Teaching Behaviour As An Early Career Teacher

How do you want your pupils to feel when they are in your company? Stephen Baker explores how our interactions with students set the tone for the classroom culture and ultimately the relationships that good behaviour is often built upon.

Do you remember your teachers? For most early career teachers, secondary school is not that long ago, so it should be possible to dredge up memories of the range of human life that paraded in front of you: the trendy, the tired; the good, the bad, and in my case at least, the distinctly odd.

You might not remember much that they taught you, though some fashion habits, nicknames and other idiosyncrasies will have stuck in your mind, but I will bet good money that you can remember how they made you feel. Some will have inspired you to feel welcome, valued or enthralled, while others may have prompted darker emotions.

This is a good starting point when considering your approach to behaviour. How do you want your pupils to feel when they are in your company? If we think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for a moment, safety is one of our most basic needs, so you’ll need to establish some boundaries. They had better feel interested too, or time will crawl in your classroom, so teaching vibrant, engaging lessons had also better be high up the list.

But how did you feel about your teachers? What determined that? Was it how they listened, or failed to? How they laughed at themselves, or could not? How they appeared confident, or nervous?

When I was at school and a new teacher walked into the room, we knew instantly whether we would behave for them or not. It had nothing to do with fear, but everything to do with respect, and self-respect. Did this adult look confident? Did they look like they wanted to be there? Were they looking forward to the next hour, or dreading it? All this was detected using a sixth sense, but other evaluations were more prosaic.

When we spoke to the teacher, how did she look at us? In a friendly manner, or as if regarding something on the bottom of her shoe? Was her tone of voice warm and engaging, or stiff and robotic? You can choose how to behave in the classroom and this will have a major bearing on how your pupils behave.

The good news is that you can be as friendly as you like, within limits.  Any talk of ‘Don’t smile until Christmas’ is nonsense. So long as you teach routines, establish boundaries, apply consequences, and keep your promises, it pays to be friendly. Trying to be a tyrant is a fool’s game. The pupils in your classroom are far more sophisticated than my peers and I were a few decades back. You will simply end up with 30 enemies.

It is worth considering the judgements that your pupils will make about you, before you open your mouth. For example, think about your posture. Do you stand straight, or crouch? Do you fidget or remain still? Do you smile in a relaxed manner, or do you look so tense that if someone pops a balloon you’re going to have a coronary?

Then, when it is time to speak, have you given thought to your voice? Speak too quietly and your class will give up trying to listen. Speak too loudly and they’ll assume you expect trouble. Have you come up with some scripts for the various moments that are likely to occur in a typical lesson?  When someone turns round and chats to a friend on the row behind them, how exactly will you react? An irritated ‘Excuse me!’ will give a different message from ‘Jason… facing me?.. thank you.’

Then of course there is what your pupils glean about you and what you choose to tell them. ‘Where were you born Sir?’ is a fair enough question. ‘Where were you Saturday night?’ is not. ‘What made you teach French?’ is a question I would answer. ‘What made you choose that dress?’ is not. It is vital to establish good relationships with pupils but this must be about mutual respect, not idle curiosity.

A great model for building these relationships is the ‘emotional bank account’.  There will be countless opportunities during the average week to show interest in a student, to ask how they played in the rugby game last night, or if they caught anything when they went fishing with Grandad at the weekend.

Similarly there are opportunities to give a little focused help to individuals with the learning. All these interactions are moments when a deposit can be made in the child’s emotional bank account. By taking an interest, showing kindness, or simply spending time, you are building up credit with that child.  Then, in November, when you are tired and going down with a cold and you snap at them, you will pay out from that account, but you’ll still be in credit, because you paid in, day in and day out.

Teaching behaviour is about being explicit. How exactly will your routines work? When you collect the homework, do they pass their books to the end of the row, or forward? Thinking your routines through in as much detail as possible will save you from looking like a ditherer and losing learning time.

Highly successful sports coaches talk about ‘process’. Instead of encouraging their teams to focus on the outcome, with a ‘win at all costs’ mentality, they emphasise sticking to established processes, that will tend to bring about a positive result. In football for example, such a process might be to keep the ball, by passing it swiftly and moving in patterns that provide a free colleague to pass it to. Stick to the plan says the coach, focus on the process, and the result will take care of itself.

We can apply this thinking in the classroom. Instead of worrying ‘Will my class behave?’, establish processes that you will focus on. Some good examples would be following a ‘one voice at a time’ routine, taking an interest in your pupils, and paying attention to those who get it right. Do these things relentlessly and ‘behaviour’ will improve.

I adopt a simple model when I think about teaching behaviour: Teach it, Model it, Highlight it. ‘Teach it’ covers the explicit teaching of the behaviours you want to see, such as lining up outside the room, answering the register with a ‘Yes Sir’ or using one voice at a time. Creating and sticking to routines is the way to do this. ‘Model it’ is about showing your pupils what these behaviours look like. When you hand out books, don’t throw them on to your pupils’ desks; place them carefully instead, and when your pupils speak to you, listen and be seen to listen. The rules must apply to you to. Finally, ‘Highlight it’ means take every opportunity to single out and praise by name, pupils who demonstrate the behaviours you want to see.

If you systematically and relentlessly teach, model and highlight desired behaviour you will find that these processes deliver the classroom in which you and your pupils can thrive.

 

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