Hello and thank you for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine – I’m Jo Earp.
My guest for this first episode of our new series on Behaviour Management is teacher, education consultant and author Dr Bill Rogers. An Honorary Fellow of Melbourne University, he shares his expertise on behaviour management, effective teaching, stress management, colleague support and teacher welfare around the globe through lectures, seminars, professional development courses and, of course, with teachers in the classroom.
JE: Bill Rogers, welcome to Teacher magazine. In your book [You Know the Fair Rule], you talk quite a bit about building a positive classroom environment and, within that, you say the first phase is actually establishing a new class. So, what are the things teachers should be doing in those early days and weeks in terms of setting the tone?
BR: The establishment phase is basically the first meeting with a new class. Even if you knew some of those students from the previous years, there’s still a psychological readiness and a kind of developmental readiness in the students for us to make clear to them what this time will be like for them. They know that teachers establish routines and rules so they’re expecting that and they’re also getting to know their teacher as we get to know them of course, so we’re establishing not just our leadership but an emerging relationship with the students as well and that beginning of trust that’s essential for teachers working with students.
There are at least three essential aspects of that establishment phase we have to get as right as we can. The first one is those core routines. They cover everything from the way we enter the class; coming from a restless, busy playground environment where there’s a lot of noise and movement into a quieter, calmer setting. Even that movement, that transition between if you like ‘social’ time and ‘class’ time is crucial. Teachers who establish positive routines in these areas will find a kind of a smooth running developing in those critical first weeks. And that includes issues like how we establish whole class focus and attention, seating arrangements, noise level in the room – the volume of noise with 25 students plus their teacher in a small space – right through to keeping the place reasonably tidy and organised and monitor systems, right through to lesson closure and the way we leave the room.
So, those routines are essential and the other area that’s crucial is to establish an agreement with the students – a student behaviour agreement, an understanding about the way that we behave in this learning space. Most teachers cover three crucial areas: the right to feel safe, not just physically but psychologically safe, and what that means; the right to fundamental respect and fair treatment of one another; and obviously the right to learn without undue and unreasonable distraction from other students, so what a learning community ought to feel like. Most teachers call that something like a ‘student behaviour agreement’ or ‘rights and responsibilities’ or even ‘positive classroom rules’, but the terms cover those understandings of safety, respect and learning.
And lastly, of course, our leadership is coming across by default or by design and we try to establish that leadership consciously and with an awareness that we’re beginning a journey with our students. So, the quality of our leadership is essential to think about in that establishment phase as well.
JE: Just to pick you up on something you mentioned earlier and to expand on that. You mentioned about linking it to the areas such as the right to feel safe, the right to learn. Is it important then when you’re doing this ‘contract’ or whatever you want to call it, ‘rules’, that you explicitly link those things rather than just saying what the rules are going to be, but not making those explicit links? Is that a really key part of it?
BR: It is important to make it explicit, even with secondary students to explicitly explore with them in that critical first meeting what the right to feel safe involves. In a sense, the right to feel safe and the right to learn and the right to fundamental respect and fair treatment, those rights are not negotiable. You don’t begin the year by saying to older children or even upper primary children ‘what rights do you think you have?’. You begin by coming from those rights and discussing within those rights what a safe environment looks, sounds and feels like; what a respectful environment looks, sounds and feels like; and what it feels and sounds like to have a learning environment where we support one another – and that includes everything from noise level to reasonable sharing during class discussion and even allowing healthy disagreement. But also pointing out that in class discussions that disagreement has to be conducted respectfully so that if you disagree with one another about something we’re sharing you give reasons for that, you don’t simply mouth off at another student because you disagree with them.
These understandings come from a core base that’s non-negotiable. The right to feel safe and the right to respect and the right to learn are the basis on which teachers build this agreement. We wouldn’t really call it a ‘contract’ but we would use phrases like a ‘student behaviour agreement’ or ‘an understanding of rights and responsibilities’, depending on the age of the children. And most teachers publish that in a user-friendly form with say some large posters at the front of the room ‘We all have a right to respect. If we’re going to enjoy this respect we understand that we …’ and then list down the behaviours that we’ve discussed together. The same with the right to learn ‘To learn well here and enjoy that right we: get to class on time, we have relevant materials, during class discussion we put our hand up and wait our turn, if we disagree we disagree respectfully …’
So, we begin with the right and then look at the basic behaviours that ought to express that right in an age appropriate way.
