‘Even love needs a method’: reclaiming child-centred classroom management

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Last week on a TV documentary about trainee teachers – I am sure you can guess which one – I witnessed something I was uncomfortable with. After his lessons had been repeatedly disrupted by the poor behaviour of a troubled boy, a young teacher was asked to sit in an off-camera meeting, mediated by a more senior member of staff, where the difficulties he had had with the boy were discussed face-to-face. Even though negotiation is a necessity in adult life, I have never found it to be successful in school when working with those teenagers who willfully disobey. To me, meeting in the middle suggests that both parties need to shift position, yet how can we shift position when all we are asking is that the student follow the basic rules that we, and the school, have laid down?

Before I continue, I would like to point out that I am very aware that my understanding of the incident has been shaped by TV editing. It is, however, the reaction to this event on Twitter that has puzzled me more some have argued that it is child-centred thinking that is to blame for this probably misguided attempt to find resolution.

A myopic focus on the needs of one child, at the expense of the majority, is not child-centred to my thinking. In fact, it is quite the reverse. To reach maturity, a child must learn how to take control of strong and contrary impulses during every day social situation. What better place to learn to do this than in an ordinary secondary classroom? For me, the child-centred approach is about taking into account the complexity of the children who sit in front of us, both in an educational and personal sense, and then using this understanding to ensure that they work hard, behave well and learn something. So how do we, as classroom teachers, craft the conditions that make this possible?

Giving in to the wills and whims of our students in an effort to win them over is not the answer. Michael Marland’s 1975 teacher manual, The Craft of The Classroom provided an answer that should not be forgotten (thank you to those who recommended it to me on Twitter after my recent post on differentiation). In the wisdom of Marland’s precise prose, there is a simple and timeless philosophy – the better I control and organise my classroom, the more opportunity I have to manage behaviour and build strong relationships that centre around the interests of the child.

Marlands approach was that, with methodical practice, the behaviour and response of our students is thoroughly predictable, and we can all learn to control the majority of it – assuming that we have strong school systems in place to deal with more extreme incidents. The book, therefore, is pertinent to both new and experienced teachers.

In Marland’s words:

“…there are many techniques of class management for the Secondary school that can be distilled from the work of hundreds of teachers and have almost universal validity.

And: 

“The paradox is that good classroom management makes personal teaching possible, for it frees the individual from constant conflict, and only then can the teacher be truly personal.

Marland also reminds us that we must try to ignore the natural desire to be liked by our students:

There is also a very understandable fear which many teachers have of losing the affection of pupils. This fear makes the teachers, like timid lovers, apprehensive lest the first dark look is evidence of favours withdrawn for ever If your demand is legitimate and for the pupils good, dont be tempted to abandon it. The relationships at which you should be aiming are those achieved by, say, the end of the year, not the end of the first week.

I wonder if the dark looks Marland mentioned are more of an issue than many of us would care to admit! Be that as it may, Marland’s was not a one-size-fits-all approach:

“When all is said and done, however, you will have to vary your approach to suit the individuals you teach. You must be consistent from occasion to occasion, but flexible from individual to individual. One of the specialisms of a school is that of knowing pupils. You will subtly vary your approach to each as you get to know him or her. With one you will need to remain always light-hearted, with another quiet and personal. One may require a look, another a sharp remark. You will learn that some pupils react badly to public rebuke, some can’t stand praise in public, others won’t answer questions aloud however hard you press, whilst some will try to answer a question before you have even asked it. Many pupils behave acceptably but cannot resist subtly baiting to provoke. The teacher who knows these pupils intimately knows how to side-step the provocation, retain his dignity and authority, and maintain a warn relationship. All of this requires a great flexibility of approach to individuals.”

At 100 pages exactly, the book is chock-full of practical advice to support its over-arching philosophy. In its pages, Marland discusses relationships, the classroom environment, routines and the rhythm of our days. Here are some of my favourite simple strategies to help foster relationships through, and not in spite of, sound and firm classroom management:

  • To smile at a student is a hugely effective strategy, especially after a stare.“Then a mere continuation of the stare may be sufficient, but it can be strengthened by a frown, or even a smile. This last may sound surprising , but a smile indicates you know the pupil was up to something he shouldn’t have been, that you are not furious – yet, and if it stops all will be well.”
  • Most of us stand at the door to invite our students in, but how many of us live up to Marland’s standards? “As each passes you, it is possible to put in a personal word to many of them. Private jokes, reminders, enquiries, warnings, encouragement, can all be easily fitted in. You have combined efficient supervision with warm personal relationships.”
  • Here’s one I have been making a conscious effort with this week. Speak to your students, rather than delivering into the ether. “The key is communication with your eyes. Feel the sectors of the room, and underline the structure and sequence of your remarks by directing phrases to the different sectors… Within each group, look only at one pupil, a different one each time you return to the sector, and cast your remark to him. Feel that you are communicating personally with that individual: look him or her in the eyes, and be aware of his or her expression.”

  • This one reminds me of Chris Curtis’ post on marking students’ work within the lesson  – here. “This may mean staying at your desk in the front of the room to do your individual helping. You are comfortable and stable, and able to talk more coherently. You can more easily keep the others quiet by a look without interrupting your work with the pupil.”
  • Lastly, the reason behind this weekend’s planned trip to the garden centre! “Some teachers cultivate pot plants on window sills or shelves. Such a pleasantness is appreciated by most pupils. The touch of colour and natural life softens the classroom, and increases pride.”

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In a time of great uncertainty – whenever we put our finger on what we think good teaching is it seems to slip from our grasp! – it is wonderful to read Marland’s measured, avuncular sentences. Marland’s book quietly and wisely refused to enter the discussion on what comprises good teaching. His approach is similar to those friends and colleagues who have influenced the start of my career the most. The child-centred approach should not be in doubt; instead, it is the route there we must consider.

Second-hand copies of the book are available on Amazon for a pittance. It is well worth a read.

Geoff Barton wrote a lovely obituary of Michael Marland – who died in 2008 – which is available here.

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