Behaviour

I was in a workshop during my teacher training where we were role playing behaviour management with our peers. (Doesn’t that sound horrific? Since my first year of university when I unexpectedly contracted “the fear” and walked out of a read-through I’ve had a problem with anything acting-related. This workshop was therefore more nightmarish that you can even imagine.) Yet having observed a thousand teachers and read a million books, you would think I could handle this. Hardly. I clammed up; I was speechless. I had no comeback at all for my partner.

I remember that evening, in despair, calling my “leadership development officer” (basically our mum for 6 weeks), in tears, telling her I didn’t think I could do it. Amy was amazing. After giving me the phone equivalent of a massive hug, she told me something along the lines of “you will. When there is a child in front of you, you just will.” “What if I cry?” I asked. “You just won’t.”

I was, and still am, a crier, so I’m not sure I believed her, but I stuck with Teach First. And she was right. I have never ever cried from managing a tricky child, or a tricky class. Not even nearly. More than this triumph, I never clammed up. I always had something to say.

Obviously, it wasn’t always the right thing to say, but you live and learn.

Now, no book on behaviour management will fully prepare you to teach. Even after several years of teaching students will do and say things you can’t even imagine. Some of my personal favourites are so inappropriate I simply can’t write them here. I think reading these books during your first placement, or first term of teaching, is actually more helpful than reading them pre-term time.

So, onto some of my favourite books on behaviour management.

Classroom Behaviour by Bill Rogers

This was definitely the most useful book for me prior to teaching. It is replete with phrases you can practise saying, and above all in the early days you need some stock phrases to fall back on. Rogers espouses a gently gently approach, always aiming to avoid confrontation and focus on the positive. There are some real gems here; rather than “take off that fluorescent orange balaclava” saying “what’s the school rule about scarves?”; adding a “thanks” to the end of an instruction rather than a “please” (I have never done this, because I am a stubbornly traditional user of English sentence structure, but I hear it works well) and advice on when, who and how to tactically ignore.

Assertive Discipline by Lee Canter

This is an example of a book I read and all but dismissed during training and only came to appreciate when I entered the classroom.

“Assertive Discipline” is an ideal solution for the problem of praise: feel like a bit of an idiot praising the one person with their book and pen out? Canter instead advocates “behaviour narration” rather than judgement. Rather than a “well done for doing the absolute minimum I expect of you” you narrate it: “Chanelle has her pen out and is ready to start learning”. This then draws attention to the positive behaviour and nudges others towards following it. To non-teachers this might sound crazy, but it works supremely well, at least in my experience. (There are other tips, but this one is my favourite.)

Why are you shouting at us? by Phil Beadle and John Murray

I began teaching in the halcyon days of Teachers’ TV, and was a bit of a fan girl for Phil Beadle, one of their vanguards. His charisma and creativity was everything I wasn’t, and I loved reading his book “How to Teach” (though his insistence on the efficacy of marking as a sure-fire way to change achievement even when your classroom is a bit chaotic led to me neglecting planning in favour of an unimaginable amount of written feedback, with disastrous consequences. By my second year I marked less and planned more and found it worked. This is almost certainly my error of interpretation, not his writing.)

I know not all teachers are Beadle fans, but I think he is great. Driven by a strong moral purpose and with all the skills you would expect of an AST, this co-written book is a superb round up of effective behaviour management. At 130 small pages the text is lighthearted enough to be read speedily and joyously. It is also fairly honest about what kids can do and how you can combat it.

Less useful are the charisma based methods – I’m not sure I have ever managed to calm a truly angry child with a joke, though I wholly endorse the anti-shouting pages (quiet seething is far better for your health, if less immediately effective).

Reluctant Disciplinarian by Gary Rubinstein

Rubinstein was trained by Teach for America, and this book is the better for the honesty with which he reveals his classroom mistakes; an honesty which comes partly from his subsequent successes in the classroom. I related to this book as Rubinstein, like me, is a self-confessed “softy”.

Acknowledging that behaviour management can never be adequately taught (not least, I would argue, through role play), this book takes you to the possible pitfalls of your initial months in the classroom and shows you the light at the end of that tunnel.

There are some traditional methods explored here in a clear way, for example meaning what you say – something I found surprisingly hard in my initial term of teaching. This is possibly because I wasn’t sure what I wanted, or if what I was doing was right; therefore I really didn’t mean what I said all that often. I will always remember a fellow teacher telling me that it was during her bout of laryngitis that she had become a better teacher; she had so little voice that she needed to mean everything she said.
Of course, the best “behaviour management” comes from familiarity: you with the kids, and the kids with you. It can’t happen straight away or overnight; merely sticking it out, turning up and following through with every consequence you say (at first even if you immediately regret it; only later with a conversation and apology if you were wrong) will work. It will work. It will.

Eventually.

Mindset

Many months ago, I was taking part in a focus group on challenges students face in our current education system and I remember posing a question to the group.

