Repairing the fault line

The secret’s clearly out – there’s a teaching crisis! Retention is at an all-time low, and every other news report simultaneously spreads panic about this issue whilst extolling 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 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.

Whole School and Class Character Development

For me, behaviour and attitudes are a by-product of the school culture and what the curriculum stands for. By curriculum, I don’t mean units of learning on ‘The Vikings’ but the development and thread of emotional intelligence expressed through these units of studies.

Storytelling has historically been used to explore values and virtues. Every unit of learning has the potential to act as a vehicle to bring a certain abstract concept to the surface with our developing learners. For example, if pupils are studying World War 2, we can very much use this as a catalyst to explore conflict or conversely friendship. And what causes a huge proportion of behaviour issues in the classroom post-break time or post-lunch? Conflict in the playground. Of course, this is a whole-school approach but that shouldn’t stop us from exerting our agency as teachers and taking every possible opportunity to teach the pupils more than just facts but rather how to behave as individuals and thus as learners in the classroom.

A Class Culture of Perceived Fairness

It’s an 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 view 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 are 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 at 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 the 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!).

Individual Investment

The best demonstration of pupils with specific behaviour needs came from a Principal that I once worked with. He stood in front of the staff during a CPD session and shook a Cola 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. The individual investment could be something as small as having a quiet word when the pupil comes into the school, spending some of your PPA 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 teachers. Teaching is a naturally ‘nurturing’ profession. We nurture our learners and it’s equally important to nurture our pupils as growing individuals too.

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. 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.

This article originally appeared in Issue 56 of the UKEd Magazine. Click here to view.

Lekha @teacherfeature2 is a Deputy Principal in South London and is responsible for Curriculum Design and Delivery. She is passionate about being in the classroom and supporting teachers on the ground so that they can provide high-quality teaching and learning to the pupils they serve.

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