Mary wanted to make a difference. She was a well-read humanities graduate with a first class honours degree and a passion for her subject, History. She chose teaching because she really wanted to change children’s’ lives and give them a chance to grow and develop. I first met her when she came to my school as a newly qualified teacher. She came bounding into the staffroom full of good intentions and enthusiasm. She came from a large family and had plenty of child-care experience, giving her mother a hand with younger brothers and sisters. She had been a Sunday school teacher and had really enjoyed having her own class. Coming into teaching was the fulfilment of a dream she had harboured since childhood and she admitted that even as a child she had tended to ‘teach’ younger siblings and neighbourhood children. Gregarious by nature, Mary told me all this within minutes of meeting her.
Our paths did not cross for a few weeks because after an initial burst of socialising, Mary rarely came to the staffroom. She was never to be seen at break and had lunch [if she had any] in her classroom. Not long into the term, I heard some established teachers complaining in the staffroom that for all of her qualifications, Mary could not even control her classes and that one of them had gone in and ‘told Year 9 off.’ Inwardly, I thought that such intervention would not help Mary one bit. Sometimes, experienced teachers can forget about the difficulties of early careers when we are establishing ourselves and our boundaries. When, on duty, I patrolled the History area and poked my head around her door to say hello and was worried to see that Mary had lost that hopeful enthusiasm. She looked sad and unhappy. Furthermore, her classroom, for which she had bold plans, was looking unloved and untidy. This deflation happens to lots of young teachers especially if they have little support. Her situation needed investigation.
Mary loved history. She did not just study it at University: she read history books for pleasure, enjoyed visiting historical buildings and was a member of the local history society. Imagine Mary’s despair and disappointment when she found that some of her classes made it very difficult for her to teach them anything at all. All of her hopes and aspirations for her charges were eaten away by a sense of failure and dread. Her planning was immaculate as were her intentions and yet when it came to putting those plans into action everything floated away from her. She explained this feeling eloquently but felt powerless to change things. Learners were not behaving badly enough to warrant large interventions but as she explained, ‘they won’t listen and I am not teaching them anything.’
Of all the classes Mary taught, it was her Year 9 that caused her the most sleepless nights. It came to pass that on days when she was scheduled to teach year 9, she would often try to book a course or if she had a cold, that was the day she would stay in bed. Of course, the problem did not go away and on her return her dread had increased and pupil behaviour was worse. She did not even acknowledge these avoidance tactics until her absences were pointed out to her: the result was she felt more wretched than ever. It was dreadful to her to realise that she was using delaying tactics; she found it hard to face the idea that the profession she had wanted to be part of, for so long, was proving to be a problematic one.
Mary sought advice from more experienced teachers and tried out several of the tips they gave her. She tried standing at the front of the classroom waiting for a silence but it did not come; she eventually started her lesson amongst the tumult. She tried banging a loud object. This startled the pupils for a moment but they returned to their chatter once again. When asked to give the root of the problem as she saw it, Mary described the class as too chatty, unmotivated and that they showed her no respect. I was one of the experienced teachers that Mary approached for help. I needed to support Mary to find her own way in this new profession for there are always ‘problem classes’ which for a variety of reasons need more thought, more planning and more strategising than others.
I started by asking Mary to give me pen portraits, from memory, of as many of the class as she could. What struck me about her descriptions was that she could do this for the first five or six pupils who came to mind, using their names and portraying them as problems to be overcome. This girl always answered back; this boy never put anything down on paper and his friend never had any equipment. After talking in detail for some time, Mary began to struggle ‘The girl with curly hair…I think her name is Tracey’. It was clear that Mary’s imagining of the class focused on the behaviour of a few and they were blocking out her view of the others. That weekend, I asked Mary to look at the work the class produced and to make a real effort to concentrate on those who were cooperating and working with her.
When she returned, I asked Mary to look more carefully at the class in her mind’s eye and instead of thinking of the students who ‘troubled’ her to substitute the faces of pupils who always did their work and always responded to instruction. This was a first step in changing Mary’s mind-set and letting her see that it is never a whole class who are causing difficulties. With prompting, she did start to see the class in a more positive way but that alone is not a magic trick but only a first stage in changing perspective.
I asked Mary how she felt about the class, a question which surprised her. She was astonished when I told her that the way she gave the books out betrayed her dislike. She slapped the books on the table with no eye contact with the pupils. It is the teacher’s job to believe in the potential of every student and to find something likeable about each learner. Mary agreed with that sentiment but admitted that, if she was being honest, the struggle for control with Year 9 made it difficult for her to feel positive about them. She felt that they had dismissed her as having nothing to offer them and crucially she was beginning to believe that they were right and that she did indeed have nothing to offer.
