How can a teacher get the best out of his or her classes?
I am an unrepentant fan of strong systems and structures in a school. Without them, teachers cannot teach and pupils cannot learn. Without order and calm, a teacher simply cannot deliver a lesson. We’ve all been there- lesson derailed by a group of kids who keep interrupting or messing about, or by that one kid who insists on farting or doing something ridiculous every time you try to speak. It is utterly soul destroying, particularly when you notice a few quiet kids at the back of the room desperately trying to listen and get on.
Systems can, of course, put a stop to all of this. If every teacher in the school administers detentions for rule-breaking, kids will quickly learn to stop breaking the rules. This sounds easier than it is. It depends enormously on staff working together and following the systems consistently. Without this consistency, you have a situation in which the kids know they have to behave for one teacher (and probably resent them for it), but get away with messing about for another.
Behaviour systems provide everyone- pupils and teachers- with clarity. If you believe that every child is capable of reaching a high standard, and if you all enforce the rules properly, then disruptive behaviour is much easier to manage, and teachers can get on with the job of teaching.
Some of the more vocal sceptics of this approach point out that enforcing systems like this can be problematic. If we reduce behaviour management to a simple administration exercise, we lose something. We lose the chance to build meaningful relationships with our pupils. If you have to enforce a set of rules, you somehow lose the ‘human’ side of teaching, and the necessary teacher autonomy that goes with it.
Strong systems enable strong relationships
I don’t see this as an ‘either/or’: systems vs. relationships. It isn’t the case that teachers who enforce rules have no relationships with their classes- or that systems somehow get in the way of relationships or teacher autonomy. On the contrary, good systems give teachers the autonomy to form more powerful, enduring relationships with their pupils. Rather than being constrained by the challenges of bad behaviour, teachers are free to get to know their classes and teach their subjects really well.
In a chaotic classroom, where the teacher is standing at the front shouting ‘ssh- get on!’ every 5 seconds, or where they are constantly ignored or spoken over, or shouted at or sworn at, it is very hard to form meaningful relationships. In fact, it takes someone with the personality of a relentless bulldozer to overcome it. It is exhausting, and in fact it’s no surprise that so many teachers leave the profession. If every single lesson is punctuated with bad behaviour, you feel like you’re wasting your time. It’s hard to feel like you are changing children’s lives if you can barely get a word in.
In a calm, focused classroom, on the other hand, the teacher really can build those relationships. There is time for an in-joke, a smile, a conversation, or a genuine exchange of interesting ideas. If all pupils are in the habit of focusing and listening to their teacher, there is space for them to get to know each other. In a focused classroom, children feel successful because they come away from every lesson having learned something new. They learn to love their teacher because they know how much the teacher does for them. They are free to learn because their teachers are free to teach. They don’t have to show off in front of their mates, or pretend not to care out of fear of being called ‘boffin’: in a focused classroom, where learning is the norm, and where teachers are free to teach, children are free to get on, to listen and to learn.
Senior Leaders must encourage both
For every teacher to be able to get the most out of their classes, they need the freedom to be able to build relationships. School leaders must ensure robust systems are in place, and must back their teachers at every turn. But more than this, school leaders should continually encourage teachers to build as many relationships as they can. Connecting with kids- making them feel special, tapping in to their interests and likes and dislikes, making them love you so that they are mortified if they disappoint you- that is the key to excellent teaching.
Yes it may be the case that some teachers can achieve this even in the absence of strong systems, but it would be a heck of a lot easier for everyone if they didn’t have to.
Next week I will talk in more detail about how teachers can develop strong relationships with their pupils.
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