It is that time in term for the NQTs: half-term seems a long way away (it isn’t but it feels like it) and the honeymoon is over. Sorting through my files last week I came across notes I made following a discussion amongst a very strong SLT some years ago. We were trying to make a list of the best advice we gave NQTs. I hope some of this is helpful.
Their behaviour is not your fault but it is your problem. Depersonalise it in your mind for a start. If you have had a nasty and hurtful experience with a child or a class it is extremely unlikely that they will be lying awake angsting about it: don’t let yourself do that – the job is too exhausting. It really isn’t personal and it’s unlikely to be your fault unless you deliberately didn’t plan or turned up with a hangover etc. A struggle with student behaviour is a problem to strategise about and solve; not one to cry about. Get good at depersonalising, seeking advice and building a strategy.
The simple truth is that you cannot teach them anything properly if you are not on top of the behaviour. Back in the day they taught us that if your lessons were properly prepared the students would behave. This is not true and it is very unhelpful because you can exhaust yourself with planning only to find things get worse. The planning needs to be strategies around behaviour when you are struggling with it. I was very fortunate as an NQT (we were called ‘probationers’ back then) to have an excellent Deputy Head and learned most of this from her:
- Pick the one who leads the poor / off-task behaviour and turn him into your friend. The old tricks still work: asking for help outside of lesson about how he thinks you should approach a difficult topic; asking him to sit close to you because you need someone to mind the distribution of equipment; approaching in the yard to discuss something out of school you know he is interested in.
- If you have had a disaster of a lesson begin the next one by saying “I’m really sorry last lesson went badly for you. I didn’t realise ………..(insert here anything appropriate) and I know that means we have much more to get through today so let’s get a quick start.”
- Insist on the school’s routine for the start of a lesson and instead of shouting when they aren’t standing silently behind their desks, stay standing quietly yourself modelling the behaviour you need, find the one child who is doing what is required and praise them. Nine times out of ten they will all look to see what is being praised and a few will immediately copy. Praise them. It only takes 5 or 6 “Well done X” for the Mexican wave of compliance to occur. Then immediately seize it and make a pacy start.
- Catch them being good at something and praise. If it can’t yet be something inside the class make it something outside.
- Own your classroom. This can be hard if you teach all over the school but there are still little things you can do – insisting on straightened desks, asking for noticeboard space etc. If you are lucky enough to have your own classroom adjust the layout to suit you. Always stride around the room purposefully, making eye contact. It is YOUR room; not theirs. Be as OCD as possible.
- If equipment is an issue sort it immediately. “Hands up if you have no pen” and count them out as you distribute and as you collect in at the end. You can take the names later. Wasting time on little things is counter productive at the beginning.
- Ring home to praise – it makes ringing home to complain much more effective if you ever need to do that. And at parents evenings always start the conversation with your face lighting up, smiling and saying “Oh I am so pleased to meet you, I love your X”. You can then move on to the areas for improvement. If the parent goes home saying how much they like you, they’ll back you too and the child gets the message.
- NEVER keep a struggle to yourself – your HoD and SLT will know anyway and you’ll gain their respect by following their advice and improve quicker too.
- Borrow the authority of others. When you are near a student who is a problem for you and there is a member of SLT around ask the student to do something: they have to obey you and be seen to obey you publicly. Trust me – this works!
- If it gets out of hand and you need help it is best to quietly write a note and give it to a good student to deliver for you. Publicly calling for help in front of the class is best avoided unless absolutely necessary.
- If you need someone removed, get them removed using the strategy above: I don’t think I’ve ever seen standing a student outside work – they generally cause more of a problem there.
We all work best for people who like us and teenagers are no different. I had a marvellous science teacher who would say every time I popped in “Mrs McMullen this is my favourite class” no matter who she was teaching. They all believed her and they all adored her. Basically you have to learn to love them because they are the ones you have got in front of you and they learn and behave for those who love them. “Fake it until you make it” as my eldest daughter would say.
Copy what you have seen working for others and adapt it to your style. I had the weird experience of watching my NQT teach when I was a Head of Department and it was like watching the Head of Department I had had years earlier. Great behaviour management passes down from generation to generation of teachers! (My youngest daughter really believed me when I told her we were all taught at college to say certain phrases)
One to one conversations with the really difficult teenagers can be the hardest of all to manage in your first few years. These are my top tips:
- Begin with “what I really admire in you is ………” before the hard news.
- Do not get deflected into side issues of the whole long story of injustice. Stop and ask them at what point they made a poor choice. Keep the focus.
- Make it clear behaviour and language are a matter of choice: “what do you expect when …….?” should be met with “I expect you to be in charge of your behaviour.” Relate the choices they make to how they would be perceived in the outside world – a hospital waiting room etc.
- Keep it clear the issue is their behaviour not them as a person.
- Never back a student into a corner (metaphorically): they have to have a way out of the mess and to be enabled to see it clearly.
Always remember that the colleagues you most admire struggled at the start. I remember a colleague saying to me “Why do they all line up straight the minute you appear?” He is now on his second headship. I also remember camping outside of my Deputy Head’s office from about 6am one morning during my first year ready to hand in my resignation. She said something that has never left me: “Good teachers always look to what they could have done better, Ros, but great ones never let that break them.”
My favourite two pieces of advice come not from my old SLT nor me in fact I don’t remember where these come from but they are very good:
The students most in need of love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways
Meet resentment and hatred with strength; never revenge
Half-term isn’t that long away. But a school year is a marathon not a sprint and you only get a week off. Pace yourself. And think of all the funny anecdotes you have garnered to entertain family and friends. You are doing the best job in the world. Keep going.