My Microcosm: a blog on behaviour in the classroom

Behaviour isn’t my bag. I’m a teacher: I believe that that qualifies me to teach, and that is what I work to be an expert at. Where I lack in expertise are the qualifications or training to deal with complex presentations of behaviour, and so I expect that a behaviour management system that sets out to achieve what it is designed to do, supports me to teach. I put together a convoluted thread yesterday on Twitter, and I don’t feel that it actually said what I wanted to say.

I have worked in schools where the system supported me to teach, and some where the policy was all but absent, were it not for the aged save document on the shared drive that we signed each year. I have worked in schools where Senior Leadership utter ‘behaviour isn’t an issue,’ and been called profanities usually used when referring to female genitalia. I have worked in a school where the behaviour system as so stringent, statements were made with every removal, and a carbon copy of your statement kept on record.  I have had students walk out of my classroom, been screamed at, had streams of mediation meetings, relocated students, had children lie to me about their name to avoid identification, been ignored, my hair sniffed by a male student. I have been talked over, set work that hasn’t been touched, laughed at.

Only in schools would we accept such interactions as perfectly normal, amusing even. Teachers compare stories of behaviour in a way that we would share stories of our own children, taking part in a game of verbal Top Trumps to see who has had the worst experience, and sticks around anyway. We collect the narratives of our experiences as we would photographs, pulling them out occasionally for evidence that what happened, happened.

I don’t take behaviour personally. I used to, and that is where I let myself down. I bought into the idea that I was responsible for the behaviour, which is impossible to indicate, even if it were to be the case- which in the most part, I would say is extremely unlikely. You cannot control behaviour, but you can govern your expectations. You cannot predict, influence or indicate sleep deprivation, diet, external relationships, family background and circumstances (and by background, I do not mean socio-economic: the most middle class of homes can model detrimental human relationships and methods of communication). You can however, teach, explain, demonstrate and instruct what you expect from students in terms of behaviour.

And if the system to support the education of behaviour isn’t there in a school, what does that leave us with in our arsenal? Do we then become powerless to whatever alternative construct we have to work within instead?

I would argue not. The longer I teach, the more I start to see patterns in the student behaviour presented to me, which I think tells me a lot about the way that I operate perhaps professionally, but personally. I’ll return to that shortly, but for now, how do we create a micro-climate of expectations if outside of our classroom, the message may not be quite the same, isn’t executed, or isn’t adhered to?

Kelman (1958) outined three layers of conformity: compliance, internalisation and identification. This principal has helped me to find a bit of order in what I do in the classroom to make sure on an individual level, my expectations are clear enough that one the whole, learning can take place.

In my classroom, routines and habits are vital to the behaviour that is presented to me. I wrote about this here and having clear and familiar starts to lessons in particular is an effective method for ensuring that if someone is having a pretty rough time before your lesson, they know what to expect and what you expect when they walk through the door. It’s the quiet comfort of a routine that means they can put to one side the busyness of whatever happened that morning and focus on the work. It also means that you rapidly outline how you want things to go in you classroom. This is compliance, the most superficial layer of conformity. I have managed to get students to do as I would like, but they may not buy into it. However, settled, quiet starts to lessons don’t always have to essentially ‘set the tone,’ as a function; it may just be the opportunity I need to give the room a temperature check. The students struggling to focus on the work at this point, will usually be the students that will struggle to demonstrate behaviour later on that is required for them to learn.  In that, I mean that if little Johnny had an argument with his Mum half an hour before my lesson, and there’s a possibility he is going to struggle with being on point for a classroom today, then it will usually present itself at these quiet moments. Students may struggle to focus, distract others so they don’t feel that they are the only ones failing to comply, or simply retreat into themselves but just don’t seem themselves: I urge you to think of a time that a student chose to behave in a negative way in your classroom. Chances are, they gave an indication before that point.

I also explicitly explain that the reward is the learning. I don’t give prizes, I don’t reward the small things. I will say thank you countless times during lessons: thank you for being quiet, thank you for your contribution, thank you for following instructions, thank you for your incredible application. I don’t say thank you because it is a bartering process that they are doing something over and above the benchmark for me; I say thank you because it’s polite. My thanks is linked to what we set out to achieve, and how they have worked to do just that. Gratitude isn’t a relinquishment of power, it is the common courtesy that makes us human. My praise is another matter: I will make your brain sweat to earn my praise. I will send home five emails or make five phone calls each week, and my classes know this- it is part of our behaviour policy now, but I have always done this- they know that i will give them the option of which they would prefer, and if it is an email, they get to read it at the end of the lesson before I send it. This is always praise in response to effort, and we’re not just talking about the fact that little Johnny rocked up with a pen three times that week, or Johnina listened well. They need to be consistent, and trying. Trying, if their last answer was wrong, but they corrected it and didn’t falter when I came back to them to do so. Trying, by smashing it out the park with their retrieval quizzes that entire week, clear evidence that they have pored over their knowledge organiser. Reading the email is really powerful for the student: they can see that you are rewarding the work, and they also know that email will get home before they do. That’s some floaty steps on the way home. This becomes internalisation: students develop an understanding of the value of intrinsic reward, and they conform with your value of the work because they agree with it privately.

Time is the biggest factor at play when it comes to the third layer of conformity: identification. This is where the individual conforms, because they want to maintain or strengthen a relationship with the other party or group. This is why whilst research is scarce surrounding the impact of teacher turnover on student outcomes, I do maintain that it is when relationships rely upon continuity and presence of the same people, we have to consider that keeping teachers in schools, good teachers that uphold expectations of students, is paramount to being able to build conformity on a meaningful level. I teach younger brothers and sisters of students who have been in my previous classes, and they share that they have already been forewarned of what I expect. I don’t see this as a premonition of a horror story (hopefully!) but that it is only with time that I can embed this level of conformity. Perhaps this is the difficulty and complexity of behaviour: that essentially, it relies upon so many elements over which we have very little control.

The process of behaviour and expectation is cumulative: one needs to be satisfied before the next stage can even begin to be so. And so whilst teacher turnover and student attainment lack correlation, to holistically view our relationships in school and with the knowledge that we have of walking into school every day, could we honestly say that there is a behaviour system in existence that will allow you to convey your expectations to such a degree that you can teach great lessons from day one? I know, that’s a little simplistic to say the least, but I hope that this is a helpful summary of how I have tried to streamline my approach for clarity to students, but also to myself.



  1. This really resonated with me.
    It’s a very similar approach to the one I’m implementing in my classroom.
    I’ve begun to think about moving away from using the word ‘reward’, when talking about praise, in favour of ‘recognition’. We’re recognising the effort and compliance, rather than offering some kind of tangible reward.

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