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When I first resolved to train as a teacher – and worse still, a secondary school teacher – everyone I informed of this momentous decision would stare at me aghast and ask, with varying degrees of pity and horror, “What do you want to do that for?” Then they’d sigh and mutter something along the lines of, “Well, rather you then me.”
Teenagers have become modern-day boogeymen, lurking in feral packs down dimly lit alleyways, drugged eyes staring ominously from beneath hoodies as they step menacingly towards you. The idea of standing in front of roomful of them and trying to teach them to perform quadratic equations or conjugate French verbs is one most people find truly terrifying. What if they ignore you? What if they laugh at you? What if they tell you eff off?
The reality is at once nothing like what I expected and everything I feared. The vast majority of students are charming, funny, interesting, baffling young people. On the whole they follow most reasonable requests cheerfully enough. They might sigh or suck their teeth, but they’ll generally display a polite interest in whatever it is you want to teach them. Sometimes, however, they don’t. Especially when you’re new. Sometimes they talk over you as you fight for their attention, sometimes they say something incredibly rude or threatening, sometimes they behave like, well, teenagers.
As a young teacher I would watch agog as experienced members of staff effortless commanded the rise and swell of students. Why wouldn’t they behave that way for me? I trained in the late 1990s and, as far as I can remember, nothing in my PGCE prepared me for the reality of trying to run a classroom. I had a few wise, but world-weary mentors who’d pass on tips) some of which even worked) but I was pretty much left to figure it out for myself. And once I’d qualified as an NQT I was definitely on my own.
My first two years seemed like a running battle. I had some classes who were lovely and others that were hell on wheels. Early in my career, I remember an Ofsted inspector observing me attempt to teach a Year 7 class and grading the lesson as unsatisfactory. When I asked what I could do to better manage their behaviour she laughed and confessed, “Oh my dear, I have no idea what I’d do with that lot!”
Eventually, I figured out most of what I needed to know. I learned the importance of routines, how to use group dynamics and the imperative of setting high expectation and sticking to them come what may. But think how much better it would have been for me and my students if someone had told just me these things.
Well, if the recommendations made in the new Developing behaviour management content for initial teacher training report released last week were to become the norm in teacher training, that mad dream may be on the verge of coming true. The report sets out three key principles for ensuring all trainee teachers are properly prepared for the reality of classroom management: they must observe excellent practice, they must practise the skills required to run a room in safe, manageable environments, and they must have access with a coach or mentor to help them review their progress.
But what is it every new teacher needs to know about behaviour management? The ‘3 Rs’ suggested in the report are routines, responses and relationships. Each one is broken down so that it’s clear exactly what trainees are expected to know and be able to do. Some of this will be obvious to any experienced teacher: how to resolve conflict and de-escalate situations; how to harness the power of habit to establish effective classroom routines; how to regulate one’s own behaviour and responses. Other bits may come as a surprise.
The most interesting inclusion is the expectation that ITT providers teach trainees about, “The basic psychology of: motivation; long and short term memory; focus; learning; cognitive load, spacing and interleaving; and group dynamics.” This is of particular interest to me having just co-written a book called What Every Teacher Needs To Know About Psychology. I hadn’t really made a link between the functioning of memory and behaviour management, but I can certainly see how an understanding of cognitive load theory – the idea that working memory is very limited and easily overload – can help teachers plan teaching sequences more effectively and thereby avoid much of the frustration which can so often result in demotivation and poor behaviour. Likewise, I can really see how an appreciation of group dynamics and the social norms of in-groups and out-groups could help teacher better understand and, consequently, better manage classes.
Of course there’s bits I’d quibble with. For instance, I think it’s a shame that the report suggests that training should include “The necessity of having, and how to have, restorative conversations.” I think it would be better to teach trainees about the limitations of restorative approaches and how, in very many instances, they can end up causing more harm to victims. The evidence that restorative approaches to behaviour management work is thin. What evidence we do have is based on generalisations from the criminal justice system, anecdote and a few very poorly controlled case studies. This is a clear case where the need to include modules on professional scepticism in ITT would clearly be an advantage to teachers.
All in all, this report represents a fairly major change in what prospective teachers can expect when signing up to a training course. It’s a real shame that the DfE has rejected the report’s suggested that these recommendations “should be mandatory”, but there’s still hope the guidelines will become part of the criteria for ITT providers to be allocated spaces for trainees. Let’s hope so. Consistent and robust training on behaviour management could transform the working lives of new teachers and thereby also contribute to raising standards across the system.
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