“I’m really struggling with my Year 7 class.”
If one of your staff came to you and told you this, what would you do?
Behaviour problems are an emergency. There is nothing so damaging to student achievement as poor behaviour. Teachers who seek help are showing the utmost professionalism. And school leaders owe it to them to be ready with effective support.
But what is the best way to help a member of staff who is struggling with behaviour?
1. Take it seriously
First and foremost, remember that it is extremely difficult for most teachers to admit that they are struggling to manage behaviour. Coming to you for help shows integrity and bravery, so thank them for it.
They also need to see that there is hope of real and lasting change, so make time for them – book in a proper meeting, rather than trying to deal with the issue off the cuff. This will give you a chance to get your thoughts together, and sends a clear signal that you take the problem seriously.
2. Look at the seating plan
Check there is a seating plan in place. If there isn’t, that’s the place to start. Adults don’t behave themselves when next to their mates, so 11-year-olds certainly don’t have much chance.
If a new plan needs to be put in place, offer the teacher support at the start of the next lesson – establishing a new seating plan with a tricky class is a tough prospect alone.
3. Suggest silence
Recommend that the next lesson is a silent assessment lesson. This helps to re-establish the norm of students following the rules and, vitally, allows the teacher to pinpoint who to sanction.
The assessments completed in the lesson can then be marked, which gives opportunity for praise and to show students their work matters.
You could follow this up by conducting an observation of the teacher. There may be lots of issues to address, so focus on clear, simple improvements that are easily actionable.
4. Share the load
Offer to do some phone calls home. We know that this can help to improve things, but struggling with behaviour can leave teachers feeling swamped. Having the load of making all the phone calls taken off them can really help.
Making the calls yourself also allows the leader to build relationships with these students and their parents. So, the next time you’re in the playground you can gently remind David that his mother was very keen on him trying much harder in his period three English lesson.
5. Revisit the policy
If you’re in a school with a clear behaviour policy, encourage the teacher to follow it.
Sometimes, they will be following it already, and there are still multiple students being sent out. This might be the right outcome and can lead to improved behaviour over time, as the students see the teacher is being consistent. So, encourage the teacher to persist with it.
Slightly trickier to deal with is a teacher who uses sanctions overzealously. In these cases, it can be helpful to suggest that they try positive framing, before going straight to the sanction.
For example, saying something like: “I have 90 per cent of the class in silence and facing this way. Just waiting for 100 per cent.”
6. Try coaching
It’s a good idea to get some longer-term support in place through an instructional coach. You are unlikely to be able to solve all the teacher’s problems right away, so ensuring that support continues throughout the year is going to be vital.
Alongside these points, there are also some things leaders should definitely avoid in this situation. Whatever you do, don’t do any of the following:
- Tell the teacher to stop sending students out.
- Observe a lesson and take over.
- Side with the students, or excuse their behaviour by referring to their backgrounds or the context.
- Fob the teacher off by saying it will get better.
- Go against the policy.
- Tell them to watch an established teacher, and try to just copy them.
If you do any of these things, you will likely make the situation worse.
The ability to collaborate to solve problems is vital for improving behaviour. Nobody should feel they are dealing with behaviour issues all alone; it must be a collective responsibility.
By calmly providing genuine support, leaders can play a vital role in helping teachers to flourish.
Ian White is the vice principal of a school in East London