I thought being a teacher (and a pretty straight-down-the-line kind of one at that) would mean that managing my own future children’s behaviour would be a doddle. I’d know all the strategies and the facial expressions and the wherefores and the whatchumacallits. Then my daughter was born and now, at the age of two, she can pretty much run circles around me and play me like a piano just with a cheeky smile. It turns out, my students have always been able to do that with me as well – and they knew it. I’ve mentioned before that children are masters at reading people and this tendency I have that I do, in fact, love my daughter beyond words and I do genuinely care for my students, comes with the added check that I have to place on myself of keeping my actions consistent.
You see, I’m realising that even though she’s only two years old, my daughter does know what she’s doing. So do my students. So do your students. What they will then do is commit to certain actions and WAIT for the reaction that you give – and that’s where things get critical. Your reaction is EVERYTHING. Let’s delve into this a little further with a little game called “Scenario and Signal”.
Scenario 1: Martin throws a pencil across the room. You see it from the corner of your eye, but ignore it.
Signal you’ve sent to the child: You’re not going to do anything about the pencil throwing, ergo it’s OK to throw a pencil. If you reprimand someone else for doing the same thing, now you’re being unfair.
Scenario 2: You’ve told the class that you shouldn’t call out the answer and you’ll only accept ‘hands up’. Abdul calls out with a correct and very intelligent answer (and that cheeky grin). You respond (surprised) with, “Well done, Abdul. That was a great answer”.
Signal you’ve sent to your students: Let’s leave aside the not very effective feedback, now your students are thinking, “I guess it’s OK to shout out an answer after all.” Now when you reprimand Aisha for shouting out a not-so-intelligent answer (she didn’t put her hand up), you’re being inconsistent – i.e. unfair.
Last scenario: You’ve told the class that you want a 150-word summary of the lesson. Brian and Bruce spend 10 minutes crafting a very thought-out summary; counting the words as they go along, in order to remain precise and follow your instructions to the tee. You praise them. It’s now two minutes left until you pack away and Allena hands in an answer that clearly isn’t 150 words (and she hasn’t counted it either). She knows it’s time to pack up. You ask her to add some more to it, but she adds a couple more words and now the bell has gone. You let her pack away and go, tutting to yourself.
Signal you’ve sent out: If you do not follow up with a consequence to Allena, you’ve signalled to Bruce and Brian, who put all that effort in, that they can get away with not meeting your exact instructions and so they won’t put the same high effort in next time. To Allena, you’ve signalled that she can get away with not meeting your instructions if time is running out and so that trick is now in her arsenal for next time. You’ve lost your high performers and let slide your low performers.
Inconsistency will erode EVERY effort you put in with a class. Students will pick every hole there is to pick in your response. Let’s go over some best practice first and then how one might have responded in each of the scenarios above. So, best practice:
- Same response, every time. Action X leads to consequence Y. A student has chosen to commit a certain action (whatever the reason might be) and the consequence for it is known. The reason can be discussed later in detention or a restorative conversation, but the consequence must be issued every single time. That is what they will class as ‘fair’ – because you do it every time, no matter who it is AND you follow up by having a restorative conversation with them and hear their side as well, if there is one. 99% of the time, they will accept the consequence and be aware of their role in it being issued.
- With love and care. Look… don’t be petty. There’s really no other way to say this. If you’re one of these people that gets your kick off exercising power over children, then you probably need psychological help, because that’s not what a teacher should be doing. You have to go into this with the mindset of wanting the best for the young people in your care and part of that is teaching them to take responsibility for their actions and guiding them to be better people. Your love/care/commitment to them comes across (even if they can’t handle it) and so does any pettiness on your part. If you’re turning this into a power game, THEY will win, hands down, every time, because they know how to press your buttons. With the love and care thing, what buttons are they going to press? There are none. And if you can’t love them or don’t care about them, at least remember that YOU are the adult here, so behave like one and don’t make it personal. Remove yourself from the situation by making it about the action they’ve committed. Hate the game, not the player – OK, playa?
- Yes, there are extenuating circumstances sometimes. First of all, by their nature, these circumstances are outliers, not the norm, which means they don’t apply to everyone and the consequence stands. In that moment; in the public spectacle of the situation, the consequence must be issued. In the private arena, the circumstances can be discussed. Human beings do make mistakes. Yes, they know what they’re doing, but people will still be people and sometimes (5% of the time when they’re REALLY having a bad day), they just need you to give them a break. Your judgement will be informed by your knowledge of the student, the circumstances within which the action took place and your own propensity toward mercy or justice. What I’m saying is, you can sometimes give them one chance, but never a second, because now they’re testing your boundaries.
So what does this all mean for the scenarios above?
Scenario 1: “Martin, the policy is that we never throw pencils across the room. In future, ask permission to give them the pencil. Thank you.” Simple. You’ve acknowledged the action; issued a reprimand and given them a correct course of action for the future. Job done.
Scenario 2: My personal favourite response is to say, “Wow, SOMEONE just said an amazing answer but I didn’t hear any of it because they didn’t have their HAND UP! Abdul, please put your hand up instead of calling out.” At that point, the student will either put their hand up or you’ll pick on someone else with their hand up, who might repeat their answer word for word and get your praise. If they call out again, use your school’s sanction flowchart to issue an appropriate consequence (warning, detention, or whatever).
Scenario 3: You’v got a choice of things you can do here. You could ask Allena to come back at break/lunch and finish off the work to the required standard and if they don’t, issue a detention. You could use your school’s behaviour flowchart to issue a consequence for unfinished work (if there is one). You could make it Allena’s starter activity at the start of next lesson, which would also serve as a quick recall to the learning and then publicly praise what Brian/Bruce and others did right – an opportunity to remind everyone of the expectations and give praise. The point is, that you’ve acknowledged those who have met the standard and not let slide anyone who hasn’t.
Consistency is the key here. As a teacher, you will never get this 100% perfect (you’re human too, after all). However, being reflective on your own practice and committing to consistency goes a long way. You are the one that sets the standard for your students and if you don’t care enough to get them to meet it, why should they? Their cheeky smiles and hopeful faces might mean you want to let them off the hook for the sake of the relationship you have with them, but you’re not teaching them anything that way (apart from that you don’t mean what you say and that your standards aren’t that high after all). You’re also teaching them to take responsibility for their actions. It is THEIR actions that have resulted in YOUR issuing a consequence, so in future, THEY can choose not to do said action. That formula, repeated over and over again, puts the onus on them to choose appropriate behaviour for the context they’re in – in this case, school.
And yes, that does mean that no matter how proud I get of her ability to do so, when my daughter decides to jump off the top of the sofa, I do assertively and gently reprimand her for it because I love her and value her safety that much. And because we love and value our students, we must make sure that we are consistent in our approach with them. We are doing it FOR THEM, not for us.