The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get

Even after fifteen years in the classroom, the thing that causes me most grief, the thing that results in more sleepless nights than anything else is behaviour management. It’s the thing that new teachers ask most about and struggle with in the same way we all did in those first years. Because there is no quick fix, is there? There is no strategy which will eradicate the bad stuff. It takes years of classroom experience to be able to deal well with that, whether your lesson is ‘worth behaving for’ or not, as someone tweeted recently, and even then it is difficult to get right.

So it would be daft to ignore bad behaviour, wouldn’t it? Storing up problems for the future, surely. Well, maybe not. After trying everything with certain students this year I have decided to ignore them. Hold on. There is some method to my madness. In general, students misbehave because they desire attention. Problems arise when we give them that. And, of course, sometimes we have to. However, I’ve experienced a bizarre turnaround with two students who I have, more or less, ignored for the last two weeks. It has been difficult. It has been hard to bite my tongue, take a deep breath and concentrate on the well-behaved masses for a change. But I did it. And I think it worked.

Starving that desire for attention seems to have caused the students to look for it in another way. By doing the work. By being polite. By putting up a hand to ask for help instead of shouting out. And, slowly, I have started to return to them. Not always, yet. But I have and they seem to be responding. The rest of the class are working like troopers and the ‘ignored’ realise that they have lost their audience. Now, of course, the danger is twofold here: firstly, that I bring them back too soon and we return the way it was before – some days an unteachable class; secondly, that I ignore them for too long and they permanently disengage. It’s a situation I  must deal with carefully.

But before you go back to school and ignore every badly behaved student, proceed with caution. There may be silly things like making an obvious show of being bored or resting a head on a desk which might not be the thing to ignore. There may well be genuine disengagement already and ignoring them might be exactly what they are looking for. Think carefully about the individual and consider how they might react. If it’s a last resort, hey, it’s worth a try.

Bad behaviour is so difficult to deal with because we take it personally at times. We take it as an affront to our well-prepared lesson and and and an insult to us as teachers. It’s not, of course, or very rarely, but that feeling only disappears after lots of experience. But it is our reactions that very often escalate situations. Our egos take over and we, whether we like it or not, get into conflict with young people. That young kid who is behaving like a midge on a camping trip we simply want to swat away. Perhaps if we simply let it buzz about it would go away without our intervention.

Caring About Every Writer – the weaker ones need us most

Without a doubt the greatest discovery I’ve made in the last year or two is that feedback through the marking of written work is the most effective teaching tool I have. The connections that I’ve made with students, their awareness that I was both interested in everything they write and on top of their sloppiness, has transformed my ability to ‘know’ the students who walk into my classroom. However, when it comes to the weaker students, the less able in a system that still sets by ability, then it becomes slightly more challenging. They are bringing a tremendous amount of baggage with them.

When you have classes of over twenty five – many of whom have support needs, many have extreme behavioural issues, many have both – then attempting to improve their writing can be a minefield. They know their writing looks terrible because they see the evidence every single day of their school lives, probably in every lesson. So how do we reverse that? What has become clear to me is that this class needs their writing back immediately, the next day whenever possible and they need to work on redrafting the very next day too. Not only is it vital to show them that you care about their work but that ensuring that they can see that improvement is possible, and quickly, is essential if you are to win them back to writing.

Seeing their work completely corrected and ready for redraft helps to develop the habits that the better writers have in that they know that avoiding too many errors means less correction later on. And a quickly redrafted short piece of work can be extremely powerful to them. I use a great strategy from Alex Quigley’s book when I’m marking a short piece, usually just a paragraph, and handwriting is an issue. I completely rewrite the piece, leaving a line between each one I write. I spend the time to do this for a whole class. On return they have to copy the words underneath, ensuring they copy the shapes of my letters. They hate it at first but, with persistence, they begin to see the relevance.

Without a doubt marking the work of this class more than any other – they are often used to less – has overcome behavioural problems. Insistence on high standards of work every time without fail has removed the excuses for not understanding. Clear instructions, an overload of help and assistance and real evidence when they see their writing improving has turned many of them back on to English. Success breeds a desire for more success. Weaker writers carry so much negative experience with them that it is criminal to watch them continue to fail. I’d rather spend more of my time on their work than to think of them as illiterate adults. And that’s what happens if we don’t do enough.

Better teachers and better bloggers than me have described marking as an act of love. Showing them that we care about what they are writing and that we want them to be better is a great motivator. But it is easy to do that for kids who are already reasonably proficient. It is the ones who are the most trouble whom we need to care about most. Even when they fight us, even when they give up, we must never give up on them. They often feel enough like failures.