I remember observing proper teachers in my training year and feeling immensely frustrated that they seemed to achieve excellent classroom behaviour without having to move a finger. Students would come in, settle down quickly, show interest in the lesson and never test the boundaries. They were both docile and inquisitive. The teacher, in the meantime, would never have to raise their voice or apply consequences. They all seemed to have a ‘magic touch’ that students responded to. I realise now, after many years in the classroom, that it wasn’t magic I was witnessing, but a lot of subtle and very skillful behaviour-management techniques.
I moved schools this year, and was told the class I would be teaching were challenging. It is only after eight weeks that I’m beginning to understand their very complex and significant social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) and behavioural needs. I have by no means ‘cracked’ them, and each week is like a rollercoaster. However, I’m here today to report back on some definite dos and don’ts I’ve learned.
Every September, when greeting my new class, I would follow the same pattern for the first two weeks to settle them in. I don’t think there is anything magical or mysterious about how I settle children and classes, so I am going to share it now, so that anyone can pick up the bits they think they would find useful. I should also give props to my mum here, as I learnt about routine, expectations, and consistent boundaries by watching her as a childminder to toddlers!
Some of you will read this and think “Well, she has never taught in a challenging environment if that works”, but I can assure you that, having worked at inner-city London schools, this settle-in routine was a necessity - not a ‘nice-to-have’ - and there were certainly some very challenging cohorts who I thought this would never work for. But I always persevered, and it always came good in the end!
For me, settling a class is about four main things:
Getting this right in September means not having to be strict all year. I was known for having very high behaviour expectations with my classes. But also, anyone visiting my class to observe during the year could not actually pinpoint what I was doing that they would consider ‘strict’. The reason is very simple: I had done all of my settling back when no one was watching! So now there is nothing to see. They know the rules, and I know what they are capable of.
The first thing I would do with my new class is a little speech. Here, I explain that I have three jobs. ‘Teacher’ is my job title, but it is actually my third job once I have completed the first two. The first job I have is to keep them safe. At the very least, your parents expect them all in one piece at hometime each day. Being safe is about the safety of everyone. Individual and collective responsibility. Running around in the classroom = unsafe. Holding scissors aloft while chatting = unsafe. And so on. So any behaviour such as that would stop any lesson immediately (anything which stops a lesson causes a sanction).
My second job is to ensure everyone is happy. This is not to be confused with my job being to MAKE people happy. It is not about having fun or being entertained. Happiness is more a contentment - it means that we care about everyone around us, and show everyone respect in their classroom and learning environment. Someone crying due to someone else ruining their drawing = I need to intervene. Someone upset or angry due to being annoyed by someone else in class = I need to intervene. Again, intervention by me means learning time lost, so could result in sanctions.
The other part of happiness looks at my commitment to intervene - and support/help - if a child is unhappy due to circumstances outside of the classroom. No need to labour this point, but it is worth the pupils knowing that, say, if they arrive angry after a fight with siblings, they can sit and calm down in the book corner before register, to get happy for school.
Once my first job (safety) and my second job (happiness) are done, I can then teach. Those conditions mean we can learn loads. We can discover exciting facts. We can learn about interesting places or words. I commit to always making lessons as engaging and interesting as possible, but making sure pupils learn from them is the main objective. Pupils must commit to working hard and listening, and I will then support them as much as a I can to help them succeed.
Once the speech is done, we usually spend that first lesson drawing up a class agreement based on my speech outlining the above. The rules come from them based on the “safe” and “happy” criteria, ie “We need a rule about hurting people, because that could make things unsafe AND make people unhappy.”
Time to get to work
The next two weeks are carefully planned to include lots of independent working. The reasoning is threefold:
For each of the independent task lessons (at least two a day in the first two weeks) I would, of course, do some teaching up front. After this, I would have various tasks which were very low-challenge or significantly differentiated, so that everyone could access them without support. The tasks quite frankly would be considered, at any other time, to be a total waste of learning time. I make no bones about this. But at this stage in the term, it is vital for me to do this so that for the rest of the year my learning environment allows us to have extremely high expectations.
So during the silent lessons, I will pick up on every single issue of behaviour. I mean every single one. In each case I would never call the child out publicly. While the class works I sit at the desk and work with individuals. I call them over, ask why they think they did the right thing. I will explain my expectations. If it is something a previous teacher allowed but I will not, I explain to the whole class that I understand they were allowed to do that before, but in my class I don’t allow it - and I always explain why, referring to the rules (being careful, of course, not to undermine the previous teacher, but just to say we are different). We set up agreed new routines as a class so that expectations going forward are clear.
Once we have done a few silent lessons the majority of children are now on board and understand that you mean what you say - this is the first turning point. They now start to remind others of the expectations. They start to keep each other on track with other teachers (PPA time) too. Then we can start to spend more time with the more “spirited” children who need a lot more support in settling.
You might even end up spending a lot of time with one or two key characters who seem to be always at your desk during silent working, having been called up for one misdemeanour or another. This time is really key. It gives you a chance to give them attention they clearly need, without it interrupting your main curriculum later down the line. I have had cases where, even right near the end of the two weeks, there is just one or two children I cannot seem to get the right connection with. Some of these go on past the two weeks. But by then, the rest of the class is 100% onboard and actually enjoying how settled and calm their class is. So they do not mind you spending extra time with one.
And this time with the more disenfranchised pupils really works. They eventually realise you mean everything you say. They see you start to loosen up with the rest of the class, and that you really won’t be strict forever if everyone does the right thing. They see you being fair and consistent with everyone. They see you wipe their slate clean and start again every single day. So eventually they trust you, and order is established with everyone. The side effect is also a more cohesive class who work together calmly.
As I said, this may not work for everyone. And in a short article I have had to speed up the explanation, but hopefully the intention is clear and the tips will help some new teachers. Get in touch if you want to find out any more ([email protected]), or discuss any challenges you are facing when settling your class - I am always happy to help!
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