Recently I received this question on the blog from Giulia:

Hi James, interesting views and good to have the updates. One of my teachers is having problems 
with discipline and classroom management with some boys that tend to be distracted and distract
 others around them. Could you give us any tips to overcome this in a positive kind of way so they
 feel rewarded when they need to be and on the other the look of the teachers is meaningful enough that they need to stop…. Are there strategies for this carrot and stick approach? Or maybe other more sophisticated methods? Many thanks Giulia

Good question!  And a difficult one, don’t you think?  Low-level disruption while you’re trying to engage a class can be every bit as damaging to learning as an outright confrontation from a pupil which calls a halt to the entire lesson.  Perhaps more so, because (depending on what things are like in your school), the low-level stuff happens much more often (some pupils wouldn’t dare to confront, but they feel somehow invisible or supported by their peers with the low-level disruption) and it may be more tolerated within the culture of the school.

I’ve taken a few days to think this over before replying.  Partly because it’s been a busy week, but partly because as I started to put suggestions down on paper I was reminded how complicated this apparently relatively simple issue actually is.  Everything we do and everything that happens takes place within a context and although the “presenting issue” may be the same, the different underlying contexts mean that we may handle it in any number of ways.  How successful any course of action is depends on many factors – what the school is generally like behaviour-wise, how  common misbehaviour is in our own classroom, how pupils see us, how we see the pupils, how supportive parents are, pupils’ expectations of what will happen if they ignore what we do and also if they actually do what we require.  How long we have been in the school, how long we have had the class, what was tolerated before.  I remember what a shock it was to me when I moved from one school to another some years ago.  Previously I had been able to keep teachers with their classes all the way through wherever possible, so I also had had classes from Year 7 all the way through to Year 11 and sometimes 13.  It was far from being an easy school, but relationships and ways of working were such that low-level misbehaviour were reasonably rare in the MFL department.  When I moved schools I didn’t have that “history” and I was starting again.  The culture of the school was very different and constant chatting and lateness (usually up to 15 mins) were acceptable, at least in practice if not in theory.  It took me almost a whole term with all of my classes from Year 8 upwards to establish that it was unacceptable to talk in English about any randomly occurring notion with any nearby pupil whenever I stopped to draw breath.  It was very tough fighting against what had been acceptable before and was still acceptable elsewhere in the school (from the pupils’ perspective), but I knew that unless I could win that battle, we weren’t going to get anywhere.  And, of course, you will never be thanked by the class for taking the initiative!

Other important factors determining whether behaviour measures will be successful are what the lesson is like in terms of its content, its sense of purpose, its appeal to learning styles and whether it takes place in English, the target language, or the target language except for when misbehaviour occurs!  The biggest factor is, I think, the relationships we have with pupils and who decides the basis for those relationships.  That’s not the subject of a blog post, but rather an entire book!

What follows, then, is not in the least bit authoritative – I don’t feel qualified – but the question feels very familiar to me, both in terms of supporting staff in my capacity as Subject Leader, and also as a class teacher myself.  I’ll set out my immediate thoughts of how I’d go about handling the situation, without the benefit of seeing it.  Being there, of course, might put a different complexion on things.  In another post, we’ll take a look at the issue of classroom management more widely.

First, a few comments on the question itself:

“Could you give us any tips to overcome this in a positive kind of way so they feel rewarded when they need to be”.  The only way to feel rewarded is to be rewarded.  It can be difficult when a pupil is frequently giving us grief of one sort or another to put that completely to one side and praise them sincerely when they do something right, especially if it’s starting to get under our skin.  Yet I think this is the most effective way for them to come to believe that our discipline is actually directed at their behaviour, not at them personally.  If one day they come in to school and without announcing it, decide that actually they’re a bit bored of mucking about and they feel like behaving themselves, and we don’t notice, that can be all the justification they need to reverse that decision!  Not everyone likes public praise, of course.  Knowing your own pupils, you can probably guess if this applies to them.  Here are some options:

