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Don't let it lie

in this article Paul explains why you must take responsibility for behaviour that happens in your teaching space and why follow-up is the key…

When Robert kicked off everyone knew about it. The cycle was utterly predictable. Polite requests from teachers to remove an item of clothing were met with casual yet targeted personal abuse, followed by chair throwing door slamming flourishes and the inevitable time spent on the roof throwing tiles into the unused swimming pool, ‘I am fucking coming down, call the fire brigade I don’t care etc’. Robert loved to accelerate from 1 to 100 miles an hour quicker than you can draw a breath. It was rarely with malicious intent. It was a well planned pantomime of attention seeking. You see Robert had learned that if you accelerate behaviours fast enough people give up trying to deal with you and pass you on.

So it was that late one Thursday evening I found myself standing outside a governors meeting convened (again) to decide if Robert would remain at the school and under what circumstances. I had worked out Robert’s game and was determined not to play it. I knocked on the door to be greeted by an incredulous headteacher, ‘Er, Mr Dix, what are you doing here?’

I explained that I wanted to speak to Robert, that it was me who had to teach him tomorrow morning, it was me that he needed to respond to, to account for his behaviour to, to build a worthwhile relationship with. I explained that Robert needed to apologise, to take responsibility for having his coat on, that I needed to take him back to the behaviour that he accelerated away from. The head looked at me strangely and allowed me in.

How many students have learned what Robert learned. That is you accelerate fast enough you get dealt with by the senior staff, that you are closer to the centre of power that you no longer have to answer to teaching staff. Fed up with passing students up the line and then having them returned unchanged and without apology? Invest time in following up every time.

Schools that systematically pass behaviour up the line deny class teachers the opportunity to follow up effectively. They buy into the idea that for the most troubled young people the heaviest hitters should take control. Targets are set and agreed in closed meetings, action plans are created and delivered to class teachers and we end up routinely undermining the authority of classroom teachers by pretending that higher up the food chain there is a magic bullet. In the management and improvement of behaviour follow up is everything. If you want to establish true consistency over time how and when you follow up is the critical element. Students are wary of teachers who persistently follow up, never let it lie and ensure that every student, regardless of their reputation, is dealt with personally. From pulling students out of their form period, ‘Can we talk about what you said to me when you walked away yesterday?’ to confronting students with evidence in the cold light of the morning, ‘We need to go through the ‘unintentional’ hairdressing yesterday, can we look at the tape together?’ to sitting in the parents’ living room sipping tea waiting for the errant child to return from school. Follow up works.

Follow up ensures consequences are faced, mirrors held up and agreements re-chalked for the next lesson. My classroom, my responsibility, my consistency. If someone else is trying to talk through the incident, administer the punishment and reset the boundaries then you cannot expect the changed in behaviour that you so desperately need. Of course if you allow other members of staff to whisk away students you can also undermine your own position in their hierarchy of importance.

Part of the reputation I seek is to be that teacher who ‘Always gets you’. Once you have that, students stop trying to run away, they even change their behaviour as you approach, some even apologise, confess and turn Queen’s evidence before you have opened your mouth. They stop telling you to fuck off, stop threatening you with their dad and start to make different decisions. Your consequences become real not just hopeful threats. And yet through all this seemingly negative intervention they sense that you are there for them. You are there with them in the bad times not just in the good.

It is follow up that cements the relationships that really matter. It is your persistence and determination that eventually wears the edges off their appalling behaviour, bad attitude and unpicks the layers of defence they have rehearsed for so long. You can wear a teenager down quickly with persistent follow up. They don’t like it when you are really on their case. Hefty detention is a blunt and soggy instrument of last resort. Calm, relentless, restorative follow-up addresses behaviour so much better.

I work with FE teachers look at their students rather like the mechanic looks at my car with a ‘What joker has worked on this? Didn’t they teach you how to behave at school?’ Secondary school teachers blame their Primary colleagues, ‘Just what have they been teaching you for the past 7 years?’ Primary teachers blame nurseries, and at the end of the line parents are conveniently positioned to be blamed for anything that hasn’t stuck to teachers.

People behave in context, towards individuals and with due reference to past experiences and current relationships. Young people don’t ‘learn how to behave’ once. They learn and relearn behaviours with everyone they meet. They learn who passes responsibility on too fast, who leans too much on processes, who forgets about consequences, who will give a sanction and then let you off. They also know very quickly who doesn’t. In fact everyone know those teachers who will not let it lie. You see them at lunchtime, having lunch with a collection of muttering miscreants who have long since given up trying to escape. Follow up means investing time, emphasising the lines of tolerance and catching hold of the slipperiest students. It also opens the door for more restorative conversations. For relationships to be built and rebuilt, for respect to grow and for certainty to grow into trust.

This article was first published in the Times Educational Supplement TESPro Magazine in 2012.

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This article is from the free online course:

Managing Behaviour for Learning

National STEM Learning Centre