What I want to know, I remember saying, is what makes this kid different. Plenty of my students face immense challenges, and they fail. How is this one, who has faced every challenge imaginable, thriving?

At that discussion, my question was swept away – perhaps it was too big, or too vague; certainly it seemed to the panel too little connected to our remit.

Let me be specific here in a way I wasn’t then. What I want to know is this: how has her unimaginably deprived upbringing and lack of parental involvement somehow led to the most impressive vocabulary in my year 11 class, and the most advanced understanding of literature? How are her difficulties translated into A*s, and other students’ difficulties aren’t?

The woman next to me wrote two words on my notepad as the discussion continued: Mindset. Dweck.

I had heard of this book; indeed I felt I had based my educational beliefs on its central premise without even reading it: all children can learn, all children can grow their intelligence. The ability to attain academically is created, not inherent.

When I finally got round to reading this book, then, I confess I was already willing it to be great. And, if you strip away two thirds of the anecdotes, it really really is.

Early on, these anecdotes are useful and illustrative; for example when exploring the approach of young children who seemed to enjoy tackling hard problems and failing, for the sole reason that, to their minds “they didn’t even think they were failing. They thought they were learning.” I would love my year 9 to approach English like this: we had an impromptu discussion about mindset after I had read the book and the students conceded that “we could learn more if we stayed focused… But it’s just too hard.”

This is just one example of the limits of mindset: yes, it is vital; but there are many other factors to consider when analysing the way children respond to education. My year 9 also felt their creative and sporting talents were fixed and unable to be improved. As one heart-breakingly put it: “I’m in bottom set for everything. I know I’m dumb.”

This statement clearly reveals the student’s mindset; what it does not reveal, however, is what has happened in the past to cause this student to be in set 5: not lack of intelligence, but lack of effort. What has happened in her education that she hasn’t put that effort in; hasn’t wanted to put that effort in? What challenges has she faced that students in the higher sets have not?

Dweck does acknowledge these and other limits, for example when discussing depression. Of course depression is caused by more than a fixed mindset, however she chooses to view the idea through this small prism, and in its own way it contributes to psychological discourse without seeking to define it.

One other caveat which is useful is her acknowledgement that people with resources, such as the safety net of money, will inevitably “take more risks and keep going longer until they succeed.” Moreover, “people with easy access to a good education, people with a network of influential friends, people who know how to be in the right place at the right time, all stand a better chance of having their effort pay off.”

This is a text all about work, and anyone who knows me will attest that work is my favourite thing. The central premise of this text was transformative for me: if more effort leads to more success, we’re just hours (perhaps ten thousand?) away from really amazing things.

More valuable than this, of course, are the implications for my students. I have long found that time spent convincing kids they can do something will always pay off. This book gives plenty of help on rephrasing your praise to be more growth orientated (although I draw the line at Dweck’s self-flagellation for accidentally saying her husband was “brilliant” – it’s fine; sometimes language needs to be more fluid than this).

So, back to the challenges facing students in education. Perhaps it would not be the worst thing in the world to spend some time investigating how best to grow a growth mindset in our most challenged students. If we cannot cure the social ills that plague our students, can we at least prevent the certainty that they will hold these kids back from achieving their full potential.

Finally, one of the surprising outcomes of reading this book was a personal one. When deciding whether to take on more responsibility as an educator, my initial response was: “no. I’m not ready. I will probably fail, so trying would be stupid.” Like my year 9, I sought approval: I wanted to be the best at what I was doing. Yet reading Dweck’s words had a profound impact on me: “people in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it. The bigger the challenge, the more they stretch.”

Yes, I might fail, but also yes – I would become a better educator for that experience. As one anecdote reads: “if you only go through life doing stuff that’s easy, shame on you.” Shame on me. Let’s see how I fail better next time.

mindset

There are no shortcuts

Teaching is really, really hard. Anyone who is a teacher already knows this, but I need to preface this post with that key piece of information lest any non-teachers be reading. Yes, it is the greatest job in the world, but it is also, at times, unremittingly tough.

I wanted to write about Rafe Esquith, because I am coming to the end of my third year, and teaching is still really hard. Esquith was one of my first-year crutches: when I wanted to give up, or thought “actually, I’m making no difference at all, and I don’t really know how to”, I would pick up one of his books and I would find the tenacity to carry on.

Thank you, Rafe Esquith, because those hard times became fewer and further between, and I stuck it out. But there are still times where you wonder “is it worth it?” – those are the times you need this book. Maybe leaving school after an arduous parents evening which has made your in-school working day 13 hours long, and that’s before you mark year 9 at home. Maybe in those long winter months, when you leave home and it is pitch black and you return home and it is pitch black. Maybe after marking 28 essays and 28 books and organizing revision clubs and breakfast boosters and lunch boosters and a student still says: “I don’t understand. I need more help”; or more time, which you don’t have, because the exam is this Monday, and you have 27 other students, and this child has only just started to care about their exam, and if they had cared two years ago they might not be saying this now.

