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Chaotic lessons

Course educator Paul Dix from Pivotal Education shares his first teaching experience and invites all teachers to reflect on where they began.
In my first lesson, I remember it very, very well. I had one of the worst experiences ever. I’d taken a job on a council estate with real problems. I was surrounded by poverty, by low aspirations, and expectations that were even lower. My first lesson was with a group of 16-year-olds. And I made sure that I was really well prepared because people had told me that if you have great lessons, you never have behavior management problems, right? Perhaps if your experienced. But me, as a young teacher, I was struggling even with the best resources. I walked into this lesson expecting the students to immediately pay attention to me. And yet they ignored me completely.
They decided to send me to Coventry, to not speak to me at all. So I employed the only behavior management strategy that I knew. I’m a big bloke. I’ve got a loud voice. So I started shouting. And when it didn’t work, I started shouting louder. And yet none of them even flickered. They just carried on playing their table football and climbing in and out of the windows, which was kind of all right. We were on the ground floor. But you can see I wasn’t very happy about it. And I thought, where do I go now?
I went to that lecture on behavior management that I had as a student myself, which was half an hour, sink or swim, see how you go, Paul. So I started shouting louder, and louder, and louder at the point at which I’d shouted my loudest shout and loomed as large as I could over these students. One of them turned to me, and out of the corner of his mouth whispered, we’re not scared of you, sir.
And it stuck in my head. Well, you know because your students say similar things to you. And if you’re a parent, your children give you the same truths. And you can’t shake them. We’re not scared of you, sir. Why did I think that fear was an intelligent way to manage the behavior of students? That’s what my teachers had done to me. That’s why I had come into teaching, to do something better. And yet here was I in a panic, screaming my loudest shouts at the students and expecting them to play good poppy. It was totally unrealistic. Suddenly out of nowhere children started coming back in through the windows. There were coats coming off, pens being produced, books came from nowhere.
And in 20 seconds, this group of 16-year-olds had transformed into diligent scholars. I thought, was this me that I stumbled across some magic behavior management phrase that miraculously transformed them? Had I finally shouted loud enough? And of course, it was nothing to do with me. There was a face at the window, a math teacher, a colleague of mine called David. I swear to you those students had smelled him coming down the corridor, not that he was a smelly man. But you understand. One look, one look from the corridor and he transformed this group of 16-year-olds. I said to him, David, give me that. I know my subject. The gap for me is this, the management of behavior.
It’s taken me years to unwrap the skills that David had and to learn for myself. Of course, what he had wasn’t pulled out from a book or drawn from a box of tricks. He had consistency that allowed the students to trust him, built up over time. He had certainty. You knew with David that he would follow up relentlessly, not aggressively. But he had a persistence that meant he would never let it lie. And he had relationships, great relationships with young people, not just a flash in the pan, but those relationships that sustain over years. We’ve all had those hellish first lessons. And we’ve all had those teachers that we’d have to learn a great deal from.
I wonder what your worst experience has been. I wonder what that lesson from hell is for you.

The foundation of any behaviour management is your ability to control yourself before you try and control others.

At first this appears to be a simple principle. In practice it take great resilience and emotional patience. With this firm foundation in place the course quickly develops to incorporate more technical aspects of Behaviour Management. If you are struggling to keep your cool then there are daily routines and reminders in this first week that will, over time become part of your teaching style.

If you have achieved a zen like calm in the face of poor conduct already then the first week will be a great reminder. For experienced teachers looking for more advanced techniques the course develops quickly into classroom practice, including:

  • Directly teaching and embedding learning attitudes and learning routines
  • Dealing with angry students deftly with a 30 second intervention script
  • Structuring restorative conversations to repair trust and reset expectations

Now that we’ve established the background and given you a teaser for the rest of the course, let’s get under way.

Every teacher goes through periods of feeling totally out of control. The trigger may be a new job, a new class or other factors like changes in management. As you struggle to establish yourself the pressure may be compounded by rudeness or aggression from students; though clearly this will depend on the age and life-stage of your students.

It feels personal, it may feel like it will never end, and it may feel like “they are going to win”. In a tough environment it can take 6 months before the chaos subsides and relationships start to grow. Riding through the eye of the storm takes an enormous amount of personal determination and courage. Be assured that it isn’t personal, it will end and they are not going to win.


Watch the video above in which Paul describes a chaotic lesson. Paul was working in an unusually tough inner-city school at the time. Your circumstances may be very different and you may never be in a situation as extreme as this. But few teachers always feel completely in control. It is worth spending some time acknowledging the fact that teachers are also learners: we master the art of teaching and taming the most challenging students over many years.

Video Summary

‘We’re not scared of you sir … ‘

Fear is not an intelligent way to manage behaviour, yet for many new teachers it is sometimes their first and only strategy, as they have never been exposed to alternatives. In a Utopian world preparing and delivering great lessons would eradicate inappropriate behaviours, but both you and I know that’s just not reality.

Emotional panic takes over you, shouting is the result and the more you shout the lower your integrity and status sink – and they still ignore you.

Teacher: 'I want you quiet now! (Raised voice)
Student: 'Who is this? (Whispering loudly to friend so teacher can hear)
Teacher: 'I said I want quiet NOW! (Getting louder and louder)
Student: 'We're not frightened of you sir ...'

During the first precious week or two, the new teacher looks on enviously as experienced teachers quietly go about helping students learn. These paragons of virtue have no magic bullet. They too, had the same fears and emotional moments. Getting to their level of control was no accident. It came about through hard work on the basics:

  • Consistency: being unscrupulously fair even in the tough times
  • Persistence: keeping going in the face of students ignoring you
  • Follow-up: when you need to see a student after a lesson, after school, always do so
  • Certainty: students realise that what you say you will do … you WILL do

Concentration on the basics allows you the space to build relationships over the long term that are easily sustainable, because they have solid foundations. Students like the solidity that you model for them and it builds trust. Students like trust.


Learning lessons from difficult classroom experiences

Having listened to Paul describe a terrible lesson where he had no control of the class, share your own worst experience of emotional panic in the classroom – a time when you felt out of control.
This might not have been as dramatic or public as Paul’s experience but you would have felt that loss of control in the same way. How did you feel when it was over? What did you do next?
Post your experiences in the comments below.
Please remember not to mention individuals, schools or other organisations by name. Please respect others’ confidentiality and privacy at all times.
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Managing Behaviour for Learning

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