This is an incredibly important area for teachers who wish their practice to be strictly positive. For whatever reason, the relationships in a classroom, between teacher and students, but also between students, can take a sudden nosedive if not properly controlled. Students can fall out over something tiny and trouble can spread quickly and involve multiple others over the course of a single Geography lesson without the teacher noticing, if that teacher is not alert to the atmosphere in a room.
When the teacher is not teaching from the front and the students are engaged on a writing exercise, pair work or group work, it is surprisingly easy for these situations to arise. The first hint for the teacher may be when one student dissolves into tears or storms out of your room, or actually hits another.
So over time you can learn to be vigilant. You are already, as a Strictly Positive Teacher, looking for and finding positive behaviour and commending courteous acts, but you also need to watch out for the start of unpleasantness, or unpleasantness which spills from outside into your classroom.
You can learn to read a room and spot these behaviours early. It may well be that you are aware of the volatile characters in your class, quite often the students whose behaviour you have planned for. You may also be aware of the volatile relationships in the class; maybe you have the two girls who are sometimes best friends and at other times sworn enemies. Maybe the two boys who used to be best friends but then there was a girl…, or the kids who were in a romantic relationship but have now turned on each other with visceral ferocity. As a teacher it is important not to be so involved with one child, or group of children, or table, that you lose your overall gauge of the temperature of the room.
The best way that you can avoid such problems arising in your room is to be very assertive:
1. Be polite to everyone in the classroom. If we do not model politeness it is difficult to demand it from our charges. It is essential to watch language and never to make blanket personal comments, but always to ensure that any negative comment which escapes you (because we can behave less than perfectly sometimes…) is applied to behaviour rather than to character. Recently I watched a clip on our local news recently of a transgender male student talking about his transition and how his school handled it. He mentioned that one teacher had mimicked his high voice, and it was clearly something which had hurt him deeply. I’m a hundred percent certain that that teacher had no intention of upsetting him. The obvious hurt of this student struck me as powerful evidence of how one teacher’s throwaway remark or gesture, or inadvertent facial expression can speak volumes and can speak to a student in a way which will stay with them forever.
2. Demand politeness from all to all as a condition of being in your classroom. Make this absolutely explicit.
3. Never overlook unpleasantness when it arises. It is so tempting to pretend not to hear something, but in this specific case it gives bullies carte blanche to carry on.
4. Never publicly challenge the behaviour but intervene at once privately. Sometimes it will be appropriate to issue a warning, sometimes not. If a student is gratuitously nasty to another student, the offender should be moved.
5. Immediately move one of the students, if there is a clear aggressor, or both of it seems equally balanced.
6. Do not engage with that student or students about the reasons for the move.
7. Ask the student or both students to see you after the lesson. Always take a moment at the end of the lesson to explain why the behaviour was inappropriate. Never indicate that this is a character flaw – condemn the behaviour, not the student
8. Try to get students to agree at the end in a private conversation
9. If they won’t, escalate immediately to pastoral leaders
10. It is essential to remember that as a teacher you can have great impact in a student’s life. That impact can be positive or negative. And those negative seeds that a teacher plants can prove toxic. I still remember the history teacher who told me that I reminded her of Charles I because I was “stubborn and weak”. Over forty years later I can remember that burn, and the laughter of my classmates.
We must always remember that the teacher is the adult in the room, and as such must be careful of everything you say and do, because the students are children. The bullied student will quickly learn to be wary of the teachers who, even if they never tease themselves, pretend not to hear the ‘teasing’ or ‘banter’ of the bullies.
Even the sixth formers are still children. Those teachers who are old enough to have children who have passed through the whole school system recognise that year 11s don’t come back after two months of holiday and in their own clothes miraculously transformed into adults. And as children they are still vulnerable to perceived slights or being teased by adults, especially adults who are in a position of authority. We mustn’t abuse our authority and must try our best to abuse it accidentally through carelessness.
As usual it is the teacher who has the power to promote courteous behaviour in the classroom . They just need to exercise it.