‘Coping’ – how do teachers handle things when they are not in complete control of the classroom?
Many of the books aimed at helping teachers and student teachers to improve their management of pupil behaviour, for understandable reasons, often do not dwell on situations where teachers feel that there is nothing they can do to get the class to behave perfectly within the confines of the actual lesson. So what did practising teachers say about situations where they felt they just had to ‘cope’ as well as possible in classroom climates that were not optimal for pupil learning?
Both the interview responses and the questionnaire surveys (Haydn, 2012) suggested that many teachers have to teach classes where they do not feel in completely relaxed and assured control of the class they are teaching, and are not working at levels 9 and 10 of the scale. (A 2018 TeacherTapp survey showed that almost all teachers ‘dreaded’ teaching at least some of their classes – https://teachertapp.co.uk/1266/).
Many teachers acknowledged that they sometimes had groups where they did not enjoy their teaching, and where they felt that it was beyond their power to get to ‘Level 10’ with that group of pupils. How did teachers respond to that situation? A variety of suggestions emerged.
Change the format of the lesson
‘I change the order of things. Do my ‘fun’ starters at the end of the lesson instead of the beginning as a reward for being cooperative… being reasonable.’ (NQT)
‘With the worst groups, I’ve stopped “classic” teaching in the sense of having some sort of exposition, oral introduction to the lesson. I don’t talk at the start. When they come in, the activity will be on their desks and I will tell them to do it straightaway. Even with really tough groups, some of them will just get on with it, or will slump, heads down. This narrows down the number of kids you have to sort out. Then you work on them, by name, trying to cajole them, settle them down. And I try to have something planned as a reward for the end of the lesson… we’ll finish with a video if….’ (NQT)
‘I used to resort to a series of worksheets, do-able tasks, fill in the missing words, things to keep them occupied. Now I’m more experienced I would probably do it differently, but then that was the only way I could get through the day.’ (Seven years in teaching)
‘If it’s Thursday or Friday period 6, I have to make radical changes to my planning. There’s a real difference in terms of what I can do with them and my planning has to take account of that. You just develop a better understanding of what school is like from their point of view. A lot of them have had enough, they don’t want to be in your lesson they want to go home, they are looking forward to messing about with their friends and socialising. You’ve got to bust a gut to make it either really structured and purposeful, or try really hard to have something that might interest them, grab their attention, at least try and plan a bit of fun or interest into the lesson, even if that means going a bit all over the place in terms of content.’ (NQT)
(Several teachers mentioned using short extracts of a ‘watchable’ video as a means of getting through the lesson with difficult groups).
‘I’ve learned that you have to take some things with a pinch of salt. With some groups you have to let some things go, just pick up on big things.’ (NQT in tough school)
‘With some groups I just plough on, just keep going unless there is a major atrocity. Sometimes they subside a bit when they realise that I’m not rising to it, that I’m just carrying on with the lesson, and they just put their heads down, slump over the desk. I know the theory is that they get worse and worse until they find out what your limit is but this doesn’t seem the norm.’ (NQT in tough school)
‘I still ignore some things, you can’t pick everything up, but this one thing – not talking when you’re talking – that’s a key one. But if you start “Where’s your tie boy?”, “Put that gum in the bin now”, “You, stop banging that ruler”, “Stop swinging on your chair”, “Turn round now”… it’s about priorities, the art of the possible, one step at a time.’ (Third year of teaching)
‘I learned to battle through. You have to let some things go… sometimes even some of the ground rules you’ve been trying to establish… because it’s one of those days and you just do the best you can. You’ve got to keep going, don’t stop, focus on the kids who are learning and complying even if there are not many of them.’
‘It is important not to start getting narky with all of them just because you are under pressure. You’ve got to stay polite, calm and reasonable, even if you don’t feel like that inside. You need the patience of a saint some days and you’ve got to be fairly thick-skinned… you mustn’t take it personally.’
