestnut of taking a shoe in return for a pen or pencil. It has comic value and it works!)
Research your pupils:
The people with whom we will be interacting are small people, and people are complex. Although many of us will joke that we can tell what a student is going to be like once she has been in our classroom for five minutes, what we don’t know is WHY she is behaving like this. Is she struggling to cope academically, so that she is creating an alternative persona in order to hide the fact that she feels so utterly unable to keep up with her peers, distracting the learning because she is fearful that she can’t keep up? Is she hungry? Does she have to fend for herself because parents are ill, or asleep after a night shift, or substance-addicted, or frequently absent? Is she tired? Does she live in her bedroom, untroubled by family who let her stay up playing online games or chatting on Facebook until 3am? Does she have non-verbal reasoning scores which are through the roof, but really low language scores so that she lives her life unable to express all the complex ideas which are running around her brain? Read all the SEN reports on students. Find out who is in receipt of Pupil Premium. These are the students with whom, potentially, you will have to work to create a positive bond in these important early lessons. Work with the Learning Support Assistants and pastoral leaders; if the students have key workers, talk to them. Find a way of noting anything important discreetly in your mark book. In addition, find out who already has, or is likely to show, high skills in your subject area, and think about the whole spread of ability.
Ensure that you keep discreet notes about anything you need to be able to remind yourself about students. I use a teacher’s app – it has a section where I can write notes about students, and it is totally secure. Before I had this, I used my own codes in the paper planner against names.
“Knowledge is power”, as the man said – the more you have, the better.
Look at photos and try and learn at least a few kids’ names before they come in. It will make you look prepared and assertive. Don’t only learn the names of those who are likely to play you up – that looks like fear! Learn the names of high flyers too or just well-behaved students; there will always be a few names which are distinctive enough to be memorable. Then get the others as soon as possible. Easier said than done if you are new to a school, I know…
But seriously, knowing names, and not just the names of the naughties, is the most positive thing you can do to make your student feel valued and important. They will appreciate it and reward you for it.
Know your subject stuff:
Obviously you are capable subject specialists; you would not have been appointed to a teaching post were that not the case, nor would you be reading this! However, it is important to allocate time to researching the resources that you will use. Look at the textbooks and associated resources. Read the Schemes of Work. But also look at the files of resources which have been stored over the life of the course by other teachers. Resolve not to be a slave to one resource. Don’t be teaching to the textbook, or a Professor Powerpoint. Quite apart from anything else you’ll bore yourself to death in a while. It has been proven that students respond better to confident knowledgeable teachers who care enough about them to take the trouble to prepare varied and interesting lessons. They like variety, surprise, anecdotes and humour. A little foray off-piste every now will keep students on their toes and will show you how interested they are. (Except for those GCSE and A level students who will put up their hands and say “Is this going to be in the exam, Sir?” and then put down their pens when you say “No,” and fold their arms until you get back onto the syllabus. And they, frankly, are probably never going to pose behaviour management challenges…)
Create seating plans carefully to ensure that every student has the best chance of taking as much as they can from your lesson. There are certain rules for this which I find helpful: a) Anybody who is likely to be distracted must be in the direct eye-line of the teacher and there should be no visual obstacle between that student and the teacher. b) If two students are likely to distract each other, seat them with their backs to one another. It is not nearly as important to have them physically distant from one another. In fact, if they are distant, but in each other’s eye-lines, you have the worst possible scenario – two students far away from one another and therefore gesticulating or calling across the room and distracting everyone in between. My particular favourite is directly back to back. c) Either you can go down the top table, middle table, bottom table route; or you can group students according to behaviour; or you can arrange them so that there are two of a similar ability, and another two who are slightly above or below. I don’t like the first two options. Regardless of whether you call them the Blue Table or the Elephants or the Knights. They know exactly why they are where they are. Mixing things up is subtler, so I like this last option best until we get to Key Stage 4, at which point I group them according to their TARGET grade – not my target, but their own target. Some of my colleagues really hate this, but it works for me. Which is rather the point – it should work FOR YOU. So there we are – halfway to effective and POSITIVE behaviour management and not a student has come through the door. Next time, let’s look at setting up Strictly Positive Expectations at the outset of a teacher’s relationship with a class.