Today I taught the most challenging class I have met in seven years of teaching.
When I arrived at the school I was told that the teacher of this Year 4 class had left no plan. Fortunately, I was able to procure the assistance of another Year 4 teacher, who gave me a rushed briefing that ensured that both of us started the day feeling more stressed than was really necessary.
But I’ve had poorly planned days before, and most of them seemed like a dance in the dandelions compared to this day. So what was it that made the class so challenging?
On the surface, the problem was really quite simple: they just wouldn’t shut up.
From the moment I led them up to their room, the students chatted amongst themselves incessantly. At first, I chose to draw on my considerable reserve of patience by standing at the front of the class and waiting. Three or four students noticed and raised their fingers to their lips in courageous, peer-defying displays of obedience, but several minutes ticked by, their patience waned and the rest of the class remained oblivious. As the only person in the room not talking, I began to feel left out.
“Oooookay,” I said, my voice a teacherly blend of politeness, authority and a dash of urgency. I stepped forward as far as I could without treading on an eight-year-old shin and held out my hands, palms down, to suggest a lowering of volume.
Sensing the need to pierce the rising wall of chatter with something a little more punchy, I resorted to the time-tested technique of clap-and-response. With just the right amount of palm-cup and finger-snap, I clapped the generic pattern of ta-ta-titi-ta. Several students (probably the same exasperated kids who had responded to my earlier display of patience) mimicked my pattern. I clapped again, and several more joined in. However, half of these continued to chat over their own claps. They had clearly failed to grasp the unspoken law of clap-and-response that states that clapping and talking are mutually exclusive. Gradually the clappers who had grasped this law realised that this was going nowhere and returned their voices to the crescendo of babble.
My reserve of patience, which had seemed voluminous in other classrooms, was now so low that I could hear the last litre slurping its way down the plughole. In a panic, I opted for option D: shouting. Whilst I knew this can be interpreted as a sign of weakness, I was out of ideas. This lion had been backed into a corner and was ready to lash out. Unfortunately, the obvious logical fault in my belief that I could silence their noise with my own, louder noise only occurred to me when my desperate roar of “OK SETTLE DOWN RIGHT NOW!” sent the sound pressure level into the decibel range of the pneumatic drill.
It was at precisely that point that I felt the dread of knowing that I had lost the class. And it was only 9:15.
The remainder of the day consisted of shouting competitions, hurriedly explained lessons, misunderstandings, crying children, temporarily successful interventions by other teachers, countless cortisol spurts and many, many self-supplied temple massages.
On speaking to other teachers I discovered that my experience with this particular class was not unique. I was told that very experienced teachers had described that year group as the “rudest they have ever seen” and refused to return.
But it is all too easy to blame the students, and I know there are things I could have done that might have led to a few less heart palpitations. Upon reflection, I have identified a few simple tools that might have made my day a lot easier, and I would love to hear any suggestions that fellow teachers have to offer.
1. Name tags
Few things make one feel more helpless than being completely ignored after shouting an ambiguous order like “Hey! You with the corn-rows! Stop holding that ruler next to your groin and slapping it against the desk!”
A child’s name is their collar, and there is no way to give their leash a sharp tug without it. No matter how good your memory is, you will never memorise the names of twenty-five kids whose parents took complete creative license over the laws of language when first penning their child’s name on the birth certificate. Well, not without props anyway. As such, I have bought five packs of sticky name tags at £1 a bag and intend to distribute them to classes at the beginning of each day.
2. School rule sheet
This step seems obvious but is easy to overlook in the hustle and bustle of a new school morning. Kids need consistency, and consistency is established through language. All schools with half an ear to the current research should have agreed upon a common language of behaviour management that encompasses expectations, rewards and consequences. I believe that any serious school should provide all visiting teachers with laminated information sheets that clearly outline the school’s behaviour management language. However, since schools are usually too busy to do this, I have developed a template that supply teachers can use to collect this information. It will be uploaded shortly.
3. Daily plan display
Students like to know exactly what will be happening over the day. Any ambiguity in this regard seems to appeal to their sense of freedom, which means worse behavior. As such, a daily plan should be made visible to the class from the moment they step through the door, and adhered to rigidly. Even if this means arriving at school an hour early, the hair you save will more than make up for the hour of sleep that you lose.
Please share your own ideas in the comments section below.