‘The biggest thing was just learning to keep calm under pressure. Don’t let them wind you up. I learned it almost by accident when I went in one morning feeling really tired and not very well. I didn’t give up, I didn’t just let them do whatever, but I perhaps came across as a bit more relaxed and they didn’t seem up for it as much.’ (Second year of teaching)
‘I know you’re not supposed to do it but I would sometimes pop out for a minute… not far and with an excuse… but it sometimes just gave me chance to compose myself, to calm down, to gather my resources for another round.’ (Third year of teaching in a tough school)
‘I remember the Bill Rogers thing about dealing with the things you can control, not the things that you can’t control. I try really hard to keep calm, even when provoked, I try hard not to let it get to me. You can make a mental effort not to get angry or upset or exasperated and that has helped me.’ (NQT in a tough school)
Although there are obviously some occasions when teachers might need to raise their voices in order to make themselves heard and move to a situation where they can talk ‘normally’, there was an almost universal consensus that anger, scorn and shouting were not helpful ways forward and were generally counter productive.
‘Losing your temper’ (or even pretending to lose your temper) was thought to be inadvisable:
‘If you are a teacher, you can’t say “the red mist came over me… I didn’t know what I was doing…” How well will that stand up? You read about things like that in the papers… good teacher, awful pupil, and in a moment, the teacher’s career is jeopardised, the pupil has won. They have nothing much to lose, they love it, they’ve got you in trouble. Think about it…’ (Teacher Educator)
‘There are some student teachers… and teachers… who go in there and wind them up… who can generate a riot out of passive and dispirited kid who were just slumped quietly over their desks.’ (Teacher Educator)
‘You might intimidate some pupils by shouting and getting angry but there are significant numbers of pupils who enjoy the sight of the teacher jumping up and down and getting exasperated. It is probably more interesting than the worksheet or whatever it was that they were doing.’ (Mentor)
‘It was as if he had just come from watching the Professionals or The Sweeney on TV. He thought he could face down the kids by being really up-front aggressive, right in their face, eyeball to eyeball. This might work with some kids, some of them will back down and be intimidated by such an approach but it’s a very high risk strategy. There are some kids in most schools who would rise to this and react in kind, storm out, knock chairs over, tell them to F. off or worse. A strutting macho approach is like a red rag to a bull with some of our pupils.’ (Head of Department)
‘If people go in with an aggressive “I’m not going to stand any nonsense from you lot…”, our kids are very “in your face”… there are lots of them who will take the teacher up on this… it gets them stirred up.’ (Experienced teacher)
‘Some student teachers try talking to them in sergeant major mode, exploding, “You will do this..”, “I’m not having that”. It’s exactly not the way to talk to our kids, it’s like a red rag to a bull, it winds them up, they will make a conscious attempt to behave badly.’ (Head of Department)
‘I did learn that shouting isn’t very effective’ (Teaching Assistant)
Several respondents suggested that it was no longer possible to physically frighten pupils into behaving well by and aggressive behaviour or by threats:
‘Certainly, shouting doesn’t help at all. Kids aren’t scared of teachers anymore. When I was at school we were scared of some of our teachers. Now they know that there’s nothing you can do to physically intimidate them. You can’t do it by anger, force, noise.’ (Second year of teaching)
‘We don’t have any sanctions that are available to us that would scare kids into compliance apart from perhaps reporting their behaviour to their parents in some cases.’ (Assistant Head)
‘They know their rights, they know that teachers are not allowed to hit them and aggressive, threatening behaviour is generally counter-productive.’ (Year Head)
Some of the coping strategies were as much philosophical as practical. One strand of this was remembering that (usually), lots of teachers are finding it difficult to get to level 10:
‘I’d had a bad day and my mentor advised me to just have a walk round the school during a lesson when I wasn’t teaching. I saw other teachers having a tough time and it made me feel a lot better.’ (Trainee)
‘We do have issues with behaviour. We’ve got some lovely, lovely kids, but also, a small minority who are really difficult. I’ve had to develop a thicker skin, to realise that it’s not just me, it’s not personal. You see other, more experienced teachers having trouble and it makes you feel better.’ (NQT at a school ‘with serious weaknesses’)
‘You worry about it and if you are sensible, you talk about the issues, the pupils who are doing particular things to give you a hard time, and this usually helps to get things in proportion. It might not provide a magic answer but you realise that it’s not that big deal, it’s not beyond the parameters of what’ s happening to other teachers…’ (Teacher Educator)
One Advanced Skills Teacher talked of how important it was to try to not take it personally when pupils were aggressive and rude, and how difficult it was to do this:
‘It is incredibly hard not to take it personally, not to think that their awful behaviour should in some way have been prevented or minimised by you. I still take it personally after all these years, even as I tell younger teachers that they mustn’t take it personally. It is crucial for your psychological well being at this school but that doesn’t make it easy to do.’
