Staring at snowflakes: Behaviour management for the real world
Having a bit of a laugh with students can actually be a great behaviour management technique in and of itself.
If we’re honest, many behaviour management strategies kind of squeeze the enjoyment out of being in a room with 30 or so children. It’s easy for a teacher to assume that when children express their personalities and visibly enjoy each other’s company, that they aren’t in fact learning.
But there’s quite a simple thing you can do to begin to work out whether or not learning is going on, regardless of how much enjoyment they might be having: you ask yourself the question ‘Are they learning?’.
Alright, there is more to it than that, but it is a good starting point and is certainly better than automatically thinking that they mustn’t be, simply because they’re having a bit of a laugh.
Think of those occasions in class where something undeniably funny happens: someone lets slip a squeaky fart, a child who is always rocking on their chair eventually falls off (and thankfully doesn’t hurt themselves) or someone calls the teacher ‘mum’.
Then there are those times when something else is just so irresistibly interesting: the class outside doing PE, the window cleaner’s squeegee floating mysteriously up and down the window, or the seagull pecking at the UPVC skylight, incessantly, for half an hour.
What do you do with a class suddenly in uproar over one of the above events? Shut it down because learning’s not happening? Issue threats to those who aren’t listening to your commands? Punish the ones who just can’t get over it?
Or do you take real control?
By joining in the hilarity you are then part of the situation, not set apart from it. Once you are part of the situation you can begin to control it. “Yes, yes, it is snowing – let’s all have a look! Lovely – see how it swirls? Did you know each snowflake is unique and that all of them have six lines of symmetry? OK, we’ve had a look, and you can play in it at playtime, but right now it is time to get back on task.”
More often than not, the above strategy is all you will need to put an end to the disruption and get things back on track.
But what about those 30 seconds where no one was working? Was it worth it?
Well, you probably saved time doing it that way instead of trying to restore order without satisfying the children’s natural instincts. Think of all the potential fallout of trying to curtail the naturally human desire to connect with other humans over a shared experience: the angst, the sanctions, the tedium.
In disallowing such situations to take place, it is indeed removing that human element from the classroom. In doing that, the implication could potentially be that relationships are not important, and that personality doesn’t count – that the only thing that matters is just robotically plugging away at the work, no matter what. There’s more to life than that. For children, there should always be more to being in the classroom with your teacher than just that.
An almost constant debate rages over whether or not lessons should be fun. So much time is spent by teachers at the planning time attempting to make their lessons fun and more engaging. Time which can often lead to teachers becoming overworked. And time which often isn’t repaid in a better quality of learning – at worst, the elements of fun injected into the lesson are nothing more than distractions, potentially adding cognitive load to an already difficult-to-understand concept.
However, although you don’t have to plan fun lessons, you can intend for your lessons to be fun.
Firstly, learning itself can, and should be, intrinsically fun and engaging – humans are wired to get a kick out of discovering new stuff. For most of history we’ve got that hit of endorphins just by listening to people tell us things. More recently, we’ve enjoyed sitting down with a musty old book or a TV documentary, just to find out more things. A lesson, a fairly bog-standard lesson, can do that too.
Secondly, you as a teacher can be a source of fun, enjoyment, engagement – whatever you’re most comfortable with calling it. Whether that’s because you’re a natural comic, or because you let the class comedians do their thing (remember, always joining in and therefore taking a position of control), you can harness any excitement to your advantage. Allow a little lightness in, and children will go away with the warm fuzzies, ready to come back after break for more, secure and happy enough to be ready to take on more learning (it is still all about the learning).
And by showing the children that you can engage with them, enjoy situations as they arise, and even have a bit of fun, they will see two things: one, that you are human like them, and two, that you see them as human too. That reciprocity in the relationship transcends the traditional master and underling relationship that still persists in places – one that dehumanises both teacher and child to the point of being 2D caricatures from a knock-off Dickens novel. Where teacher and child have a mutual respect for one another, stemming from knowing that the other is human, with a range of feelings, thoughts and experiences, all sorts of wonderful things can happen in a classroom.
Of course, professional boundaries must be maintained. and it should be acknowledged that the teacher, in most cases, is the expert. However, as teachers we can legitimately allow for such a relationship as I’ve outlined to develop, without any negative consequences and with plenty of positive outcomes for all to benefit from.
But do remember, it should all be about ensuring the learning takes place, so perhaps don’t just lounge around all day watching the snow, the birds and the squeegee whilst falling about in paroxysms of laughter over trumps, misfortunes and mishaps. Just allow that every once in a while and everyone’s a winner.