Take No Prisoners

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
Read more about John Dabell

What does behaviour look like in your school?

One of my relatives is a prison officer. He’s hard as nails and ‘old school’. I once invited him into a school I was working at to talk about his work with a Year Group that had more than its fair share of ‘hard’ cases and ‘big ticket’ behaviour.

I knew George would impress them: 6ft 8in tall, immaculately dressed, polite and professional, ‘he took no prisoners’. He was used to dealing with some real tough guys and it showed. His granite face told a story without him saying a word.

There is no doubt George had the fear element to him because of his sheer size, bulk and ‘look’ and this commanded respect. Not one of the usual suspects gave him any back-chat. No one mucked about and everyone listened respectfully.

Someone did turn to his neighbour to say something but George picked up on this in a second and disabled the conversation with an immense stare. His talk was a great success but I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the young men he was talking to would end up meeting him again at his place of work.

My school needed ‘a George’ but no one had that presence. I wore a cardigan, looked about 15 and read poetry. Most of my colleagues were trying their best but many were fearful. Our situation wasn’t the best and what we missed was a leader of his calibre to set the tone, culture and direction. Our Head was off sick with stress and his Deputy was struggling.

Some thought an oppressive punishment culture was what was needed to get things ‘back on track’ but when we eventually did get a new Head, what we got was someone with high visibility and the no nonsense attitude of George with a plan to reboot the system no excuses style.

Top 10 Behaviours

Here’s a summary of the strategies we implemented:

1. Keep professional:

It’s easy to react excessively to situations but remember you are dealing with children. If someone challenges you then never take it personally. Keep cool and draw unbending and consistent boundaries that mirror your expectations.

2. Routine, routine, routine:

Get classroom habits up and running as quickly as possible with crystal clear expectations and don’t swerve away from them. Children work better when they know what to expect and they know where they stand – no ambiguity please.

3. Say thank you:

Make compliance an expectation and an obligation. When you give an instruction, say thank you rather than please. For example, “I need you to put your ruler away, thank you.”

4. Jump on it:

Let no one get away with anything minor. Be on top of everything at all times – no slippage. Clear rules, consequences, sanctions and rewards are absolutely key.

5. Supersize yourself:

Make sure what you say is clear, concise, non-negotiable and you say it slowly, cheerfully and with intent. Who is the Captain of the ship? You are and be confident that you are with body language to match.

6. Give them something:

Provide children with a sense of choice by compromising so they don’t lose face. For example, “You can either put what is in your hand in your bag or you can put it on my desk.”

7. Press shift:

Sometimes we can quieten a situation down simply by moving closer. If a child or two children are being disruptive, then stand near them until they get the message.

8. Be a super-recogniser:

Seize the day when children are doing what you expect of them and tell them so. Catching children being good makes attention-seekers think twice as they soon latch-on to the fact that being good gets a positive response.

9. Find the middle ground:

For low-level behaviour agree in part and acknowledge. For example, “I know that you were discussing your work but I think now might be the time to press pause.”

10. Smile:

The classroom is a place filled with fun and funny moments so smile and don’t wait until Christmas, start as soon as possible.

Stick To The Plan

Did these tactics work? As part of a much wider behavior vision and policy, yes, because it was drummed into us that’s what everyone did so everyone did it consistently across the school; we soon ‘aligned’ and sang from the same hymn sheet. None of the suggestions were particularly new but they were practised day in and day out and soon became the norm and a new culture emerged.

What made all the difference though was having a head that nurtured the culture, a super-recogniser who focused on the good, supported staff 100% and ran a tight ship. Bandwagons came but we didn’t jump on them, we stuck with our agenda and kept at it. The Head was everywhere, visiting classes and supporting staff and getting to know every student, establishing relationships and making waves.

Every school is different and strategies can be context dependent but there are many tactics that will work in almost all of them if applied consistently when led by senior managers with a clear sense of direction and clearly stated goals and a manager at the top ‘keeping an eye’, being seen and being uncompromising in the pursuit of objectives.

Creating a Culture is no easy thing to do but as Tom Bennett says in his recent report, better behaviour will come through strong leadership and he has called for head teachers to be offered training in how to develop comprehensive behaviour policies. One of the key recommendations of the Bennett Report is,

Design a revised certification process for all headteachers that includes a requirement to demonstrate an appreciation of behavioural cultural levers and how to use them.

Importing experience is crucial to this process, so if that means inviting others from outside of education into school then do it, the George’s of this world have so much to offer.

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