Whatever the scenario, when in doubt, read “There are No Shortcuts.”

Rafe Esquith works in a system that sounds tougher than anything I have ever heard of in the UK. Early on in the book, Esquith writes to new teachers: “outstanding teaching will require you not only to do everything in your power to reach your students but to battle the forces that are supposed to be on your side.” His is an administration doggedly opposed to any kind of innovation or creativity in the classroom, portraying low expectations of children at every turn. One example of this is that he can’t teach a full text; he needs to teach snippets of great literature to drill kids in multiple choice exams which say nothing about their aptitude for essay writing. As an English teacher, my heart hurt when I realized that an act of rebellion was teaching a full text, something I took utterly for granted. Indeed, Esquith advises to “read your favourite books with your students”, something I can already do, thanks to an incredibly trusting Head of English.

Esquith teaches fifth grade in a primary school in an extremely deprived part of Los Angeles. The rallying cry of this book is in the title: there is no magic way to help students catch up who are far behind their peers. You just need to work at it; and Esquith does: terrifying commitment is shown in every utterance. At times, you do wonder whether he is not actually an exception, and whether all folk could find this level of hard work sustainable.

What is great about this particular book is that you realize that Esquith did not always get it right. He made mistakes, and yet persevered, and altered countless lives. This is comforting to any teacher beginning to doubt their “calling.”

So, if ever you need your fire for teaching re-lit (and “Lighting their Fires” is another Esquith I would recommend), turn to dear Rafe, marvel at his efforts, and remember he is a human just like you, and what you do is amazing.

Born to Rise

​Deborah Kenny is the founder of Harlem Village Academies, a chain of charter schools based in one of Manhattan’s poorest neighbourhoods.

Kenny’s book does not spare the reader some shocking statistics; in 2008 in the area of Harlem where she proposed opening her first school, 78% of 8th graders were failing reading and 87% were failing Maths; students in their catchment area had only an 8% chance of attending university; and in 2002 only 16% of 8th grade Harlem students could read at grade level.

HVA was founded on a simple principal, and one that many educators would endorse: what would I want for my own children? Kenny observed teachers in countless charter schools, and although she saw some flashy lessons, for example fun ways to remember Mathematics formulae, she felt that she wouldn’t want her own students to be taught like that: she wanted her kids to love Maths. Similarly, HVA was set up with no system of rewards – instead, Kenny wanted students to behave because they wanted to learn. Succeeding academically was the reward.

What also marks HVA out is its emphasis on teaching and cultivating brilliant teachers. As a teacher myself, I find this hard to argue with. Teachers need to be granted freedom and trust to carry out their duties to the best of their capabilities. Kenny even recognises this in herself, noting that while she had fully trusted her “rock-star teachers” one of the initial failings of the schools was that she had found it harder to grant those same freedoms to struggling teachers.

Yet Kenny redeems herself even in this, describing teachers who struggled in her schools and how she challenged herself to not give up on them, instead working collaboratively to help them to improve. This is surely the dream in education: we have all become teachers for similar, value-laden reasons, yet often other factors (both within ourselves and outreaching contexts) contribute to the success or lack of success of our classes. Rather than writing teachers off, Kenny’s programme of formative assessment of observed lessons and team planning to improve delivery ensures that no teacher is left behind.

I love this idea, for it helps teachers everywhere on the spectrum. The most “outstanding” teachers I have the privilege of working with impress me everyday with the simple fact that they focus not on what they have done, but how they can improve it in the future; including improving outstanding lessons.

Rather than a summative grade, which could arguably encourage coasting, surely a more effective way of keeping teachers engaged is surely working together to improve on a curriculum or lesson plan, acknowledging greatness but also building on it.

(HVA’s website, which is worth a visit, states that: “The freedom we enjoy at HVA is guided by purposeful collaboration with the rest of the team, so that we become better teachers and leaders every day. HVA is a lively laboratory of co-planning, co-grading, and co-observations followed up with genuine conversations. There’s no formula or magic bullet; just old-fashioned, hard questions like, “How could that section of the lesson have been more engaging?” As educators, we love the feeling of continually improving our craft.”)

What I enjoyed also about this book was the personal touch. To begin with, I was confused by Kenny’s inclusion of her very personal family and faith inclusions, however as the book went on I understood their importance to her charter school vision.

Moreover, these personal elements mirrored the personal dream of the schools as a place where professionals are also friends. Kenny’s warm love for her teachers shines through the book, as much as her frankly expressed love of her students.

The bottom line of this book is that we need to be ambitious when it comes to our children’s futures, and we need to face up to the fact that what works in the short term doesn’t always mean the education we would want for our own children. Children from low-income homes are all of our responsibility; they are all our children, and we need to build a school system that reflects that.

BornToRise