Teacher-led disruption

No this is not some ghastly new 21st Century learner beanbag initiative. It’s a blog about some things that I used to do before we had our behaviour system, and why I don’t do them any more.

Our behaviour system essentially has three categories of misdemeanour:

  • Low-level disruption like off-task chat, talking when there should be silence etc. – these behaviours get a series of warnings: C1, C2, C3 before a detention and removal from the room (C4).
  • High-profile stuff including rudeness, deliberate undermining of the lesson, swearing etc. Crucially, undermining the lesson does not need to be malicious to be included in this category. Exemplars are very important in our behaviour policy, and our head gave the following illustration of what counts as deliberate undermining of the lesson: A science teacher was giving a demonstration and goggles were being given out. One member of the class, a lovely lad with a gift for the comic put on his goggles, then another pair, then another pair, until he had five pairs of goggles on his head. This was undoubtedly mildly amusing and not intended with any nastiness, but the aim was to direct pupils’ attention towards him rather than the lesson, so it counts as high-profile. These behaviours get a day in internal exclusion and a detention (C5)
  • Other stuff that is not high-profile, not low level disruption, but not permitted e.g. getting your phone out, eating/drinking where you’re not allowed, etc. These behaviours get a detention (C4 other).

The system of consequences corresponds to these categories and works very well. You can read about it here. What I want to talk about in this post is the fact that I’ve caught myself doing things that go against the behaviour policy, and I’ve made myself stop.

I’m not saying the same rules need to apply to teachers as pupils. We have smart dress but not school uniform, for example. But the principles underlying the behaviour system need to apply to staff, not because of some misplaced sense of equality, but because a) they are good principles and b) the policy works better if it is reflected everywhere.

If you wanted to write a mission statement for our behaviour policy it might be something like “Professional conduct and every second counts”. There are a number of things that I used to do that go against this:

  • Compliment a pupil on their hair or bag in lesson
  • Ask a pupil how their baby sibling/dog/bmx is getting on
  • Tell hilarious jokes
  • Use the hook of my umbrella handle to hook the back of a pupil’s blazer while they were working
  • Make conversation about my own life e.g. “oh my baby’s started smiling now, it’s so cute”
  • Squirt a water bottle into a beaker but with the beaker on the floor so it looks like I’m a man doing a wee
  • Create jib about another member of staff I know can take it: “Have you seen the state of Mr Jones’ tie today? Looks like a cat’s been strategically sick on it”
  • Have a conversation or bantz with a member of staff popping into the classroom: “How’s your little girl?” “I didn’t know you were in court today sir! You’ve ironed your shirt!”

Some of these are low-level disruption and some are high-profile, deliberate attempts to sideline the learning in the lesson. Not malicious, but deliberate.

To be fair to myself, most of these I actually did to contribute to good behaviour in my lessons: pupils thought I was funny (or felt sorry for me because I was labouring under the crippling delusion that I was funny) and behaved for me because they liked me. Or they liked me because I’d shown interest in them as a person with their hair, dog, brother.

But now that we’ve got our policy, these things not only are not needed, they are a positive impediment to the successful execution of the policy. They go against the principles of our behaviour policy, that every second counts and that we should be professional at all times. So I’ve stopped myself from doing them.

Initially I felt a bit sad about doing this, because I genuinely am interested in the pupils and I like to have bantz. But I’ve realised that this is something that must happen outside of lesson: at lunch, during “meet and greet” at the start of lessons, and at break. I used to hate break duty because I thought it was a massive waste of my professional time – but now I look forward to it as I can do all the stuff I’ve stopped doing in my lessons. Break duty? Break opportunity more like! Sorry. But really, I like it a lot more now I know my lessons are for learning and nothing else.

I believe keeping such interactions confined to times outside lessons is so important because the principles are a shortcut, they’re a structural foundation, they categorise and direct every possible event to come under the behaviour policy. The main obstacle to effectively implementing our policy is teachers “letting stuff go” – we have to be really alert, vigilant, and quick-witted:

“Yes I did just see Ben  whisper something to Elly, yes I have said we are working in silence, yes he does need a C1. No I won’t ignore it because he’s improved so much recently.”

“Yes Laurie has just used a rude tone of voice with me, yes I have already made it very clear that that tone of voice is rude, yes she does need a C5. No I won’t ignore it because she might kick off.”

“Yes Tom is sticking crocodile clips on his nostrils while I’m talking to make the others laugh, that’s a new one, yes it is a deliberate attempt to undermine the lesson so yes he does need to have a C5. No I won’t let him off because he’s a nice lad.”

There is no way you could ever list all possible behaviours so as to categorise them – there are just so many and our pupils are very creative! So underlying principles plus exemplars are needed to help both teachers and pupils. Pupils benefit from knowing “don’t bother inventing a new way to rebel – if it undermines the lesson, it will have this consequence.” And pupils come to believe that every second really does count when they see that their teacher does not waste a single second herself. True commitment to the policy, and the expectation that it will be applied can only be achieved when it is lived and breathed by everyone in it.

For teachers, the role of cognitive load in relation to behaviour needs, I believe, more attention. We need to make an incredibly quick decision as to whether a behaviour needs a consequence, and if so which one, in the middle of a molar calculation on the board, oh and Kyra’s just come in late, I need to change the register, and all the while many of us have to do work to overcome very deeply entrenched aversions to giving consequences because we like the kids/feel sorry for them/ he’s been doing so well lately/ her dad’s just gone to prison/ it’s nearly the end of the lesson/ what if giving the consequence ruins our relationship and then he plays up for me for evermore/ won’t I look bad for giving a consequence because that’s what I was told for TEN PISSING YEARS –

None of these concerns apply any more, but they take energy to overcome. If we live by the same principles that inform the policy, then the decision making can become more automated and less inhibited by all the drains on working memory that exist at any point in a lesson. So the policy is applied more effectively and behaviour is better. And so, in case anyone needs reminding, pupils learn tons more. That’s why we like good behaviour.

In a way this is all just a case of “practise what you preach”, but I’ve always thought that idiom meant something like “don’t be a hypocrite, don’t give yourself a privilege you withhold from others”, and that’s not what is going on here. The system works better for teachers and pupils when teachers model the underlying values – and that’s a privilege for all of us. Yes those little “off-task” interactions are important but we can have them out of lessons. Yes we care about the whole pupil but our lessons are for learning and, as Jon Tomsett has so wisely said, the best pastoral care for our pupils  is a great set of GCSE grades.






4 thoughts on “Teacher-led disruption

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  1. Interesting narrative – thanks for sharing. It’s the disruption of the other’s learning that has always led me to be quite authoritarian in the classroom. This has gone against the culture in some schools I’ve work at, but I’ve invariably found students prefer a disciplined classroom over a looser one.

    The best system I’ve seen was at Mossbourn Academy in Hackney – some see this as run like a military camp – straight silent lining up of the whole school at the start of the day, silence in the corridors at movement etc. Some criticised, claiming creativity can’t possibly flourish under these conditions. Then you see the outputs – their student’s work is stunning!

    I’ll sure I’ll have some more anecdotes to share after a half-term back in the classroom.

  2. I’ve realised I’ve left two very important points out sorry!
    1. The number one reason for changing my behaviour is that every second really does count – I want pupils to learn as much as they can.
    2. Going to performances, sporting events, cake sales, all that malarkey is also a great place for all the non-lesson interactions.

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