As my attitude to teaching has changed over the years I’ve had to spend lots of time and thought consciously weeding out some of my internalised beliefs and habits.
One of the most pervasive was that a productive learning environment meant classes in which children always demonstrated visible enjoyment and enthusiasm. This meant lots of discussion, jokes and good-humoured banter even when reductively engaging activities such as group work and marketplaces for their own sake are put aside.
It is a tempting thing to think. Classes in which pupils make witty comments, shout out occasionally but then stop when told not to, are comfortable sharing their opinions, and innately know the line between acceptable and unacceptable are an absolute joy.
But in sixteen years of teaching I’ve only ever had a handful of classes able to self-regulate this well, and earlier in my career my attempts to make all my groups work like this caused me many, many problems.
My misguided efforts invariably followed the same pattern. I’d start strict to show my charges I meant business. No shouting out. No talking while I was talking, ever. Sanctions for forgetting equipment or homework. Usually this worked in creating a calm, purposeful and quiet environment. I now know this is where I should have left it, but too often I took this initial compliance as evidence this was ‘a good group’, and so then began to systematically undo all my previous good work in an attempt to create the lively, buzzy and fun room I thought was the undisputed idyll.
For a week or so, sometimes, my relaxed rules did indeed result in the environment I wanted. Pupils would shout out a really good answer proudly, which nobody minded me letting go. A pupil would interrupt me but then apologise, which I’d say was fine. Pupils did look crestfallen when I told them I was disappointed they’d forgotten their pen, then thank me charmingly when I provided one. But before very long more children we shouting out more and then arguing when told not to. Half a term later whole swathes were forgetting pens, demanding them from me and complaining if I ran out. Before I knew it I was reading up and asking for advice on classroom management without ever twigging if I had just carried on doing what I was doing I wouldn’t have had to bother.
As my stress levels rose, I soon stopped looking forward to these classes. Eventually, invariably, I’d lose my temper, raise my voice, then belatedly try to pull the pupils back to order by going back to my original standards, often delivered in a dreaded ‘expectations lessons’. Of course this was now too late, with pupils used to more supposed freedom resenting the rules because they were now perceived as punishments.
A good class had been ruined and I had only myself to blame.
Rules and routines in schools should not be seen structures that eventually wither away. They are not necessary evils to feel squeamish about. They are not punishments. They are the mechanism by which we keep order in a complicated, dynamic context, which exist in the same spirit we have rules for how we drive our cars on the road. They are the means by which we keep things safe, orderly and fair, and we should not feel bad about scrupulously upholding them at all times even when – actually especially when – this means children can’t do whatever they want whenever they want to.
All over the country at this time of year there will be hundreds of teachers working hard to set their expectations high. My advice would be that nobody think of this as a period of high battle alert which will end once the fight is won. This is not a war and the rules are not weapons.
There is nothing wrong with a quiet, hardworking class who never shout out and rarely if ever get to have a laugh for the sake of it. Many children actually prefer them to the loud, boisterous and visibly enthusiastic classrooms I once yearned to teach in.
I know this is true because as I’ve become comfortable with this, more and more pupils, especially quiet ones, have told me so.