As an English teacher and leader in FE, I spend my time working with GCSE English and maths students who have achieved less than a grade 4 at KS4. A lot of my time is spent dealing with and reflecting on behaviour, as students often don’t want to resit, or don’t see the point or (worst of all) don’t think they can ‘do it’.
A lot of this reflection is spent asking one question: how can so many students have the same apathy for English and maths? With news that an Academy Trust plans on holding pupils back a year if they fail to follow rules, previous stories of ‘flattening the grass’, and the prevalence of isolation booths and ‘off-rolling’, many of the students we will be teaching in the coming years will rightly have negative views of education and have the challenging behaviour to prove it.
With this in mind, building relationships and developing strong classroom routines with challenging students has never been more important. Below are 5 strategies to get you started:
I Get Around
The start of the year is often the busiest time for teachers and students – and a perfect opportunity to get to know students. As many students will have negative experiences of English and maths (having ‘failed’), the start of the year is a great opportunity to engage with students before they arrive in your classroom and help them to understand you are there to support them. Appearing at transition events, visiting tutorial sessions before lessons properly start and giving short welcome talks at induction are all great ways to be ‘seen’ and develop relationships.
No One Can Hear You Scream In Space
So many of your classroom expectations will come in the first few weeks and it is vital to set the tone. In this period, students will push boundaries and look for a reaction – don’t give them one. Gestures, movement and body language are always more powerful than words, so make sure you use all of the space in your classroom to defuse issues before they arise. When you see challenging behaviour, move towards the student causing any issues; quickly, calmly and quietly outline expectations at their level and move away. Students will often try and draw you into an argument to deflect, don’t let them…
He Said She Said
When students try and draw you into an argument, it is to assert some sort of authority - don’t be drawn in. A simple way to defuse this is to lead with ‘We’ll talk about it after the lesson’ or ‘we’ll discuss it later’. More than likely, students won’t want to stay after the lesson and you have shown them a lot of respect by giving them the opportunity to talk it through. A main trigger for students starting an argument is being sanctioned for something they didn’t do, so always remember: if you didn’t see it, you can’t sanction it.
It’s Good To Talk
Communicating with everyone in a student’s life is one of the simplest ways to ensure they meet your expectations. Make time to talk to tutors, parents and lecturers and this will reap long term rewards. Communicate expectations constantly through phone calls, email, text, letter, reward postcard or carrier pigeon and students will soon realise there are no chinks in your armour. In some instances, you may even be able to subtly communicate with a student’s friends: quickly asking if the student is okay at the end of a lesson will always get back to them and show that you don’t only care about their academic progress.
Praise in private
Praising students has been used for decades to manage behaviour within classrooms. Recently, however, research suggests this can actually do more harm than good. In a college environment where image is everything, no one wants to appear as ‘the class geek’. Publicly praising students can lead to them acting out in future to redress this balance. With this in mind, why not praise students in private? After lessons (where students can control the narrative once they have left), a note home, a phone call, a text or an anonymous nod on school/ college social media pages are all excellent ways of championing classroom achievement.
As much as it is sometimes difficult to believe, all students want to achieve. If we can set the right environment for them using the above tips (and others), we’ll soon be enabling them to do just that.
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About the author
Jonny Kay is Head of Teaching, Learning and Assessment at a college in the North East. He has previously worked as Head of English and maths in FE and as an English teacher and Head of English in Secondary schools. He tweets @jonnykayteacher and his book, 'Improving Maths and English in Further Education: A Practical Guide', is available now.