Last term, I taught as a supply/relief/substitute teacher in several of Brisbane’s schools.
Despite having taught for two years’ prior, I learned a great deal about classroom management in the six-or-so weeks I was in supply teaching. I picked up an arsenal of techniques that I relied on every day, to maintain a positive environment in the classrooms I visited. They were must-dos, bare basics, the base foundation I needed each day.
So, I’ve boiled them down to the 9 most crucial in keeping your classroom culture a positive one:
#9 Have a set of 3 Simple Behaviour Expectations/Rules.
These need to be simple and fair. The reason for your expectation needs to be easily explained, and easily enforced. Be clear on the consequences. The consequences need to be logical follow through from the reason for the rule. Make it clear that you make the call on whether their behaviour is out of line.
1) You need to respect the space of others. You are one of X number of students in the room. You need to make no more than your fair share of noise. We are all sharing this space.
If I feel anyone’s behaviour (e.g. speaking loudly, interferring with property) is not respectful of the space here, I will have no choice but to isolate you.
2) No physical aggression of any kind, even if it is mock aggression. I have a duty of care to you.
If I feel you’re being aggressive, even as a joke, I will have no choice but to isolate you.
3) It’s not an option to opt out of completing work. My job is to make sure you complete your work today, to the best of your ability.
If I feel you’ve chosen to opt out, I’ll be bringing you up to explain why. I am confident we will be able to sort it out together.
The golden rule here is – be consistent! Once students know that’s your deal, it becomes much easier, because the expectations are clear.
# 8 Have a clear, scaled system of consequences.
I believe you should always give students an opportunity to redeem themselves.
This means that consequences for misbehaviour should start out small and gradually get more serious.
In my mind, the first consequence should be a clear reminder of your expectations/rules.
The second is for you to move them.
The third is a quiet talk with you, where you explain why the behaviour is disruptive, and you ask for their input in solving the problem.
The fourth is removal from the class. I’ve only done this 3 times, and it was an awful feeling. It felt like I’d failed!
# 7 Consequences shouldn’t be punishment – consequences are solutions to problems.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve asked a student to move, and had them instantly on the defensive:
“Oh my God, I didn’t DO anything! Ben threw it at me!”
Consequences (e.g. moving them) should be used as solutions to a problem (e.g. three students are distracting each other).
If a student takes offence to you following through with consequence, it’s usually because they perceive it as an injustice. Explain lightly that you’re not doing it to punish, you’re just doing it to fix the “problem of the three of you distracting each other”. I’ve never had a student fail to comply once I explain it’s just a way to manage the class, not a punishment.
Save the deeper discussions of appropriate behaviour, respect, or sharing, for another, more private conversation.
# 6 Move around the classroom.
Circulate often. Teach from all corners of the room. Sit down next to them. There should be no ‘dead corners’.
# 5 Put time limits on everything.
This was a trick I quickly figured out in my first year of teaching. Always, always, always give time limits for tasks. Even for activities as simple as opening books and taking out a highlighter, pairing up, or getting out materials. Giving students a time frame maintains a tone of urgency around the learning, and also makes clear your expectations.
If you’re unsure whether you’ve given too much time, the students’ body language will be the giveaway. Giggling, impromptu eraser flicking games, phones appearing from pockets, heads on desk = you’ve given them far too much time.
# 4 Sometimes, a subtle change of subject is all it takes.
Some students are hardwired to be confrontational with teachers. I had a student aggressively backchat after I asked him to open his workbook.
Be clear in your expectations; draw the boundary quickly, clearly, firmly. A short, clear, one sentence command. If that further angers them, change the subject, and change your tone to one of ease. Adolescents are very responsive to the tone adults set.
It can be anything – a game they’re (naughtily) playing on their phone, the football logo on their pencil case, the cast on their arm. Anything. Your tone should be casual and chilled out. Show them that you care about them as a person, and that you don’t just see them as a ‘problem student’ (for a lot of these kids, they’re defensive and aggressive with teachers because they feel all the teachers hate them anyway!)
Find every opportunity to give them positive feedback (e.g. “Rugby looks like such a difficult game – I don’t know how you manage it!”). Afterwards, restate your order clearly and firmly (e.g. “that’s really interesting… alright, back to it. * In a strong voice * Put your phone away and open your textbook”). By this stage, most students will comply.
# 3 Never take on a student in front of their peers.
Some students are completely different people away from their peers. Never confront a student in front of their mates. A combination of ‘safety in numbers’ and the natural urge to impress their friends will change the way they interact with you. Speak with the student privately.
Open directly. Statements like “tell me what’s been going on”, “is this normal behaviour for you?”, “do you want to talk to me about anything?”, “is everything okay with you today? You don’t seem like your usual self”, or “there’s a bit of a problem between us, isn’t there? I really want to sort it out”. Let the student air their grievances with you. Apologise if they’ve been hurt. Stress you want to make the time you have with them fair and positive. If you suspect they think you don’t respect them, say clearly that that’s not the case. Adolescents are fragile creatures – they all have a need for adult validation.
# 2 If you have a group (or a whole class) turn against you, change goes a long way.
We all share that fear of a group or class turning against you, and you losing all your control and credibility as the leader of the classroom. I’ve had one experience where this happened (and it wasn’t while substitute teaching). I had a small group of boys present a role play in my Legal Studies class, which I felt dealt with inappropriate material in an inappropriate manner. They thought otherwise. The group became quite confrontational with me, and, given it was my first year of teaching, I was rattled.
I learned a lot from that experience, and there have been a few encounters over the years were I’ve managed to salvage the situation quickly, by:
– Changing your tone: move closer to the group. Sit amongst them. Lower your voice. Communicate your decision and feelings gently. Ask individual students to communicate their feelings calmly. Show that you’re listening. Allow for silence and quiet. A softer mood will quieten some students’ anger or energy.
– Change the environment: if a pack mentality forms, separate the ‘leader of the pack’, if possible- ask them to ‘walk and talk’ with you, or invite them outside while a nearby teacher watches over the class. Sit down somewhere quiet, perhaps outside or in the staffroom. Speak firmly, but gently. Tell them you’ve got a problem you both need to fix. Ask them for their input in solving it.
– Change your language: If you’ve lost your authority, ‘reading the riot act’ won’t work. Shift your language from blame, consequences, orders, and behaviour, to an objective conversation about ‘the problem’. Use clear, objective phrases like “we have a problem”. Maintain strong body language and firm, clear language, but show that you want a solution.
As a last resort (or if any students become aggressive), get help. Know the school’s formal discipline policy before the first bell.
# 1 Stop any time a student talks over the top of you.
This is one of the first things anyone tells you when you start out teaching. When you’re substitute teaching, this little technique becomes more important than ever. Without being able to rely on knowing the kids, having a relationship with them, or having much credibility, your ability to command control over the classroom relies heavily on this little habit.
Never speak over the top of students.
Wait. Don’t give up. Even if it takes the class 2 minutes to settle, they will. Persist.
One “Guys, shut up!” = a million “I’ll wait…”, or “Mouths closed, eyes to the board”, from you.
If you’re consistent, your students will know within a few days that when you talk, they listen or they wait. And no one likes waiting.
Bye for now,