Recently, when talking to my NQT mentor about the behaviour in a challenging Year 10 class I teach, I expressed the following thought:
‘I completely understand the need to use praise and positivity, and develop successful relationships with the pupils I teach, but I’m finding it hard to be positive about anything with certain students. One of them always enters the room by going straight to the back to chat, and never to his seat. As such, I’m always having to remind him of the expectations and things are immediately negative.’
‘Maybe you could turn that into a positive.’
‘Well, if you start by saying something like ‘Marcus, I much prefer it when you sit in your seat’ with a smile, he’s much less likely to react negatively.’
This advice seemed somewhat dubious, but in light of the fact that it was being given to me by someone with far more experience, I thought I’d give it a go. I will now conclude that this is one of the worst pieces of teaching advice I have ever been given.
First of all, the underlying problem remains, which is that I am wasting time trying to get a difficult pupil to cooperate, while simultaneously trying to make a start with the lesson for the students who actually want to be there. They receive a minimal amount of praise for sitting in their seats correctly – and so the behaviour that they see being rewarded with attention is negative behaviour, which is entirely unfair.
More importantly, though, is this: students sitting in their correct seat is the most minimal of expectations that a teacher can have. Regardless of uniform, equipment, rudeness, chattyness and punctuality, if students will not seat where they have been directed to, a successful lesson is entirely impossible. As such, students should not need praise or coercion to get them to sit where they should be – it should be automatic and unquestioned.
Any advice along the lines of ‘well, maybe you could let them choose their seats on a Friday if they work hard during the rest of the week’ is not simply wrong, it is dangerous for the effect that it has on school culture. A student who will not follow that instruction, immediately, without the need for reminders and rewards, should be sanctioned – and a school wide policy should be in place to deal with this.
Ultimately, ‘Marcus, I much prefer it when you sit in your seat’ undermines the authority of the teacher, as it undermines the expectation that students will follow instructions immediately. It is a responsive, placating strategy, which is representative of just how low standards of behaviour in British schools are becoming.
P.s. In the lesson where I put this advice into practice, Marcus later called me ‘fucking pathetic’. Who’d have thought that behaviour management would require more than trying to build up positive relationships with students?