  • On a day-to-day level, if you run a team competition in your lessons you can give points not just for getting things perfectly right, but also for having a go.  I think it’s still worth giving more points when a pupil (whoever they are) gets something completely right, but if that’s the only way to get a point, some pupils will never get one.  I prefer to use points cards (thumbs-up cards) for points rather than just marking them on the board.  It’s something tangible, visible and individual.  It does mean I have to leg it around the room much more, and I could be setting up a situation I then have to deal with (mucking about with the cards or fighting over them).  If in doubt, don’t.
  • A quiet word to say “well done” with some specifics, either on the way out or when pupils are working in pairs, said sincerely and with no hint of humour, can work wonders.
  • Where appropriate, a very quick phone call home (clear it with whoever needs to know first – it could land you in hot water otherwise).  It can mean a lot to the parent and a lot more to the student who then realises you don’t only call home when things are bad.  When I’ve done it, the parents have appreciated the effort, and so does the pupil because they find out about it from their parents.  I’ve particularly used this where a pupil has been a pain for a while when it comes to doing some of the more basic things we expect (take part properly in the lesson, speak in the target language, do homework) but begins to show signs of wanting to sort themselves out.  However, I’ve learned that if I want to call home, time is of the essence – I’ve kicked myself several times where I’ve waited too long and they’ve got themselves into bother again before I’ve made the call!
  • Some schools use departmental postcards to post home.  A good idea, perhaps, but if they’re sent out all the time by departments all over the school I think they can lose their novelty value.
  • Email is the quickest way to communicate, but a phone call is even better. But if you’re really pushed for time, it’s better to email than not to contact at all.

“…and on the other the look of the teachers is meaningful enough that they need to stop” .  A glare from a teacher can be just what is needed to nip some low-level misbehaviour in the bud without turning it into a public confrontation.  Most of the class may be completely unaware that you dealt with anything at all, just the pupil concerned and maybe one or two around them.  This, I think, is the ideal situation.  I also think that Giulia’s question gets right to the point – the look needs to be meaningful.  It needs to represent something.  A look, all on its own, may appear to be enough in the first week or two in September if a class doesn’t know us and doesn’t know what might happen next, but it will very quickly lose any effectiveness if all we do is look!  It communicates that we have noticed the misbehaviour and that we are not going to do anything about it.  Control of the class passes to the misbehaving pupil.  Game over.

If that “look” is going to mean anything, it has to be linked not to what might happen next, as some sort of mystery, but at what has already happened in terms of the expectations we have set out with the class at the very beginning of the year and how consistently we enforce them when they are not met.  I think that is really the only way that a look can work.  If we set out our expectations in September but then let things go, or only follow them up inconsistently, we create a rod for our own backs.  The expectations I have always used insist that: There will be no calling out (except for when I give a particular visual signal, which is when the whole class is expected to join in together); respect and consideration will be shown to all members of the class at all times; every effort will be made to speak in French/Spanish to the teacher and to the other pupils.  There are four others as well (relating to homework, equipment, etc.), but these ones refer to how we communicate with each other.  Of course, if we are going to run a lesson entirely in the target language, we need to teach the class how to cope with that.  Not just how not to be overwhelmed by it, but also how to engage with it.  More on this in a post on Coping Strategies.  At the first point that an expectation is not met, it has to be addressed, otherwise they are meaningless.  If the teacher does not take the lead in the classroom, one of the pupils or worse, a group of them, will, and that’s a very hard nut to crack.  Similarly, where expectations are met, they need to be praised.  Where praise outweighs correction, it can be very motivating, foster good teacher-pupil relationships and it backs up the worth of the expectations.  Pupils benefit from clarity.  Positive reinforcement gives motivating recognition to pupils doing the right thing.  I know some teachers are of the view that we should ignore poor behaviour and only give recognition to good behaviour through praise and rewards.  I don’t share this view, but I do think the positive should outweigh the negative.  Ultimately, it’s the teacher who has the greatest impact on what the atmosphere in the room will be by making all sorts of choices to prevent and respond to what is allowed to happen.

The most useful book I have ever read on classroom management is Lee Canter’s Assertive Discipline.  It’s been through a number of revisions since it first appeared but you can pick up some earlier versions very cheaply online. The cover of the edition I have has a rather twee photo on it which may make you wonder whether it’s very realistic, but in my view, it’s outstanding.  You have to work out for yourself how you make some of it culturally appropriate – some of it felt very American and I was teaching in a British school – but then this is not teaching by numbers!  The principles are completely sound in my view.  In short, it’s the only book I’d recommend.

