Our Dirty Little Secret – Student Behaviour

In Uncategorized by Alex Quigley18 Comments

Here is a little scenario:

You are being observed by a senior member of staff. You hands are clammy and you are gritting your teeth through every minute of this crucial lesson observation. This one hour may determine months of hard work.

You are speaking to a small group of students, correcting a simple misunderstanding. A student just behind you (of course, you know it is Lauren – it always is Lauren given half a chance) mutters to her friend: “I fucking hate English!” It is loud enough for you to hear. It is loud enough for her friends to hear. And they know you know.

It isn’t loud enough for the observer – who is busy scratching away at their lesson observation notes.

What do you going to do?

The short-term gain of not raking up a potential confrontation is balanced against the potential of weeks of further struggles. A knowing glare from Lauren. A victory of sorts. A Pyrrhic victory for you.

What do you going to do?

This small scenario is played out not just in schools across Britain, but in classrooms across the world. The recent OECD TALIS survey of teachers identified that the biggest factor that damaged teacher self-confidence was student behaviour. It is the factor that unites a work-force of millions. It smashes through national boundaries.

Stress and struggle in the classroom is a universal language. It isn’t all as romantic as the movies.

What is unique perhaps in our profession is how, despite most schools bursting at the seams with students and teachers, the act of teaching is a very private one. Student misbehavior is often a dirty little secret. We often dare not share this truth with our friendly colleagues – much less our senior staff who can often make the biggest difference. They, despite their best efforts, cannot experience the struggles they may well have once had with students like Lauren, given their relative status to students. Lauren knows which teachers are fair game.

Even in good schools, with supportive leadership and solid behavior management, this secret battle is being played out behind closed doors.

So, what would you have done with Lauren? If you are a standard teacher, grappling with a workload they spills into every corner of your life, perhaps your willpower is scarce. Perhaps you just let it slide. You will come back stronger tomorrow you hope.

It is scant comfort perhaps, but many teachers are doing the same. Across the corridor from you – across the world from you – people are keeping the same secret. Perhaps we need to talk about our dirty secret.


(Of course, Lauren is a fictional student)


    1. Author

      That would take confidence for many teachers to do. I’m not saying you are wrong or right. I’m biting my lip with the post to provide the question but not my answer!

      1. I completely agree. I am lucky that my SLT are willing to take our behaviour policy seriously and I’m confident that they would support me in following it. I have seen/heard of many situations in which this is not the case.

  1. As ever, diverting and arresting thoughts to challenge and provoke.
    There is never a simple answer to this question on student behaviour. Time, place and occasion are three of a number of variables that confuse the picture. I remember being taught by a generation of schoolmasters who rejoiced in a fortnightly grade system that gave rise to a caning if any one subject gave you a zero or any three subjects in two connecting fortnights. My secondary educational experience was similar to many others across the country, at a time when (late sixties) it was possible to find teachers who felt it their duty never to send children for such a beating.
    When I took up my headship in January 1981, HMI visited to ensure my school had safe boundaries, that I knew how to register admission and attendance, that I was aware of my duty to keep a corporal punishment log, and from where to buy my canes.
    33 years on, and corporal punishment is long gone (by some 30 years), and the behaviour of both adults and children is so much better it is difficult to conceive we are in the same country. There is not an accepted culture of violence to children or amongst children as there was then, indeed personal rights are to the fore.
    Opinions about hating English or Physics remain though, and I recognise that given this time and place, children should not feel able to express such violent hatred to a subject. And that leaving such views unchallenged is probably the guarantee we all need that Lauren will give it a go to show off again when next she can. And given that there is little adjacency between ‘good’ lessons and teacher development, I’d always feel empowered to challenge Lauren with an ‘cooling’ riposte ‘Thanks Lauren, that’s hardly helpful’ and a certainty in her mind that I would seriously waste her time with some character education at lesson break or end of day. I suspect a developed a Paxo type withering look early in my career.
    I remember inspecting a Physics lesson on school inspection at a high flying London Day Independent girls’ school, when 2xLauren, aged 13 3/4 were showing every bit of their thighs they could to the new male teacher, and it could have been embarrassing and humiliating. I cleared my throat, ‘That’s enough’, a report to the Head of Department who in turn asked my advice on punishment. ‘Not mine to give’ I replied, ‘but I am delighted to tell you the Physics lessons turned out fine. You have a promising teacher there, look after him!’

  2. Posted before I had really made my point. Staff need relentless support, and those that can should learn to manage behaviour and play this comedy of manners. Those that can’t need further relentless support, because if they don’t learn how to stimulate, encourage, enlighten and engage, frankly they’ll not make the grade and cause SLMTs continuing endless work.

    1. Author

      Support is the thing. Having the culture and the conditions for support, and for teachers to have their full confidence in that support, is no easy feat.