JE: Another thing that educators spend quite a bit of time thinking about during the holidays and in the lead-up to the new school year is the physical classroom layout. Seating plans, then – how can that physical environment support your behaviour management strategies and should educators be experimenting with seating plans? Or, do you need to pick one and go with it?
BR: I think the main thing about seating plans is that they need to be age appropriate. If we’re stuck with the physical furniture we’ve got … and the chairs can be quite physically hard and obviously you’ve got the desks that the school has purchased. In discussing with our colleagues in our teams, we look at the layout according to the needs of the students. How can they move? What are we using the seating arrangements for? Particularly in classes like Food Technology and Science classrooms where the physical seating has to be arranged according to what we do in those spaces. So, the physical seating can be arranged – that’s not a difficult position with what we’ve actually been given in terms of the equipment, the seating and tables and chairs themselves.
But, in terms of who sits with whom, it probably is not helpful unless you’ve got a very cooperative class and you know that beforehand to simply let the students sit where they want. If a teacher says on their first day ‘hi guys, sit where you want’, what can happen is that the kids who think they’re particularly cool, the more narcissistically-inclined kids, will probably want to sit with their best friends and that can often ease out or exclude the less confident students. So, you get a group of cool kids sitting together that may not be the best arrangement for the actual learning of those kids just because they’re sitting with their best friends.
I think it’s important that the teacher has a seating plan and they decide that plan on their understanding of their students within their team, and they can modify that seating plan as time goes on. Have friendship group groupings only on particular occasions, because kids have got plenty of time to play with their best friends outside of classroom time and we need to make that clear to them, that this is not merely a place where we sit with our friends during classroom teaching and learning time.
JE: If you go into a staffroom and ask for advice on what tone you need to set with a new class – in relation to discipline – I’d guarantee probably you’ll hear somebody say ‘you need to start hard and ease off later if you need to’. What would you say to that kind of advice?
BR: I remember years ago when I first started teaching there used to be a phrase teachers would sometimes hear ‘don’t smile until Easter’, which is absurd really. We have to build a relationship, teaching is a relational dynamic journey with your students, it’s not simply a little learning factory. Whether we like it or not, the relationship we build will be there whatever – for good, bad or worse. We have to establish a relationship with our children.
The balance between appropriate leadership, including behaviour management and also building a positive working relationship with students, is a balance that teachers work with all the time. It’s possible to be appropriately firm where we need to be with students, particularly when there’s distracting and disruptive behaviour, but also respectful and positive with students. That comes down very much to consciously thinking about our language. We’re not there as a teacher-leader simply to want to want to be liked by our students, we’re there in a professional role, but that role involves a relationship. Getting that balance between the teacher-leadership role and the necessities of leadership and management is not an easy one but it is one within which that creative tension can be balanced by positive, respectful language, avoiding unnecessary confrontation when you’re managing behaviour and also not easily buying into some of the behaviours that children exhibit – like sulking and pouting, argumentation and so on.
So, my colleagues and I put a lot of thought into what we call ‘the language of behaviour management’ and ‘the language of discipline’ so that we can get that reasonably creative tension between leadership and relationship established in those critical first few weeks.
Just to give you a simple example. When we’re helping the classes settle down, particularly the more restless students, we don’t ask the students ‘would you please be quiet?’, ‘can you please stop talking?’, ‘will you face the front and listen?’. It’s not a request. If you watch a respectful but positive and confident leader they’ll be saying things like ‘all right, settling down everyone’, ‘looking this way and listening thanks’. And, if students are talking they won’t say ‘why are you talking?’, they’ll say things like ‘a number of students are still chatting, you do need to be facing this way and listening thank you’. And they won’t actually say ‘good morning’ to their class or ‘good afternoon’ and begin the learning activity until there’s a relaxed listening by the students and they’re actually facing the front. I’ve seen students with their backs to their teachers and their teachers trying to talk through or to their backs, rather than saying ‘you need to be turning around, thank you, and facing this way and listening’. If the kids are calling out you’ll see a confident teacher saying ‘a number of students are calling out, remember it’s hands up thank you without calling out’ and they won’t actually take questions until the class is settled and focused.
Even the deceptively fundamental issue of establishing classroom attention and focus needs to be planned for, it can’t simply arise from goodwill and hopeful expectation. We need to think about the language we use when we’re helping classes to settle and attend to the learning experiences in that small space.
