How my quest to transform the behavior of others became about transforming my own.
'This is how we do it here'
High School disillusionment 2000
I resented being told what to do by a bunch of adults who were clearly miserable and suffering. When they weren't engaged in shaming and belittling students, their focus lay in creating clones that regurgitated a curriculum that was both unengaging and irrelevant to life outside of school.
I was interested in life and wanted to engage with it, but teachers did not have time as they were often too busy dealing with trouble makers or rewarding high academic achievers. When I left school I became a punk. I spent my twenties spitting on the world and shunned anything that seemed normal or conventional.The idea of a steady job, marriage, children, buying a house, having a routine all seemed horrendous and basically I judged anyone on that route to be buying into living zombiedom. I rejected and rebelled against a society I saw as unhappy, disgustingly unjust and riddled with hypocrisy. I saw myself as a victim, and I wanted to save the world.
This passion to 'save the world' finally led me back into the classroom and I've now been teaching English as a foreign language for three years. I've tried hard to make my lessons everything they never were at school - engaging, fun and a place to explore. What I aimed to create when I started was a kind of 'edutainment' - to be the all-star show teacher who kept students endlessly entertained, but who was always listening to the needs and wants of the children and gave them their own choices to make. A kind of brilliant Messianic teacher with a shining halo and all that. I wanted to teach all the things that I never got taught - solid communication skills, confidence, how to look for opportunities and take risks without fear of failure.
As I've discovered, developing as a teacher is a long path littered with challenges and obstacles, many of which have forced me to confront the fact that in desperation and out of lack of experience there were moments where had become the very model of the teachers I abhorred from my own school days.
I rejected the authoritarian 'this is how we do things here' structure and replaced it with 'anything goes, lets just see what happens' liberal approach. This resulted in some very chaotic classes where both the children and I did not feel safe - screaming, hiding under desks, ripping up the work of others... I've since learnt the hard way that classroom learning and creative skills grow out of structure, not unrestricted freedoms.
In the words of Jacqueline Lynch, Learning adviser, 'If you really want to screw the system become successful.' (p19)
My responsibility as a teacher is to be a rock, not a rebel. We need a solid base from which we can grow. Only then did I begin to realize that what I rejected from school was not structure, which we all need, but negative structure, where the motivation to work is all fear- driven. ('if you don't do this, you will be rejected and passionately reprimanded' punishment style approach)
My journey into structure
Once I identified structure was missing from my lessons, I set out to find it. I followed advice from other teachers and instated rewards systems and behavior games into my classrooms.
Here are some of the classic inexperienced teacher pit-holes I fell into during my first few years -
These are systems designed to motivate children to behave through gamification - a simple version being the mouse and the cheese, where a picture of a mouse is taped to one end of the board and a cheese to the other. The idea is that good behavior from the group will move the mouse closer to the end goal of the cheese, and bad behavior will move the mouse back. There are other variations such as the sun and the thunderstorm and traffic lights. The problem with these systems, as pointed out by Paul Dix in his book 'When the Adults change, Everything Changes', is that the games become a 'simple shortcut' to being famous for being badly behaved. I have noticed how children with consistent bad behavior subvert these systems to work against the teacher's desires. Publicly shaming kids for poor behavior only adds to their notoriety and reinforces their identity as 'the rebel'. Also, in life a right doesn't necessarily correct a wrong. This can result in very erratic styles of behavior.
Rewards systems can be dangerous because instead of fostering team work they create a hierarchy within the class.
What works better?
Positive recognition, importance and sense of belonging
A hello routine - shaking hands, saying hello, asking students how they are. Encouraging them to acknowledge each other as part of the group. Sometimes we are in danger of only noticing children who are very 'good' or 'bad' in the classroom. This routine helps welcome our students and foster connection early on. We let them know that we recognize and accept them as fellow human beings, regardless of their place or position with in the group. Everybody must feel included.
Three simple followable rules that become a mantra at the beginning of the lesson.
Other strategies I resorted to out of ignorance and desperation were pleading, shouting, and over-promising punishments.
As a teacher you are expected to know and understand group management from day one, but the truth is that it takes time and experience to develop good habits and create a positive environment in the classroom, particularly as many of us grew up accustomed to poor teaching styles which are deeply embedded within our psyche.
Since introducing three simple easy-to-remember rules my classroom has become a safer, happier place. When these rules are broken, instead of reacting with emotion, I have learnt to give the student in question a reminder about the rule. My energy is now focused on recognizing good behavior rather than bad. This motivates the students to learn tenfold.
Ideas to help reinforce positive attitudes to learning:
Names on the board - again this idea from Paul Dix. Use names on the board for recording what Paul calls 'over and above' completely brilliant behavior. Write the names of students up when they have done something exceptionally brilliant.
A simple well done - or acknowledgement of personal achievement.
When students have been particularly exceptional, give them a positive note to take home and read with their parents and share their achievements with other members of staff and people in their community.
These ideas do not fix all problems, but they help build a start to growing a more positive learning environment, where behavior is managed from a point of view of love rather than from fear. Being loving is not about always being 'soft', it is about consistency and belief in the capabilities of our students.
If you would like to read more about behavior management in class, I reccomend this book:
Thanks for reading!