Strict or Positive?

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: “Strictly Positive Teaching” – there are three words that don’t belong together. Firstly, you can either be strict or positive; you are either a strict tyrannical teacher, or you are a positive Pollyanna.

The Tyrant

Given the choice, most teachers would probably opt for being the tyrannical teacher. Tyrants can get a lot done, and check a lot of boxes, because there is no messing with them. If you are a strict teacher, you rule your classroom with a rod or iron, you are vigilant for any whisper out of turn or misbehaviour of any sort, and you have silence in the room until you deem there should be sound. On your terms. Lord help the child who was shattered after a late away game and didn’t get your homework done – you brook no excuses. Rules are rules, after all. You are probably the one who can’t imagine why other colleagues empathise which the other about the impossibility of dealing with Katie in year 9. “She’s fine for me,” you think, but wisely don’t say because you know it will get your colleagues’ collective back up. “All you have to do is apply the behaviour policy;” you go on to say to yourself, “How hard can it be?” You find it hard to understand why everyone doesn’t do it the way you do. Students know not to come to you with excuses or reasons for omissions or infractions – they know that this isn’t a democracy and you don’t go in for pointless conversations. Your name is against many students in the detention hall each day. You are widely known as a disciplinarian, and that a good thing. You are usually popular with older students, whereas younger children regard you with abject terror. Okay, sometimes kids feel a sanction is unfair; sometimes they might not like you much, but hey, what self-respecting teacher needs the approval of a fifteen year old? You didn’t come into this profession to win any popularity contests. When the kids leave with brilliant results they’ll thank you. And they probably will. You are an excellent teacher. They will never forget or forgive the perceived injustices, but whatever the discussions they have about you when they meet for a reunion in a dark pub at an age when their schooldays are the stuff of nostalgia, they will finish with “…but s/he was a bloody good teacher.”

The miserable one

You’re probably not the strict teacher that young people actively dislike. She shouldn’t really be in teaching at all, because she doesn’t really like children at all, but she has been put on this earth to ensure that recalcitrant kids get through the course and come out the other end with a decent grade. She’s been teaching for years and frankly, she doesn’t need any keen young beginner coming in and introducing new ways of doing things when she’s been getting kids good grades since 1989. Since she doesn’t particularly want to do anything fancy in her lessons, she maintains order with rigorous discipline based upon pre-emptive application of the behaviour policy. None of this three strikes and you’re out nonsense. Muck about and you’ll be punished. Be on the fringes of the mucking about and you’ll get the same sanction; she doesn’t go in for too much discussion. No one much likes her because she’s a grumpy bugger, and she is regarded as extremely unfair. And no one really thinks much of her as a teacher. She thinks she’s funny, but sarcasm doesn’t go across very well with kids.

The shouter

Then there are the strict teachers who are shouters. Blessed with generous volume controls and the power to project formidably, if they were animated in cartoon form, they would be the ones whose voice could blow their students’ hair horizontal. They tend to punish less than they shout, but the actual shouting itself is so unpleasant that the possibility of it occurring serves as a deterrent in itself. They tend to be a little moody and unpredictable, and they think of themselves as ‘characters’, as do most of the students. They tend to be energetic teachers who work hard for their students, and they are always tired and always living life on a knife edge. When they shout it is not the stage-managed acting which many teachers go in for, but a real eruption of anger and frustration, in the course of which they may make unguarded, potentially career-limiting statements.

Positive Pollyanna

On the other hand, you might be a Positive Pollyanna. As far as you are concerned, you and the kids are all in this together. You shower praise around – “That’s fantastic! Well done you!” – and pretend not to notice the tussling between Tom and Sayed in the corner of the room as they flick each other increasingly vigorously with the double-sided, beautifully illustrated, carefully constructed worksheet which you were up until 11.27 last night preparing. Sometimes another teacher will storm your classroom shouting for order and then recover their composure when they see you perched next to a student, facilitating. They hadn’t realised a teacher was in the room – it was that noisy. But kids love you. You’re often told that, and it gives you a, lovely warm fuzzy feeling. You’re so warm and friendly, unfailingly smiling and doing absolutely everything in your power to ensure that your classroom is a place of joy and creativity. When kids act up you are personally hurt, a fact which you share with the miscreants, who are paralysed with embarrassment when they think you might actually cry in their presence.They will be subjected to hard stares from other students who come to your aid and comfort you. They will feel awful. Because they really don’t want to upset you. But next time they come in they’ll forget and start mucking around again in unstructured moments. Not because they don’t like you. They really do, but they’re kids. They’d just like things to be a bit more focused. In that pub you will be remembered with great affection, and a tiny bit of mockery.