So, some tips.

Four things I wouldn’t do:

  1. Make idle threats.  “If you don’t sort yourself out, I’ll put you in detention for a week.”  I won’t.  They won’t turn up because it feels out of proportion.  I’ll look silly when they call my bluff and then other members of staff will end up dragged in to sorting out something I’ve made worse.
  2. Give three warnings.  I think this is excessive and if it’s a class where this is an issue, it’s easy to lose track of who has had 2 warnings, who has already had 3… it’s messy.  It often leads teachers to writing names on the board, which I think just gives bravado points.  It sometimes leads to a bargaining situation where if a pupil improves the name is rubbed off, then written up again later…  Aaagghhh!  Far too messy, and it keeps the focus on (mis)behaviour rather than on learning.  Make the expectations clear at the start and 3 warnings aren’t necessary.  Once should be enough for them to know what is required of them. (However, if this is what the system is in your school, that’s the one you have to follow. Changing the school system only leads to inconsistency across the staff, something which will get you in trouble in both directions).
  3. Say what another member of staff will do.  It’s never good to use another member of staff (Subject Leader, Year Leader, Senior Manager) as a weapon.  If appropriate, I would definitely call on them for support, but I wouldn’t second-guess what their response will be.  After all, they may disagree with my initial take on the issue, and they may well be right to do so.
  4. Ignore the issue.  Never.

What would I do?

  1. What do you want the outcome to be?  I’d keep this question in mind throughout – it helps me focus on the right things.
  2. Have a seating plan, always.  They sit where I choose, not where they choose.  I move everyone around every half term.  If an unfortunate combination arises:
  3. Split them up.  I have my classroom set out in horseshoe formation, one smaller horseshoe inside a larger one.  I’d put the offending pupils at opposite ends of the same long line of tables.  It’s harder for them to  see each other, and if they try, I can easily see what they are doing.
  4. Talk to them.  I use 3-4 pairwork activities in most lessons, some of them very quick, some of them take longer.  Once the class is engaged in an activity, I can sidle over without getting everyone else’s attention and speak quietly to the pupil(s).  I make it clear that I can see what’s going on, that it has to stop immediately and I expect to see them take part fully in what they have been given to do.  My tone is neutral.  Not angry, not trying to persuade.  Just clear.  Then I walk away but I keep an eye on what they do.  If they do well, I go back to them as soon as possible and praise them.  If they choose not to do as I say:
  5. I speak to them again.  Neutral tone again.  I remind them that they had the chance to put it right but they have made the choice not to.  I tell them to remain behind at the end and we will arrange a time to discuss this further.  My priority is to the majority who are behaving themselves, so I continue with my lesson.  That also gives me time to think clearly about how I will handle it, when I can talk to them (there is little worse than arranging to see a pupil and then forgetting – they turn up but I don’t).  Depending on whether this is a recurring problem or a one-off, I would either handle it myself, speak to them with the Subject Leader (if I was not the Subject Leader!), possibly the Year Leader (subject to how the school is organised), or speak to parents.  The key thing is, it has to stop, and they have to engage with the lesson, allowing the teacher to teach and the others to learn.  I wouldn’t engage in any discussion about how others are treated, whether X did the same the other day but got away with it or anything like that.  The discussion would relate tightly to the expectations that they know about and chose not to respect.  At all times in the conversation, I think it’s important to keep the focus on their behaviour and not to allow the pupil to misconstrue it as an attack on them personally.
  6. Give them a way out.  In the conversation, it’s useful to tell them how they can put it right.  It’s not just about teaching them a language, nor just about sorting out misbehaviour.  It’s also about teaching them how to put right their mistakes.  Home life for them may be one long slanging match where the one who shouts loudest wins, and the defeated are just… defeated.  School may be their only hope of learning how to get it wrong and then get it right without being injured in the process.
  7. Forgive them.  Once they’ve put it right, they can move on.  Every day is a new beginning.

Best of luck…!