Managing the classroom - tips for NQTs from an experienced teacher

If you say you’re going to do something, be prepared to follow through, be it a phone call home or a chat after the lesson. This, it is important to emphasise, applies to acknowledging the positive as well as the negative.

Teacher and writer, Dr Emma Kell, shares tips for managing the classroom gained from her own 20+ years of experience.

The term ‘behaviour’, especially in conjunction with ‘management’ itself, is a problematic one. Many schools are avoiding using it at all, because it has implicit comments of power and control – the rabble to be tamed by the adult in the room. I will instead focus on what has worked, in my experience and that of hundreds of teachers, in terms of encouraging a positive ethos in the classroom and doing our best to get the best out of young people, even when they at their most vulnerable and most challenging. Like most of the best advice in my career, each of these ideas are nuggets that I came across many years ago, and which I draw upon daily in my own practice and when training and supporting others.

You can’t move in the world of education without coming across a fierce debate about children’s behaviour, from ‘ban the booths’ to ‘silent corridors’, so taking on the task of offering ‘tips about behaviour’ for all teachers seems pretty daunting. To be clear, I have no desire to enter the world of polarised views and I do not position myself as a behaviour guru. I am instead someone who has taught thousands of young people, each with their own set of needs and vulnerabilities, over the past two decades. This advice is based on three main principles:

1: What works in one situation and for one person will not necessarily work for another. Even the most proficient 'manager of behaviour' does not have it sussed all of the time.

2: In the words of a former line manager – "We are living organisms working with other living organisms." Managing a class is a messy, unpredictable business and we are all human, and therefore all flawed. It all comes down to relationships.

3: All children's behaviour is a form of communication – often unconscious. It often masks a desire to express an unmet need.

Important note: This advice is pitched to address the kinds of low-level disruption to learning many teachers encounter. Where violence or abuse have taken place, these issues must be dealt with by senior staff in an appropriate manner.

Dr Emma Kell

"Always the winner"

The vast majority of us have had the frazzled, white-noise feeling after a lesson which just did not go according to plan. I suspect I am not alone in admitting to recurring dreams of the class rioting whilst I attempt helplessly – and usually still in my pyjamas – to assert my authority.

I find myself again and again coming back to the words of Bill Rogers: "‘You are always the winner, even if you don’t feel like it at the time".

Teachers and support staff are the adults in the room. We have earned the right to be there through our qualifications and experience. We have our salaries, our independence, our homes and our autonomy – the children do not. Arguably, those who push our buttons hardest and most frequently are the ones who are most aware of this.

Tip: Remember: you are the adult in the room. This does not mean you have to be perfect – you are human too – but young people look to you to model consistency, reliability and resilience.

The baggage young people carry

Be it a row with a sibling before leaving the house, the lack of breakfast, ongoing anxieties over family conflict, their own mental health struggles, or infinitely darker factors beyond their control, each young person comes into school with their own ‘baggage’. For our most vulnerable young people, Monday mornings and periods around school holidays are likely to be the periods when they struggle most to adhere to boundaries – and are the times when they need the safety and security which underpin those boundaries the most.

Tip: Young people need you to enforce expectations – calmly and consistently.

Short memories

Whilst there are serious incidents that will require appropriate sanctions, it is really important that young people understand that every day, and every lesson, represents a fresh start. It needs to be clear that it is okay to make mistakes, as long as we acknowledge them and take the resulting lessons on board. It is amazing how short young people’s memories can be!

Tip: Greet students afresh each new lesson. Make it clear that they have a blank slate every day.

Follow through

I asked my 12-year-old daughter what advice she would give to new teachers, and this came first: If you say you’re going to do something, be prepared to follow through, be it a phone call home or a chat after the lesson. This, it is important to emphasise, applies to acknowledging the positive as well as the negative. This might take a bit of extra time – tracking down a student to their tutor group later in the day, for example – but it shows that you mean business and, most importantly, that you feel they are worthy of your time and worth investing in.

Tip: When you are addressing behaviours – positive or negative – outside lesson time use them as an opportunity to find out a bit more about the child: How they do in other lessons? What was going on before the lesson to influence them?

There is a 'key' to every child

This is one of the best pieces of advice I ever received. If you can find just one thing a child is passionate about or interested in and start to build a relationship around that, it can be extremely powerful in engaging the child in more consistent positive conduct. There have been hundreds of examples of this, including a penchant for fishing, writing rap lyrics, a passion for K-Pop, Friends, or the inner workings of the combustion engine. Many still seem to involve animals: the new Staffordshire terrier, the sadly deceased hamster, the iguana who sleeps on the bed... Whatever it is, if you come across it, make a note of it and use it when you can!

Tip: Share something about yourself (chosen judiciously – you don’t need to compromise your privacy) that brings your humanity into the classroom. My incontinent cat, my malfunctioning car and my latest cooking disaster have all played important roles!

Team around the child

Again, a practice dating from early in my career – the act of several adults who work with the same child spending a few minutes together over lunch or coffee to talk about what works to motivate and engage that child is extremely powerful. Firstly, it is always reassuring to know it is not just you who might be struggling to engage them. Secondly, every time I have engaged in such an activity, I have discovered a small, simple tip that has really helped the relationship move forward. Finally, for the child, knowing that others have invested such time in him or her, confirms their value and worth.

Tip: Such meetings take a bit of time, but they are well worth the investment. Any teacher or teaching assistant can set about organising them – they do not have to be organised by leaders.

Humility and humour

Finally, lest the ‘don’t smile till Christmas’ nonsense is still doing the rounds, it is fine to give away chinks of yourself. If a lesson bombed the day before and you felt disappointed, it is fine to share this and tell the students how you – and they – are going to address it. If you made a mistake and pinpointed the wrong student for off-task chatter, it is fine (and arguably essential) to say sorry. And if you, or they, muddle up your words or make a silly mistake, well this is an ideal opportunity to admit it and model the learning process. Shared laughter, be it at one of our own mistakes, a word that sounds a bit rude, or your latest trip over a student’s bag, can be magic for building a positive learning ethos.

Tip: Sarcasm in moderation and well-signposted is perfectly acceptable. For example, ‘immediate defenestration’ is an appropriate threat for any student who starts a sentence with ‘basically’!

If you’re a teacher in need of support, call Education Support's free and confidential 24/7 emotional support helpline on 08000 562 561.

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