In truth, the vast majority of us are probably somewhere in between, and we have our own strategies and methods of teaching and managing behaviour in our classes. We get on well generally. Some days we’ll ace all our lessons and our behaviour management will be spot-on. Occasionally we’ll have a dreadful lesson, or even a dreadful day, and we’ll moan, possibly shout a bit, then get over ourselves, calm down and plan a better day tomorrow.

The Strictly Positive teaching model is a very simple one. It enables teachers to be both strict and positive at the same time. This is effected by a very simple tweak in teacher thinking. In short, by all that he says or does, the Strictly Positive teacher shows that what matters is what his students are doing RIGHT, and not what they are doing wrong. Praise is SPECIFIC. Whereas no good contribution, enhanced effort or courteous gesture goes unnoticed or unheralded, sanctions are applied wordlessly.

The Strictly Positive Teacher

The Strictly Positive teacher is vigilant, aware of everything that is going on in the class, alert to everything that is going right in the class and what is going wrong too. They address what is going right and what is going wrong swiftly and deftly. So far so same as before. The change is that what is going right is dealt with loudly and publicly in full view of the class, and what is going wrong is acknowledged silently, and dealt with privately.

If you go into the classroom of a successful Strictly Positive teacher, the names you hear will be the names of those who are behaving, achieving, being courteous and doing well. Students are be confident that effort, contribution and risk-taking would be recognised. They are confident that what they can do is much more important to the teacher than what they can’t do. They know that what they are doing right is more important to the teacher than what they, or others, are doing wrong. They know that it is better to try, and fail, than not to try. They also know that any disruption of their learning will be dealt with swiftly.

In many classrooms, were you a fly on the wall, you might witness a scene which goes something like this:

Teacher: “Who threw that paper? It was you, Joe, wasn’t it?”
Joe: “No it wasn’t! Why are you picking on me? You always pick on me! I didn’t do anything!
Teacher: “Yes, you did! I saw you! You actually ripped a page out of your book… Look here! You can even see where you ripped it out! Then I saw you scrunch it up and throw it at Tom… And there’s no point looking like that, Tom… You’re just as bad…”
Tom and Joe gesticulate to indicate their total innocence and the unreasonableness of their teacher. All eyes are on them.
Meanwhile the rest of the class put down their pens and wait patiently for the scene to play out.

Later in the same lesson:
Max makes an excellent point.
Teacher: “Yes. Well done!”
Teacher moves on to next student.

Which looks more important? The tearing out and throwing of the paper, or the excellent academic response to the teaching? Who gets more attention in that class? Joe or Max? How are Joe and Max going to feel at the end of this?

Let’s replay that scenario in the classroom of a Strictly Positive teacher.

Teacher spots the page being torn out and thrown across the room. He scoops it up without comment and drops it in the bin. He walks over to the board and writes Joe’s name, in the bottom left hand corner.

Joe knows not to argue. If he protests, the sanction which he has earned will be increased. He needs to stay behind after the lesson for a quick chat. If he doesn’t, his sanction will again be increased.

As the teacher finishes his teaching point, he asks a question.

Max answers.
Teacher: “An excellent response, Max. You have made a good point about… And you also noticed… you also expressed yourself very well – I like the use of the keyword ________.”
Teacher goes to board and adds Max’s name to a long list which covers most of the right hand side of the board.

What’s more important here? The tearing out and throwing of the paper, or the excellent academic response to the teaching? Who gets more attention in that class? Joe or Max? How are Joe and Max going to feel at the end of this?

In the Strictly Positive classroom the focus is one what matters, and what matters is the positive learning and behaviour which is happening in the classroom. Nothing negative should be allowed to become the focus.

So that’s how it should work. Later we can examine the nuts and bolts of different ways to set this up and run it in your classroom.



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