Advising new teachers: How can I get my pupils to behave?

Written by: Patrick Garton | Published:
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Pupil behaviour is one of the most common concerns for early career teachers. Patrick Garton draws on his research with teachers and school leaders to give us three principles for developing effective behaviour management. His article advises both ECTs and those who mentor and support them


“How do I get them to behave?” is perhaps the most commonly asked question by teachers at the start of their training and in the early stages of their careers.

The frequency of this question is one of the reasons why I was drawn to this area as the focus for my book, Understanding and Developing Positive Behaviour in Schools, which is part of the NASBTT Essential Guides for Early Career Teachers (ECTs) series.

Having spent the last quarter of a century in schools, I relished the opportunity to dig into these issues a little deeper and, as well as collecting what I hope are useful perspectives for ECTs, the research process has given opportunity to gather relevant thoughts for school-based mentors and other colleagues in teacher training.

I was fortunate to be able to interview and collect case studies and recollections from a wide range of teachers at very different stages in their careers. From this, three clear themes emerged which I hope are relevant to all those involved in supporting teachers in these vital early stages.


1, Putting your finger on it

It is hard to see what it is hard to see. What I mean by this is that when you watch teachers who are very successful at managing their classes effectively it can be hard to identify the many different elements that are contributing to the calm and focused atmosphere. This can be especially challenging for people who are at the very early stages of their work in the classroom.

The language of “experts and novices” has become more frequently used in education circles in recent years and this is a helpful way to think about this. “Novice” teachers can sometimes find it hard to see (and potentially reproduce) the range of approaches and techniques that “expert” teachers are deploying.

In order to avoid lesson observations where trainee teachers watch more experienced colleagues without having a direct focus, a process of very specific “demystifying” can be really helpful. This could be as simple as “only watch for hand signals”, or “focus on how and when pupils’ names are used”. Building up these types of context-specific insights can help avoid new entrants to the profession feeling like they are surrounded by colleagues who seem to possess supernatural powers.


2, Sweating the small stuff

ECTs worry about and focus on the “wrong” things. Understandably, new teachers will often be concerned about violent or destructive behaviour in their lessons, or situations where pupils are openly confrontational and defiant.

It is vital, of course, to recognise that these things do occasionally happen, and for ECTs to know how to respond and what support to draw on if they occur, but certainly for people in training these should be very rare experiences.

What lots of the more experienced individuals I interviewed said was that while they had been worrying about something calamitous happening they were not “sweating the small stuff” and this meant that they were not investing as much time and effort in building and embedding effective routines and habits.

For mentors, therefore, it is vital to help trainees take a proactive and consistent approach which will lead to them understanding the small steps that make up the bigger picture.


3, A culture of positive behaviour

The third and final strand that emerged in my research was the need for sophistication when supporting teachers at the start of their career. This aspect has a number of inter-related threads and has significance for school leaders and mentors as well as initial teacher training (ITT) providers.

It is perhaps obvious to say that schools are different, and as the leader of a school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) that works with a diverse group of nursery, primary, special and secondary schools, I have the pleasure of seeing these differences on a daily basis.

The lesson is that there is no single set of strategies or approaches that will work in all situations.

One of the areas I was keen to explore was the relationship between an individual teacher’s approach to behaviour in their classroom and the wider systems and culture across the whole school.

These are key questions for all those involved in supporting teachers at the start of their careers, but they also allow us to reflect on broader questions about how schools are organised and led.

If a school has a very clear and consistent whole-school approach to behavioural expectations, does that make it easier for a new entrant to the profession to learn and develop their skills and understanding? Undoubtedly yes, because the new teacher and the pupils operate within a context where external systems (i.e. factors outside the immediate control of the teacher) can be utilised rapidly and effectively.

This does not mean that all schools have to have the same system, but it is noticeable which schools have a culture of openness and support, where talk between teachers and leaders about proactively creating a culture of positive behaviour and high expectations is the norm, and those where it is not.

What we notice as an ITT provider is that trainees are often looking for this kind of setting to work in as NQTs because they recognise that they will be able to develop their overall skills with appropriate support. School leaders who wish to attract and retain committed and enthusiastic ECTs may therefore want to place a particular focus on cultivating this kind of environment.


A word of warning

Through my research discussions, however, it was also clear that there are potential dangers in training or starting a teaching career in an environment that is too tightly regulated, because it appears that in some instances ECTs can become overly reliant on external factors.

These dangers were reported by teachers and school leaders at different stages of their career and the concerns reflect the fact that in some instances teachers become dependent on managing behaviour through whole-school systems or the on-going support of more senior colleagues.

In these instances it often seemed to be the case that the ECT saw good behaviour as an end in its own right, rather than as the necessary precursor for the real work of schools.

In these situations, skilful input is required to support colleagues in recognising that compliant pupil behaviour is not the goal, and that the next stage of development is to create positive, trusting relationships through which engagement and learning can flourish.

This also includes the vital reminder that these things take time. Outward appearances can sometimes mean that when trainees look at more expert colleagues it can seem like the development of their skills and understanding was an easier and smoother process than the reality at the time.

It was therefore refreshing to hear highly regarded and successful teachers and school leaders recollect some of the mistakes they made and the situations, both positive and negative, that helped them along the way.

In a similar way it is at times important to remind those with responsibility for supporting new entrants to the profession that “getting it right first time” is a pretty rare phenomenon in this context.

Personal reflection that is supported through skilled mentoring and whole-school systems is crucial in these early stages so that new colleagues can develop an intellectual understanding of the classroom environment as well as a personalised range of practical approaches that they can draw on as they become competent and confident practitioners.


Early Career Framework (ECF)

I am hopeful that the introduction of the ECF will play a significant role in establishing these points and give much needed time and space for new teachers to grow and improve. For this to become embedded we need colleagues across the education system to recognise that supporting teachers in their first three to five years in the profession is vital if we are to address the current retention crisis.

Schools will have a multitude of challenges over the forthcoming months and I hope that as we address these challenges we keep the needs of our most recently recruited colleagues in mind.

  • Patrick Garton is founder and director of Oxfordshire Teacher Training, an Ofsted-outstanding SCITT that works with primary, special, nursery and secondary schools across Oxfordshire. He is also a trustee and trainer for the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers (NASBTT).


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