To understand her dilemma we would need to go with her into the classroom and this is what we would see. Mary had begun to believe that each lesson would go downhill and so when the class arrived, she would either be late [having lingered over coffee or staffroom chat or a sixth form question] or she would be sorting out papers on her desk. She waited until everyone had arrived in class and allowed students to sit wherever they liked. The register took an interminable time during which the class talked amongst themselves, some swung on chairs and the truculent flicked paper at each other. When she finally started the lesson, she stood almost apologetically at the front waiting for a silence which did not come, although a few students tried to helpfully hush the class. Although her lesson on paper was meticulously planned, ten minutes elapsed before it truly began. The starter was a guessing game based on past work but it felt chaotic because pupils shouted out and drowned each other’s voices, while some just sat in silence or continued their conversations. The middle section of the lesson involved writing in a complex way using writing frames but when Mary tried to explain, there was a buzz of noise. Instead of asking for quiet, Mary’s voice got louder and shriller. When the lesson finished, students were at different stages in their writing. Some had raced through and finished so that they were at leisure to talk or make trouble amongst their neighbours. Others had hardly started to put thoughts on paper, while two boys in the corner had not written a word. During this writing period, Mary had fielded a whole raft of questions, and had scurried around the room offering advice whilst those receiving none, got up to mischief.
Mary was not a bad teacher; she was an inexperienced one. Handling the organisation of a class of twenty five or more students is a complex business. Mary has not grasped that this learning space belonged to her and her rules and protocols should hold sway. Like any social contract, those entering this space needed to agree and abide by that contract for the sake of themselves and others. There were quite a few things to talk about from that observation.
Firstly, Mary needed not to take the situation personally, but to see it as a problem to be solved. As a profession teachers need to be more open and caring to younger members of staff. Sadly, Samuel Smiles’ philosophy can live on in some schools – ‘Nobody helped me and I managed’. It does not help anyone to say ‘Oh really, I don’t have any trouble with that class.’ However, observing someone else teach the class can be helpful. Mary followed one of the learners for a day in a pupil trail and found it illuminating. The interesting thing was that in some classes, the learner still behaved badly, which at least was reassuring but the crucial point was that in some classes he behaved much better. Mary tried to analyse what was happening in the successful classrooms which engaged her class. An intelligent young woman, she pinpointed some important strategies:
- where the students were learning the relationship with the teacher was good
- the teacher welcomed each student into the room
- work was waiting on the desk or whiteboard so they were working from the beginning
- if anyone stepped out of line, teachers reminded them of agreed class rules
- if anyone needed a pen, paper, resources they went and got them as such procedures were already established
This reflection allowed Mary to see the importance of classroom protocols in managing her space. Observing experienced practitioners can backfire and make the less experienced feel inadequate but I like to tell the story of Picasso who was on an American chat show and was asked to do a drawing in a short time. ‘Well Mr. Picasso don’t you feel guilty that your drawing took five minutes but it is worth millions?’ ‘Five minutes,’ snapped back Picasso, ‘It took me all my life to do that.’ Wanting to be a great teacher is quick work, but becoming one is a slow ripening fruit.
Mary’s physical stance at the front of the class was crying out that she was scared of failure. Not enough thought is given to the use of paralinguistics or of space in training teachers. With an awareness of body language and tone, a teacher can do so much. I got Mary to think about how she stood in front of the class and where else she could stand so that the class could be surprised. She began to plant her feet firmly, centring her weight so as to give out a sense of confidence. Mary needed to give her instructions as if she expected them to be carried out rather than almost apologetically. Learners need to believe that their teachers care about them, are organised and competent to teach them what they need to know. Mary needed to believe these things about herself and before she could be certain, she needed to act this out. I got her to think about a teacher she admired and think ‘How would Mrs. Lewis do this? Eventually, she would not need such channelling because she would be ‘Mrs. De Winter now.’
Mary tried out many of the things mentioned and some days were better than others. At first, there were lessons that went really well but others where she felt she was back to square one. However, she slowly but surely made progress with the year 9 class and the more success she had the more confident she became. She focused on what she liked about the class, began to imagineer more of the faces who were responding to her teaching and as she got to know them she saw them as individuals rather than an unruly mass. Nothing in teaching can be substituted for a trusted relationship between teachers and students. One technique suggested to her was one more experienced teachers are aware of which is ‘catching them being good’. Instead of always giving attention to those who are misbehaving, it helps to praise those who are doing exactly what you want. One tip that Mary took on board was to stand at the door, at the end of a lesson and give a personal goodbye or/and praise to each learner as they left so that her goodwill, forgiveness and commitment to well-being and progress were constantly reinforced.
Mary stayed in teaching and became much better at classroom management. Her commitment and reflection enabled her to grow as a teacher. That development stemmed from a reflective mind that was willing to take risks and to recognise her part in what was happening. We cannot change other people’s behaviour but we can always control and change our own.
|Practical ideas mentioned: getting attention |
For the school
– arrange a learner trail for the same pupil
– observe and give honest feedback
– arrange mentoring meetings to bring out what has been learnt
– support inexperienced teachers to try out new ideas
– make sure NQTs have excellent CPD programmes
For the teacher
– don’t take it personally
– meet and greet pupils at the door
– don’t let disruptive pupils block out those who want to learn
– establish classroom protocols and if they are not working re-visit them
– have a role model to help your own self esteem
– practise using the voice
– have a task ready as soon as the learners arrive
– pay attention to your body language/ stance
– plan work with variety of approach
– act being more confident than you are