It was a boy call Joseph who almost made Chris Moody call time on his teaching career barely three years into the job.
The 13-year-old would turn up to Chris’ history lessons apparently content and willing to learn, but within minutes he would be disrupting his lessons with a constant humming or droning noise, or by strumming his fingers on the desk.
“It wasn’t even that the noise was particularly loud, but it was clearly audible, nevertheless, and it was like a backdrop to the lesson,” Mr Moody recalls.
“It was absolutely infuriating. The pupils sitting around him were obviously the worst affected but it was almost as if he couldn’t stop himself.
“He’d stop doing it if you asked him, but then he’d start again a few minutes later. When he wasn’t doing that he’d be passing notes, often with inappropriate messages to girls. Of course, he thought it was very funny but it was hugely disruptive on the whole lesson. Other pupils were often upset and complained about him.
“There were days when I felt I was going mad and I really wondered if I could go on with the job. I started to dread the days when I’d take him for lessons because I knew what was coming.
“I know that may sound a bit pathetic, because this child was neither violent nor aggressive. He wasn’t throwing his weight around, or shouting out or physically hurting anyone. But his actions were just persistently irritating and the impact of this was devastating. There is no other word for it.”
It is precisely this sort of behaviour that gnaws away at teachers and pupils in the classroom on a daily basis. Humming, quiet singing or whistling, note-passing, swinging on chairs and pen-tapping can have a hugely disruptive effect on an otherwise productive and purposeful lesson.
What has become known as “low-level disruption” in the classroom is now an accepted problem and recognised by heads, teachers and the schools’ watchdog, Ofsted, as a major concern and barrier to learning in schools.
A report from Ofsted earlier this year suggested that a significant amount of teaching time was being lost every day because of teachers’ “casual acceptance” of low-level misbehaviour.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, said that while there was less bad behaviour involving physical and verbal abuse, teachers were now accepting that low-level disruption as an “inevitable part of everyday life”.
According to the report, which drew on analysis from almost 3,000 inspections of state schools, about eight per cent of schools have problems with poor discipline. Sir Michael pointed to strong leadership as a solution, with schools employing consistent behaviour policies across the board so there is no ambiguity about what does, and does not, constitute poor conduct.
The report – Below the Radar: Low-level disruption in the country’s classrooms – also included surveys of 1,048 teachers. One in five respondents admitted they just ignored low-level disruption and put it down to everyday life in the classroom, while one in 12 said that more than 10 minutes of learning was lost an hour because of disruption.
Mr Moody said that most teachers did not allow disruption to go unchallenged, though he agreed it was difficult to control.
“No-one wants to put up with it, but the question is how do you stop it?” he said.
“When I called in Joseph’s parents to discuss it with them, they couldn’t really see what he was doing wrong. If he wasn’t throwing chairs around or hitting his classmates then they didn’t see a problem – though they admitted he made similar noises at home to block out what they were saying to him. So clearly there was a problem.”
So what can teachers do to mitigate the effects of low-level disruption during lessons?
Paul Clarke, assistant head of a large comprehensive school in London, with special responsibility for attendance and behaviour, and a mentor to NQTs and new recruits, said there were a number of strategies teachers could use.
“It is all too easy to raise your voice to the culprits in these situations, but it rarely works,” he said. “And this may be playing into their hands. Shouting may merely serve to raise the volume in the classroom, which isn’t a good idea if it’s already a loud class of kids. But lowering your voice can have some positive effective, and can calm the situation.”
Another effective strategy, he explains, is to move around the class. When pupils know the teacher is nearby it can help to stop any disruptive behaviour as they – at least, pretend – to get on with their work.
Engaging the disruptive child who is strumming fingers or tapping a pen in conversation, or asking them to do a particular task by a particular time during the lesson, can distract them too, but ensure you return later to check that they have completed what you asked. Knowing you are watching and are “on to them” can be a deterrent to bad behaviour, Mr Clarke added.
He continued: “The presence of the teacher is extremely important, and a teacher who moves around the class may find a lot less disruption than one who stands at the front of the room, because the pupils know they are looking and listening all around them.”
Often, pupils arrive to a lesson already irritable or wound up about something. Try to identify the children who are prone to this, Mr Clarke advises, and offer a few calming words of encouragement when they arrive in your lesson. A simple “hello, how are things today?” acknowledgement can make a huge difference to a pupil who is having a difficult day.
Crucially, Mr Clarke added, teachers also need to be properly prepared for the lesson they are about to deliver. Pupils can often spot a lesson given off the hoof, and think it offers an opportunity to play up with a disorganised or distracted teacher. Try not to give them that opportunity.
Having resources ready and waiting on their desks presents a purposeful environment where learning is expected is important. Standing at the door and greeting pupils as they walk in also offers acknowledgement and looks decisive. Try to remain calm at all times. It portrays a teacher who means business and is in charge of their classroom. It shows the children that this is your space and you’re in charge.
If you’re becoming angry and frustrated, go back to your desk and look at some reports for a few minutes, before returning to the child.
Try not to deviate from the task in hand, which is teaching the class. If a child is being disruptive, mention their name in whatever question you are asking or task you are doing to try to get them back on track.
This shows them you have noticed their bad behaviour but are giving them a chance to stop without telling them off in front of everyone.
A classroom routine also helps, Mr Clarke said: “Children often need a routine because it makes them feel safe and secure. Giving them prior warning that the next lesson with you will mean changing the desks and chairs around in the class, for example, gives them time to think about that and to prepare.
“It may not seem like much to an adult, but change can be unsettling to some children. Make sure you explain what is going to happen next.”
As well as greeting them on arrival, sending pupils off after your lesson with a “goodbye, see you next week” can set the atmosphere for the next lesson they go to. “Your colleagues may thank you for sending the pupils to their lesson in a calm and disciplined mood,” Mr Clarke added.
Mr Moody began using similar strategies after speaking to his head of department and requesting help with classroom management.
“I wondered if asking for help would make her think I was a bad teacher who couldn’t control the class, but actually my head of department said she was pleased I had come forward as many teachers don’t, and suffer in silence,” he said.
“With some children, it took a while to find a strategy that worked but overall having some guidelines about what I could usefully do made me feel more confident, and that in turn positively affected the atmosphere in my class.
“It’s quite funny that after that time struggling with low-level disruption I now have a reputation in the school as being a ‘no nonsense’ teacher.”
Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.