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Setting the Classroom Scene

Here are some tips to help teachers in the potentially fiery chamber known as the ‘classroom’:

1. Don’t ‘talk down’ to children.

Don't treat the class as ‘junior' to you. By that I mean 'assuming airs and graces' or in any way 'pulling rank’ as a teacher. You might use the 'I'm the boss' line to get through a particular communication or to get a particular thing done, but that child will then not do anything for you without resentment on some level. Respecting children and granting them an adult role isn't just a 'lovely thing to do' - it's also the most powerful thing to do if you want to effectively educate them. Not doing this is destructive: it will undo your presence as a teacher, and will multiply your workload exponentially. You'll find yourself working harder and harder, meeting more and more overt and covert resistance, and getting fewer and fewer results. That's because, by not granting children a greater role in their own education, you've effectively aligned the rest of the world against you and isolated yourself.

By respecting children and granting them an adult role, you create a sense of worth, reduce your workload exponentially and get more done with less effort. Instead of lining up against you, the world will unite around you.

Sounds simple, but it really is the way it works.

But this has to be understood properly, not glibly. It doesn't mean 'allowing children to do whatever they like' or encouraging wild behaviour. It means recognising in everything that you do or say that the child you're dealing with has both basic qualities of intelligence, self-respect and a desire to do good as well as unique characteristics which bring added value to their own education. You have to believe it 100%. Personally, I found this relatively easy, even when dealing with difficult situations, partly because I know from experience that it is true. But if you harbour any doubts about children or secretly think that you are superior to them in some way, this could be hard work.

Validated rightnesses become stronger; rightness multiplies; the child’s defence mechanisms, excuses, distractions and other paraphernalia fall away. You effectively 'defuse the bomb' and can then get into real communication and get things done.

Given the above approach, you'll find that it's much easier to get compliance with such things as specific or detailed instructions.

2. Develop a professional relationship with students.

Open up casual conversation when the student appears relaxed. Discuss something you know they are interested in (a sporting event, a film, a book) in a situation that is not pressured or time limited. Don’t aim for a lengthy and involved conversation, just open up a line to that student. You will become more ‘real’ to the student. less a part of a general background; you will become an individual, not a stereotype.

You might be rejected or tested; a student may not welcome any informal conversation with you - sometimes it’s easier to stay in an ‘Us versus Them’ position because that is what an individual is used to. But if you communicate freely, expecting nothing in return, over time and with persistence a positive relationship could develop which will astound and puzzle others.

3. Stay on the move.

Messages to students usually need to be simple, clear and non-negotiable. You want to avoid lengthy arguments or confrontations. They also ideally need to be delivered swiftly and as discreetly as possible. ’I need to see you briefly after the lesson, bring your book’ and you’re gone, is better than ‘I am not happy with several things about your performance lately’ while standing motionless by the student’s desk. Why ask for trouble? By moving on, you avoid being a target; but also, by specifying that you need to see someone ‘briefly’, you avoid creating unnecessary anxiety for them.

Being a teacher is partly about managing emotion in as-yet-not-mature human beings, not using fear and an authoritarian approach to browbeat them into submitting to your will.

4. Keep your expectations realistic.

Are you expecting an individual to change his or her behaviour immediately, on the spot? They may need time, more enlightenment and an atmosphere conducive to self-reflection to improve consistently. Keep communication as positive as you can, then move away and return once the emotional dust has settled. Then provide the time, enlightenment and atmosphere needed to get the change you require.

5. Use countdowns.

This is a common teacher tool, which works much more effectively if it has been discussed with the class at the beginning of the school year and agreed with them.

When you require attention from the group, give them a 'countdown' from 5 or 10, allowing them time to finish what they are doing. You need to have earlier explained to the class that you are using a countdown to give them a fair warning of a change in the lesson; go over with them how this is better manners on your part than expecting their instant silence.

Some will join in the countdown with you and be ready; others will not be quiet by the time you get to zero. Use praise and rewards to reinforce it.

6. Delegate small tasks.

At primary level, sharing and delegating jobs in the classroom is a fantastic way of securing cooperation from a class. Have students hand out materials, clean spaces, prepare areas for different activities, put toys away etc. Children will learn how to share responsibility and accept responsibility not only for themselves but for the space and objects around them. The tasks and responsibilities that you are able to share are secondary to the fact that you’re sharing them; they may seem unimportant, but by doing this you encourage shared responsibility and gently assert your control in harmless and productive ways. Children will come to see ‘control’ as a positive thing, not a punishment.

7. Demonstrate calmness.

After an explosive incident in a classroom situation - say a loud defiance of your instructions, or a noisy departure from expected behaviour - a dramatic ‘trace element’ hangs in the air, potentially triggering disruptive behaviour in others. Children will watch you closely for your response. Remain calm and cheerful and they will be impressed by your confidence: if you can remain unruffled by such dramas, they will gain respect for you and recognise that you can control just about anything.

Reflect that a lesson is only occurring when an often thin, invisible line of interest is maintained between the student body and the subject being taught: anything that cuts across or impedes this line is effectively interfering with education itself. That can be unwanted or inappropriate noise, wandering attention, a whole range of distractions. You are primarily in charge of creating and then maintaining that tentative line between the student and the subject, and so your control of the classroom environment isn’t something that you must master for its own sake but so that anything worthwhile happens at all.

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