‘Keeping things in proportion’ was also suggested as a strategy for coping with unsatisfactory pupil behaviour and deficits on the 10 point scale. Remembering that Level 10 is not a natural state of affairs and that lots of pupils with problems are prone to misbehave and ‘try it on’. In going into the world of classrooms, you are in a sense leaving the adult world with its developed and generally accepted conventions of appropriate behaviour and going into an environment where many of the inhabitants have not yet understood and internalised these conventions, and part of the teacher’s job is to help them to get there.
‘It’s not a nice feeling not being fully in control of a lesson but you’ve got to keep things in perspective. Not giving up, not stopping trying but being philosophical about things not being perfect. Not thinking that life will never be the same because 8R were not fully under your control.’ (Teacher Educator)
‘Some of them (teachers) seemed to have the ability to shrug things off… to think after a bad lesson, a rough ride… tomorrow’s another day, to learn to be resilient. Not to give up, to stop trying, but not to just brood about it in a sort of negative, passive way.’ (Teaching Assistant)
‘Some teachers were just so professional… always calm, polite and composed, even when they were under pressure. Some of them also seemed able to put incidents behind them once they were over… to walk away from it and just move on to the next class.’ (Teaching Assistant)
It might be helpful to think in terms of a sort of ‘Richter Scale’ of pupil atrocity to try and keep things in perspective:
‘I think of the atrocities that happen the world… 9/11, beheadings, terrorism, muggings – or even the stuff that happens in this school, and in the great scale of things the fact that one small child with problems doesn’t want to do the work doesn’t seem such a big deal. I’ve still got to try and do my best to sort out the best possible way forward but it doesn’t seem quite so desperate.’ (NQT working in a difficult school)
From Haydn, T. (2012) Managing pupil behaviour: working to improve classroom climate, London, RoutledgeFalmer: 96-99
Being pragmatic: the art of the possible
Another facet of ‘control’ which emerged as important to teachers was that they felt able to undertake a wide range of teaching approaches with a class, and were not limited by considerations of pupil behaviour. There was often an awareness that keeping control was being achieved at the expense of ‘real’ learning for pupils but some saw this as a necessary compromise or ‘lesser evil’.
‘I just know with one class that I would not take them out of the classroom into any public place because I don’t feel confident that I would be fully in control of all members of the group. You know that this is not ideal, and that it is limiting the educational opportunities of some children, but you’ve got to be pragmatic, you can’t risk having disasters. (Second year of teaching)
‘You become aware that you start designing lessons around pupils’ behaviour. I started giving them things to write down, get in their books. You don’t like doing it because you know they’re not learning anything, they’re not doing anything worthwhile.’ (NQT)
‘For instance, with some groups, I found that I couldn’t turn round and write things on the board. If you turned your back on them for two minutes, they were off… calling out to each other and messing around. So I stopped using the blackboard.’ (Student teacher)
‘If you were walking round, from outside you might get the impression that perhaps as high a proportion as 70/80% of classes were at levels 9 and 10, perhaps the average would be around 7,8,9… but inside the rooms you are sometimes aware that these levels are partly achieved by control strategies which limit how much worthwhile learning is going on… teachers structure lessons so as to “keep their heads down”, and keep them busy. There are perhaps half a dozen teachers who will be struggling at around levels 3 and 4.’ (Advanced Skills Teacher)