  3. For all the discussion and debate about how students best learn (group work, individual, lecture, ICT program etc.) the bottom line is that is we had just 1 wave of the magic wand to improve student progress then cracking low level disruption would be the thing to aim for.

  4. I struggle with your scenario slightly. It suggests a flawed performance management system and a failed relationship with senior teachers. If we have to hide the problems we are facing, we certainly won’t improve our teaching – and SLT are failing in their jobs if they connive in this. I appreciate that most PM systems and a huge proportion of the observations we have are flawed and do contribute to this – but this must be a reason to work to change them – not to accept poor behaviour from students…

    I was telling my Teach for Sweden trainees about the first time I asked for help with a class I couldn’t manage recently, and how I really felt I’d failed having to ask the tutor. He laughed and told me he couldn’t control them either – not much help with the situation, but an important and reassuring lesson for me in being honest about the struggle I was facing.

    I’d definitely not this slide… I might choose my moment to deal with it carefully though.

    1. Author

      Hi Harry,

      A crucial point I wanted to make was that even if that senior leader was supportive (I hope I am) and the observation model not so severe (it isn’t in my school anymore – no grades etc.), that struggles with behavior still go on for most teachers, but that we bury then, in real terms but also psychologically. In most classes. I think most people who read my post will immediately think – oh, that isn’t me – I’d have fixed it, or I am honest about my problems, or problem students. The reality is that such issues are very common – even in good schools. The TALIS survey indicates as much. I would say this is particularly the cease for new or newish teachers, but not exclusively. I have spoken to a couple of teachers in other school systems around the world lately and students talking and low level disruption was seen as a key problem. I doubt they would have been as open with their boss as they were with me – no matter how great their boss was.

      Hmm – the post was written to raise questions, not give answers! The scenario does hint at a flawed PD/obs model – but again – that appears to me to be a global reality (again, my chats – admittedly anecdotal – revealed as much). In countries like Japan the degree of openness, because of the systematic use of lesson study etc., contrasts starkly with our more westernized model. I think there is better practice, but it is not normative, in the UK or beyond.

      1. Sorry, I partly missed that… I guess the point of my anecdote about asking for help was to do with this though – that idea of accepting that we have a problem and asking for help is a crucial one. I agree with you that it’s a psychologically very tricky one… I’d tend to say that I would fix these things, or do something about them.

        I may be deluding myself – the idea of psychological protection is no doubt key. But I’d be more inclined to say I’ve protected myself in another direction (and perhaps taken it too far) – I tend to speak up on these issues and highlight that they are almost never ones found only in my lessons. This has the benefit of meaning I can raise issues without feeling like I’m failing, but incurs a different problem: while I’ll do my best in my lessons, I’m probably guilty of waiting a little too long for an effective whole-school reaction.

        I agree that behaviour is a problem in most of the countries where I’ve visited schools – and that no system is perfect.

        In terms of answers, for various reasons I’m increasingly attracted to a genuine small schools model (groups of 150 or so students) where a single individual who knows each student well is ultimately responsible for their success… SLT need to know who those students are without waiting for the moment in a teacher’s lesson where they reveal themselves!

        1. Author

          The small school model is an interesting one, but not really scalable I don’t think. I do think that you can create something like smaller ‘schools’ within larger schools. The known relationships you describe are key.

  5. In a school like mine, I wish I could just dismiss the child and tell her it was inappropriate. But, in a school like mine, if I did something like that I’d probably be laughed at by senior staff. My response would be “We all have to do things we don’t like, but maybe next time we could find a more creative word? Perhaps “flipping”? “Fudging”?” and try and make a joke.
    Oh for the school where all I would have to do is send them out and know it wouldn’t happen again and I would get support.

  6. How about this Alex…
    1. Don’t challenge Lauren there and then (obviously potential confrontation). Good kids allowed to continue learning during lesson: good kids win. (even though, for the moment, Lauren thinks she’s won)
    2. At end of lesson, don’t keep Lauren behind (or any poorly behaved kids) – let her go and keep the brilliant kids for 2 minutes. Always. Fill them with praise: “You do really well to stay focused even with the negative behaviours of some in the room blah blah”. Merits/reward points if it’s policy, but mainly sincere, genuine praise and perhaps time for some to chat about the lesson/area of study. (NEVER thank them – they should be thanking you). Good kids win (even though Lauren still thinks she has won)
    3. Get SLT to cover your next registration.
    4. Get Lauren from hers.
    5. Sanction.
    6. Remove Lauren from your next lesson. Good kids win.
    7. Make your next lesson a humdinger, without Lauren. Explain why Lauren is not there. Good kids win.
    8. Teacher sees brilliant kids in action and fills head with them, instead of Lauren. Good kids win. Teacher wins.
    9. Lauren returns to your next lesson a reformed character who loves English(!). Everybody wins.

    1. Perhaps Lauren is a ‘good kid’ who is trying to draw attention to herself for any number of pastoral reasons and needs some support as well as clear establishment of the boundaries.

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