JE: This is all about laying groundwork for the future isn’t it? We’ve talked about the establishment phase. How long is that phase? Does it need to be a term, a half-term, some things need to be done within a few days?
BR: We’ve got a four term year in Victoria, so that’s 10 weeks. Most teachers, if they plan for that establishment phase with positive core routines, thoughtful behaviour expectations published in a user-friendly and age appropriate way – and positively, you know not ‘don’t call out’ or ‘don’t talk while the teacher is talking’ but positively ‘hands up without calling out’ rather than ‘don’t call out’, ‘facing the front and listening’ rather than ‘don’t talk while the teacher’s trying to teach’.
When a teacher establishes these arrangements and understandings, within about three to four weeks most teachers have got a reasonably expectant group of students and certainly by halfway through Term 1 there is that sense of emerging cohesion that’s been built and established by the teacher’s conscious planning in those critical first few weeks.
I mean, right from day one the more distracting and disruptive students who tend to be attentionally insecure do need a fair bit of guidance from their teachers about their behaviour, both in the public sphere of the classroom itself and also following up with students one-to-one who’ve been particularly difficult in those first few lessons. And again, there’s plenty of very clear research that effective and positive teachers follow up with students one-to-one away from their audience, where they’re able to have those behaviour conversations respectfully about the way in which that student has affected the rights of others in the room. And it might even be on the first few days that the teacher will be following up with one or two students who are the more attentionally insecure students. That balance between the public behaviour leadership and the private behaviour conversations are crucial in those first few weeks. Even that is part of building relationships with those more challenging students.
JE: Finally then, and then we’ll let you go because you’re a busy man! Do you have any words of encouragement for educators as they head into this new school year – I’m thinking particularly for those that are just starting out in the profession, they’ve just graduated, and they might be a little bit concerned about this aspect of the role?
BR: Yes, I think it’s really, really important for teachers, particularly beginning teachers, to be willing to ask questions and seek the support of their colleagues. Most teachers are very willing, based on their own experiences of being a beginning teacher, to give that colleague support – both the moral support that we all need and that professional support, that discussion where we sit down and chew things over and start to share our concerns. And also maybe even some visitation into one another’s classrooms to see a range of practice, hopefully good practice, from their colleagues.
It really is important not to hold things in and think that you’re the only one that’s struggling – because there are natural struggles in our profession, particularly if we’re in more challenging schools. So, it’s crucial in those first few weeks, if things are not working out as well as you’d hoped and you know that there are issues with individual students or even the whole class that are not working well, it’s absolutely crucial to ask your colleagues for support – both that moral support but also that practical support and guidance. Sometimes that might even mean teachers working together sometimes with more difficult classes.
Hopefully, of course, beginning teachers won’t be given particularly difficult classes to start with, let’s hope there’s a reasonable balance there. It sometimes can happen that beginning teachers might be given the more difficult students, which is unfair. If they think that’s been happening to them, again it’s really important to make their case to their leadership team to ask for that support to help them to deal with that situation.
So, colleague support I think is crucial in the beginning part of the year. And also many, many schools plan well for that critical establishment phase so it’s not as if beginning teachers are going in unprepared or ‘blind’ if you like. Many, many schools now do plan for that phase so that teachers are more prepared, and preparation of course is crucial to those beginning relationships with that natural anxiety that we all have with a new class.
JE: That’s fantastic, it’s been brilliant speaking to you today – thank you for your time and have a successful 2017. It would be great to catch up with you again at some point during the year, but in the meantime, Bill Rogers thanks very much for sharing your expertise with Teacher.
BR: You’re most welcome and I wish my colleagues all the best for a fresh new year with their students. Whoever happens to listen to this and read, I wish you all the best for your teaching journey this year.
You’ve been listening to a podcast from Teacher magazine. Check out the full podcast transcript and related reading, including a three-part series on behaviour management and classroom discipline by Dr Bill Rogers, at www.teachermagazine.com.au. To download all of our podcasts for free head to acer.ac/teacheritunes or www.soundcloud.com/teacher-acer
Rogers, B. (2011). You know the fair rule: strategies for positive and effective behaviour management and discipline in schools. (3rd edition) Australian Council for Educational Research: Melbourne.
In what ways do you ‘set the tone’ for the beginning of the school year? How do you establish a positive classroom environment?
What advice do you have for your colleagues regarding strategies for setting up a new class at the beginning of the school year? What have you found works for you?