Are You An Elephant Teacher?

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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...
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Should you lay down the law at the start of the term?

‘Laying down the law’ is often seen as the first thing you do as a teacher, but it’s not necessarily, unless you are a ‘tiger teacher’. If you are an elephant teacher then it’s quite the opposite. You base your teaching on empathy, encouragement and mutual respect.

Tiger or Elephant?

Being an effective classroom manager doesn’t involve showing children your inner-core is made of nails. It involves nurturing, having patience and being in control without resorting to verbal firepower and face paint. Good behaviour might come through talking tough but being too strong, overbearing and strict is frightening to most pupils and can come across as aggressive.

Perhaps fear and intimidation worked in Victorian times but they have no place in modern classroom. This isn’t training to be in the special forces and you can’t impose a military-style regime on to children – it just doesn’t work.Confident, resilient and empowered children aren’t normally the product of grunts, threats, shouts and detentions. A teacher with presence can command respect with uttering a single word.

Laying down the law doesn’t work, so here are 6 reasons why:

1. It alienates children

One of the quickest and easiest ways to distance yourself from children and to make them resent you is to shout – it’s aggressive. Who is going to trust a teacher that is harsh, bristly and spikey?

2. Rapport goes out of the window

Relationships first, teaching second. If you go in too hard, then children will find it hard to trust you – in fact they won’t want to trust you. They won’t be fired up for learning either, they will be too scared.

3. You spend the rest of the year being ‘tough’

If you start as you mean to go on then being tough is not something you switch on and off. Being consistently tough will exhaust you and backfire.

4. It’s negative

Being the classroom boss doesn’t mean you have to be bossy. Children need to know you are the captain of the ship but this doesn’t come through being loud, abrasive and all-controlling.

5. It leaves you high and dry

On occasions raising your voice will be necessary. Start off all loud-mouthed and shouty leaves you with no place to go. When you really do need to turn up the volume then no one is going to hear you.

6. It encourages worst behaviour

Laying down the law might seem like a good option if you want to get children in line but it can actually lead to worst behaviour and dissent – no one wants a classroom mutiny.

Laying down the law might make the teacher look all-powerful but a teacher isn’t a sheriff in the Wild West. Overly controlling the physical environment, controlling the clock and being deliberately the big boss teacher can make some children wobble.

Children can feel vulnerable and threatened by a teacher who is ‘in their face’ and relies on volume and “it’s my way of the highway” as this takes all the fun out of being in school. So-called ‘tough kids’ don’t need ‘tough’ teachers, they need resilient ones full of compassion, inspiration, consistency and teachers that pour their heart and soul into developing relationships.

Students need teachers that focus on their wellbeing.

Meaning Business: softly, softly

The first day back means setting the tone from the outset, but if you are too serious or too regimented, then the atmosphere is tense which is no good for learning. Demonstrating to your class that you mean business, doesn’t rely on macho management, but it is transferred through something quite different: having a soft start.

For many teachers the very idea of starting the first week back ‘softly, softly’ is an alien concept and a strategy that sets you up as a pushover –  not so. The key to the first few days back is getting to know children and building relationships, not water-tight classroom systems and teaching them how to walk in line (although these are still important).


In his insightful and inspiring book Teach Like Finland, Timothy D. Walker talks about the Finnish way of ‘having an organic back to school’ where routines and procedures gently grow into the children.

He quotes one teacher describing the first few days as ‘ryhmäyttämisen’ or grouping. This involves getting to know each other and not fretting about the timetable on the first days back. Activities can be group games, PSHE discussions, problem-solving, collaborative learning, team projects – anything that bonds. Helping children feel at home in their environment and with each other is more important as this helps children and adults have less of a stressful start.

‘Ryhmäyttämisen’ might shock parents and those looking in from outside the school gates because everyone will be expecting plenty of maths and English from the outset, but time spent getting to know each other is time well spent to lay the foundations. A soft start is actually a solid start and the rest will follow.

Shouldn’t we all be fostering a welcoming, low-stress environment in the first week back? Rules, tests and a high-octane curriculum can take their turn  – relationships should be in pole position and this means being an elephant teacher, someone who is nurturing, positive, empathetic and vulnerable.

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