How to Help Teachers Make the Grade

If you’re the parents of a well-behaved child and his or her classes contain disruptive students, then your son or daughter is being robbed of precious learning. Every minute a teacher spends sorting out a discipline problem is one less available to address your child’s education. Behaviour management is a disaster across the Australian education system. The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment reveals we rank 70th out of 77 participating nations in preventing classroom disruption. But we can and should do something to repair that.

In theory, a teacher prepares a lesson and aims it at the upper estimate of the class’s abilities. A brief explanation precedes the students getting down to work. A few students will finish early, and the teacher is ready with a new challenge or reward. Those who are struggling get a bit of help. And then the lesson has ended, and everyone has progressed. Contrast this with what actually happens every day in most Australian schools. A student turns up late, a persistent discipline offence; in my classroom I gave late arrivals a telling-off and made them write ‘I must not be late for class’ ten times for every minute late. Such offences soon disappeared, but most teachers are ill-equipped to stand up to troublemakers. Indeed, some don’t want to – the university system they were processed through convinced them that they must be facilitators, ‘educators’, rather than teachers and classroom managers. They are the ones whose classrooms are the noisiest, who let students do as they like, and whose quiet triers are not receiving an education.

Latecomers are a minor problem. Try dealing with students who demand to leave for the toilet – 15 minutes after recess – where they can meet their mates for pre-arranged vandalism or vaping. Try coping with an incessant bully who is harassing others incessantly via phone or computer. Try managing a student who gouges his initials into a desk with a knife. Try your luck with two students who simply leave the class for the nearby bush – but they are still in your “duty of care”. Good luck with all that.

I managed behaviour management training in two education systems for my school. It was labelled “The Techniques your University should have taught you” and in both cases was initiated by principals who despaired of new teachers who could not manage students. The program proposed 10 techniques to maintain effective classroom control, but the main two were “Structure” and “Assertiveness”.

Structure meant having a lesson plan that emphasised students working from the moment they got into the classroom until the minute they left. The work had to be achievable, and fill up the entire time. It was preferably on the classroom whiteboard or screen the moment they arrived, and in fact they were to be encouraged to get into it seconds after they saw it. Working on the basis that idle hands make mischief, they didn’t have any time for misbehaviour.

Assertiveness means taking control. It means being the Alpha of the room. To illustrate that non-PC moment I would use a staff photo of my first school, pointing out my first Department Senior Teacher – a 158cm/5’2” lady (hi, Diane!) who towering year 12s would go around buildings to avoid if they were in trouble. Diane was a kindly, incredibly organised teacher, but from the second she took control of a group of students she let them know she was the boss. It was all in the voice, from the right volume and pitch but most of all in the tone – and equipped with a collection of descriptors for every occasion, from “Sit down and start work – you are wasting my time and yours” to “Get your act together – you are here to learn, not to slack off!” It’s a “take no prisoners” attitude that is, in fact, kindly and caring, because it wants the maximum education for a child. If students achieve that then, hopefully, they can be a success in life.

It also says to a child they have no business taking up classroom time by dominating the teacher’s attention with misbehaviour. Such teachers also develop a reputation in a school that equips them like armour. They can go confidently into a playground, or a canteen, or a school camp to maintain discipline, and even with students they don’t know their reputation has gone before them. This isn’t easily or instantly achieved however, hence it needs to be pushed hard from Day One. This is where those sometimes grimly suitable staffroom epithets come from: “Don’t smile till Easter” and “Take no prisoners”. They acknowledge that teaching in Australia is a tough, hard profession, and if you want to be happy, and therefore survive, then you have to start as you mean to finish – on top, and successful.

Not all teachers can do this however, and the system should not be like this. I have seen some first-class brains leave teaching because they couldn’t cope. The system should love those people, not force them to seek mere survival strategies. In fact, Australia should have a national discipline code that lays down the law across all schools. Students – and parents, some of whom protect their offspring to ridiculous degrees – should not be able hide behind “school-shopping” and “my child is special” with their disruption and aggressiveness. They are robbing others of education.

The states could do that — indeed, some are starting to — by realising the precious resource of teachers are disappearing at a disastrous rate. The bans on mobile phones are a good start. But the best way of reforming behaviour management is to have a band of discipline managers in each school, made up of year co-ordinators and an administrator who simply bounce the disruptive student right out of the classroom. If half a day in a specially supervised area doesn’t deter future offending, then suspend the troublemaker, and keep at it until they get the message.

It goes without saying that violence, or substance abuse, or theft, or intimidation have no place in a school. But be tough on the small things and the bigger ones usually get minimised. And there is no excuse. Another great teacher told students,  “Don’t bring your problems into the classroom.  I don’t and neither should you”.

This might sound harsh or uncaring, but teachers should have no role in the psychological repairing of students. As I alluded to in another of these articles, they are neither equipped nor do they have time for it. Let them teach – not be behaviour analysts or councillors or psychologists.

Badly behaved students have no right to take away the education of others. 

Dr Tom Lewis OAM taught in the high school and adult areas for over 20 years. A former naval officer, he is also a military historian, with 20 books published. One of his latest isTeddy Sheean VC, an analysis of the Royal Australian Navy’s only Victoria Cross recipient’s last stand and the 78 year delay in rewarding him with the highest honour.

5 thoughts on “How to Help Teachers Make the Grade

  • geoff_brown1 says:

    I’m remembering a primary school teacher, who made me write out, two hundred times, “Use of obscenity is the hallmark of one, who is incapable of intelligent self expression.”

    Curious what sticks in the mind, after after fifty six years….

    • David Isaac says:

      It seems as though ‘lines’ have all but disappeared from schools. Obscenities are so frequently uttered on the interwebs, which have replaced children’s televison hours, that young people can barely discern them from regular speech.

  • Daffy says:

    Some stories:
    1. the ‘time-out’ zone is good; with a tough no-nonsense teacher who is respected by kids, usually a fairly ‘rough’ guy in my high school all that time ago. I don’t know what happened in the room, but I got the impression is was strictly controlled meaningful work. Passage to the room was instant on certain misbehavior.
    2. Now a scary story. I did some building work at a school for special purposes much time ago. Class size: 5, doors locked, teachers wore personal alarms. Desks were fixed to the floor. The principal’s key piece of equipment was a giant power drill to be able to drill out a lock and enter a room in crisis!
    3. Soft story: a nephew works as a volunteer in a local youth club. He runs a group of year 6-8 boys. But no training! He struggled for the first term, but the sad thing was his life was a misery for that term. Even volunteers in a hobby club need to be trained to manage the room.
    Violent crimes need police involvement. No ifs, no buts.

  • ianl says:

    >”If you’re the parents of a well-behaved child and his or her classes contain disruptive students, then your son or daughter is being robbed of precious learning.” [quote from above article]

    The *prime* reason for choosing a private school since recalcitrant children can be expelled from there. Public schools can only temporarily “suspend” or plead for some other school to take them.

    While I’m quite sure Tom Lewis here not only means well but likely believes what he expounds as effective, in an earlier life my (sadly departed) wife battled valiantly but in the end pointlessly to inculcate just such techniques. The underlying cultural issue is that a considerable majority of parents do not much value “book learning”.

  • brandee says:

    One of my classroom control techniques [teaching technology students] was to utilise the front desks and keep the rear desks empty.
    An idea has come to me for schools where the rule is to lock the mobile phone at the front gate:
    for students who have incurred a heavy behaviour infringement, or an aggregate of some lighter ones, there could somehow be a 24 hour delay in unlocking the phone. Better methinks than a one week suspension in which the student falls further behind.

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