Finding the voice that fits

March 2010


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Take care of the minor misbehaviour and the big stuff is less likely, says KEVIN KNIGHT

Kevin Knight is fresh from a two-hour seminar for new teachers on the subject of classroom management. Specifically, how to set the scene in the first five minutes of the teachers’ first class of the new school year. Serious misbehaviour is unlikely on that first day at school, says the director of the Graduate School of Education, so it’s the perfect time to set ground rules that will keep it that way. And those rules really are critical – get them right and a classroom should be focused and calm. Get them wrong and not only does the classroom become less effective and more chaotic, but there is also a greater chance of more serious misbehaviour.

Knight has strong opinions on the issue, and they are sometimes not popular. He agrees that serious misbehaviour needs more resources and also that such behaviour – we’re talking about threatening or swearing at the teacher, throwing furniture and the like – has probably become more common, though perhaps not as much as some suggest. But he also says that the greatest challenge for schools is in managing the lighter end of misbehaviour and that teachers have become less effective at that side of the job.

“We now have a lot more teachers who don’t know how to deal with the ordinary, run-of-the-mill stuff that happens in classrooms,” he says.

That’s a problem because it is more common, but also because it makes more serious misbehaviour more likely. Take a regular classroom in which the teacher does not have sound classroom management skills. Ordinary kids in that classroom will be mucking around, but the student in the middle of the room who has behaviour problems is in an environment that will not keep those problems in check. “They are not that bad, but in that class, they are that bad,” Knight says, explaining that failure to control run-of-the-mill misbehaviour amplifies the problems in the classroom.

“You go into a classroom where the teacher knows their management craft – they can create a calm, work-focused environment. You follow those kids down the corridor to a class where the teacher doesn’t know, and perfectly good kids are mucking round. Kids who had to work to get teacher attention in the first class are suddenly over the top.”

Knight suggests that teachers are not being taught classroom management techniques and this needs to be rectified. “We need to inject energy into making sure every teacher has a strong behaviour skills set on a minute-by-minute basis... the skill level of teachers across the board in handling the ordinary stuff needs priority.”

For a start, teachers need to know how to bring a classroom to near silence when they are talking to them, then they need to be able to maintain that. They also need to know techniques that are not too negative and that work for them personally.

Knight explains that negative approaches to behavior management can be counter-productive, particularly for trivial things like talking or playing with a pen. The trick is to maintain a neutral or matter-of-fact tone so that students do what they are told and do not start to feel put upon or hounded. The latter feeling can result in even worse behaviour and can also turn students off school altogether.

Also important are approaches that fit each teacher’s personality. A gentle, quietly-spoken man is not going to be able to carry off an authoritarian approach to behaviour management – he has to find methods that work for him and that his students believe are authentic.

Teachers who need help with their classroom management should look to their peers, Knight suggests. Every school has several teachers who are good classroom managers, though they should remember that the techniques that work for them might not work for teachers with different personalities.