Mastering the art of classroom management

With the the current crop of education ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentaries, the appointment of a behaviour tsar, and claims that low-level disruption is a main cause of teachers leaving the profession, the focus is back on classroom management, big time.

One aspect at which these documentaries excel is revealing the mysterious alchemy that comes into play between the pupils in the classroom, and the teacher at the front. No doubt the presence of the cameras, like the presence of another teacher, a visiting inspector, or whoever, actually alters this alchemy. But there is a ring of truth about many of those scenes that makes us think back to our own experiences, and think about those seminal moments that probably had a lifetime’s impact on the teachers from our own school days.

Two Maths teachers from secondary school certainly taught me important lessons about classroom behaviour management that really helped in my own teaching career. There is considerable criticism in the media  of some of the behaviour that is shown on these documentaries, possibly with some justification. Maybe, though, some of the incidents shown can also help inform and shape the teachers of tomorrow? Can they maybe offer some classroom management support for our trainee teachers?

B&W MinstrelsBack to the late 50s, and my own early secondary experiences. Given his cherubic face and golden curls, it wasn’t surprising that 1D’s new Maths teacher was immediately christened ‘Babyface’. Nothing to do with cool singers of the day. This was the era when the Black and White Minstrels were still TV’s, and George Mitchell’s, pride and joy, rather than recognised as a racist disgrace, and ‘Babyface’ was one of their best-loved Al Jolson re-creations of the day. And it fitted this teacher in his first year out of college to perfection. His body language was also generally gentle and slightly hesitant, though on that first day he strode into the classroom vigorously, as if someone had trained him that first impressions counted. But first impressions are hard to maintain, and after a week or two the 11 year olds in 1D had worked out that Babyface was still unsure of himself as a teacher, and had decided they could play him up. Skirmishes were a regular occurrence, and boys would be dispatched from the classroom along the hall to where the year head’s office was found. A line of chairs gathered up the miscreants, who would be taken in individually, admonished, and often caned.

The first year were not taught in the main school building, but were off-shored down the road to a former secondary modern building, empty since a new purpose-built school had been constructed in leafier suburbs. We were the baby boomer generation, after all, and everywhere classrooms were in short supply. The building had been erected in the first flush of Victorian primary education, and somewhat resembled a London Board school in appearance, but had been later converted to secondary use. It would subsequently be returned to its primary roots, and it still houses the area’s primary pupils, and even a teacher’s award-winning teacher, to this day. Discipline on this detached site, including the inevitable use of the cane, fell not to the school’s dreaded deputy head, as in the main building, but was delegated to a year head who struck bottoms of, but never the same sense of fear into, the first year pupils.

After Christmas, 1D’s maths lessons with Babyface expanded to include algebra, which in those days occupied a similar curriculum position to the Dark Arts for pupils at Hogwarts. Mysterious, unfathomable, with hints of dark practices, it is hard to convey in these more enlightened times just how awed we were by algebra.  Babyface struggled manfully on, skirmishes continued, and our maths went further downhill. One day, in exasperation, I raised my hand and asked a genuine question. “Sir, what use is algebra, because you never go to the greengrocer’s and ask for x pounds of apples?” (For though this was almost the 60s, the grocers, greengrocers, and haberdashers still had separate shops, and you always weighed fruit in pounds, not kilos).

There was a moment’s silence, then Babyface went apoplectic, ran down the aisle, dragged me from my desk and hurled me bodily from the classroom. Despatched to the year head, caned, and entered in the punishment book for cheek and insubordination, merely for asking my honest question. The classroom war continued, and I was now a known trouble-maker. I managed to get the record for most canings in one week. We took to singing ‘Babyface’ quite audibly during the lessons. Sometimes a senior teacher would come and sit at the back of the classroom, and we were temporarily better behaved, but as soon as he was alone we started in on Babyface again.

mathematics-algebraFlash forward to the following September, a second year classroom in the main building, and 2D awaits a new maths teacher. In strides another fresh-faced teacher also clearly in his first year of teaching. There is general glee amongst 2D at the prospect of another year of fun at the expense of the new teacher, rapidly nicknamed ‘Foxy’ Fowler. But this one is fashioned from a different metal. When he draws a moon-shape explaining how to approach an algebra problem, a small group of us stand and sing a chorus of Blue Moon, which was a current doo-wop hit, sung by The Marcels.  When we finished, instead of becoming apoplectic, Foxy compliments us on our singing, then puts us all in detention, before carrying on teaching as if nothing has happened. No shouting, no caning – we don’t know how to handle this.

