I normally blog about poetry matters, but I was a secondary school English and Drama teacher for 16 years, and still write teaching materials, work with exam boards, lecture at study days for sixth formers and lead poets-in-schools workshops.
Now schools have gone back, I have been thinking about some of the classroom control techniques I used to use, having refined my practice over the years. When I first went into schools from F.E., back in 1992, the school I was working in had a great back up system but many of the older style teachers there were heavily into shouting and intimidation of pupils, detentions and lines were imposed freely. I didn’t like it and felt at times it built up resentment. Teachers who didn’t shout were seen as ‘soft’. Relationships between staff and pupils were not as good as they could be. I experimented with more subtle classroom controls. After 6 years, I changed schools and observed there a different way of working. Staff and pupil relationships were warmer and more respectful, and shouting was discouraged.
In my first school I had learned the usefulness of establishing a classroom routine. This takes about three weeks to do, but once laid down, pupils will automatically follow it. Having a seating plan demonstrates the teacher’s control over the space and helps with the vital task of learning names fast. But alphabetical order is used by most teachers, so best avoided. Find out a bit about the class from their previous teacher. Don’t put all the naughty ones at the front, where they will drive you crazy. Instead ring fence them with compliant pupils and scatter them around the room. One of the most visible places can be at the back of the room, depending on the layout.
The routine of standing behind chairs to exchange a greeting, before inviting pupils to sit down, gives a clear start to the lesson, and the same thing at the end of the lesson, but with the addition of checking tables are clear and no litter has been dropped before dismissal, makes the classroom pleasant for the next class. I always kept my teacher’s desk clear of anything which wasn’t relevant to the actual class I was teaching at the time. Some teachers line up the pupils outside and have them file in for each lesson, which is a good routine if there is time, but be welcoming to the class and do not start to shout at them if misbehaving, instead only allow in those who are coming in ‘nicely’.
Once in the classroom, your own classroom rules come into play. It’s best to decide on these beforehand, and share them with the pupils. I used to have a ten point plan, which included the important information about how they were to hand in their homework and any other practical things. After years of experience, I boiled these down to one rule. It sounds simplistic to say that my rule was BE NICE TO EACH OTHER, but it actually worked, and it applied to me as well. If a pupil spoke over another one, I would point out that they were not being nice to that person, to disrespect them by not listening. If a pupil spoke when I was speaking, rather than go straight to a reprimand, I would politely enquire whether there was a problem. Sometimes there was! And the student could tell me and have it sorted out. If there wasn’t, the student would look embarrassed and reply no, there wasn’t, and subside. This showed them respect. And if you show respect, you get it back, as a year 11 student told me once.
It’s vitally important to realise a teacher never teaches a class. Instead they teach a group of individuals who have been randomly put together by age. Each one may need a different approach. I found making an effort to get to know each student and find out what they were interested in, helped me to bond with them, and gave me good ideas for what to bring to lessons in terms of teaching materials and analogies. If a student looked unhappy, I showed kindness by asking them what was wrong, and listening to the reply. A bit of sympathy can break down antagonism in a flash. For example, I arrived in my classroom to teach the first lesson after break. A few students had already arrived, as they were allowed to go in, there being no room to line up outside. One girl was ranting to her friends and seemed angry. I called her over, nicely, and asked her what was wrong. She was very cross that she had been told off for untidy uniform. I explained to her that the member of staff (golden rule – never ever slag off your colleagues to students, it’s like parents, a united front it vital) was not being personal but just doing her job, and that if she hadn’t, she could have got into trouble from the senior team, for not following up rules. I asked her if that made her feel better, and it had. Then I said that she could now forget about it as she was in my lesson and she loved English. She went smiling back to her friends.
In short, shouting can make things worse. There is always a better way. Be in charge but treat your pupils with respect. There is a good side to every child and the teacher’s job is to find it. Being a teenager is hard.