In the detention he sets us some algebra problems, but then also talks to us, and finds out more about us. We relax a little under this unexpected charm offensive. I am thrown, so fall back on the proven challenge about ‘x pounds of apples’. No explosion, no rage. Foxy just says, “Imagine you need to buy some apples for visitors, but you don’t know how many people are coming to stay, and how many eat apples. You know you need to buy apples, but not how many, so you write down the unknown amount, x. Then later you find there are five people coming, and of them, four eat apples, and will each have one a day. There are four apples in a pound, so now you can now work out just how many apples you need, and can calculate x. As he told me this he wrote on the board, and showed the algebraic workings of the problem. Suddenly it all made sense, and I had a new hero.

I was not alone, the rest of the class were also rapidly won over by Foxy. Within a term 2D had made up a lot of the mathematical ground lost during the previous wasted year. A Christmas card was bought by 2D for Foxy, a rare accolade for any teacher in that school at that time. In a more innocent era, when teachers were not supposed to have first names, we had found out his given name was John, so I wrote in the card, as selected scribe, ‘A Happy Christmas to John, from 2D’. The card was left on the teacher’s desk at the start of his last lesson. Foxy strode in, saw and opened the card. He looked around around the room rather sternly and said ‘Thank you, 2D, but I want the boy who wrote this to stay behind after the lesson’. When the class left, I walked nervously to the front, accompanied by my mate, one of the other ‘trouble-makers’, in a show of defiant solidarity. A caning was our expectation, and by then you gained kudos from the number of beatings you received in a term, so he was OK about backing me up.

“Which of you two wrote this?” asked Foxy. “I did, sir”. “OK, then. I wonder if you could add ‘Mr’ in front of ‘John’ and ‘Fowler’ after? I would like to put this up at home, but I don’t think I can with its current wording”. The words were duly added, and immediately another teacher entered that wonderful Hall of Fame that everyone who is asked about their favourite teachers knows. Needless to say 2D’s behaviour and maths continued to improve for the rest of the year, and none of us looked back. Well, maybe we have done since, occasionally, and with a fond smile?

A few years later, after going to university and myself becoming a teacher, I was discussing the school with a young cousin, now in his third year there and taught by many of the same staff I had known. “The toughest teacher by far is Babyface”, he told me (though not by that name, Babyface had managed to shake off the epithet). “He is a total tyrant, and you can’t get away with anything in his lessons”. To this day, I am left feeling slightly saddened and guilty on hearing this. In one way, it was good that Babyface had clearly learned from his year with us, and later became an effective teacher who went on to leadership, and some great successes. But it is sad that his route to success involved adopting a harsh and punitive approach that I am sure was not part of his original intention. Cohorts of pupils learned in fear in his classroom, whereas maybe a less-uncomfortable first year would have allowed him the altogether more pleasant route to success later followed by Foxy? Mea culpa?

Later still, when my own baptism of fire as a teacher in the classroom happened, and a ‘known trouble-maker’ from an older age-group put me publicly on the spot, I thought back and did what Foxy had done. And it worked, well at least for me. The trouble-maker, and his accompanying cronies opened up a little in the detention, showed their vulnerabilities, and a different relationship was established. After that they stopped making my life hell, and I even got some half-decent work out of them, before sadly the ring-leader was permanently excluded for selling drugs to his fellow pupils. But this was now the 70s, and west London, not York, and life was less innocent. So there wasn’t a neat, happy ending for him, and not for you today, either, sorry.

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