National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) data were released this week showing very little change across the assessment’s 10-year history. The nation is genuinely concerned about the lack of progress – an understandable position. As for teachers and those in education? Well, the usual decry of the assessment, concern for mental health and demand for more money and resources were to be expected. It seems that as a profession, instead of taking a stoic approach and working hard to find ways to strengthen results, we point the finger and brush off the results like they do not matter.
Amongst the increasingly heated finger-pointing rhetoric you will hear many blame a lack of funding; blame a lack of teacher knowledge; blame a wide-spread mental health epidemic. These are all genuine concerns and are real factors, but there is an elephant in our classrooms we choose to ignore. A big bad elephant having a genuine impact on results: behaviour. Why isn’t anyone pointing the finger at behaviour?
No one wants to talk about behaviour, yet good behaviour is a prerequisite for learning. A classroom that is constantly disrupted on a daily basis is not going to be very productive. I posit that such disruption is not rare. There are many teachers who are in a very real battle for control that seriously impedes their ability to impart knowledge to the best of their capabilities. This is the elephant in the classroom no one wants to talk about and it is probably impacting student performance more than anything else.
Because good behaviour is so important, I’m increasingly beginning to believe all that new teachers need to do in their first two years is focus on behaviour. It is the easiest way to improve everything else. A student who is made to behave well is more likely to want to do well. A classroom that is able to work without disruption is going to get through more work; that much is a given. We should be working to raise the bar on behaviour.
Implementing sky high behaviour expectations requires a strict approach. Strict is a dirty word in education, but I think being a strict teacher is the kindest approach to take. I do not believe it is unreasonable to ask students to line up quietly whilst waiting to enter a classroom – feet together, arms by their sides and eyes to the front. Nor do I believe it is unreasonable to ask students to track the teacher with their eyes at all times whilst the teacher is speaking – pen down and lips together. Working in silence whilst engaged in deliberate practise isn’t beyond any student from kindergarten to Year 12. It is not unreasonable to expect them to do so. Training students to display these behaviours is important and only possible through a strict approach.
Keeping the bar sky high coupled with equal warmth, compassion and empathy is kind because it builds powerful self-regulation. Self-regulation is an important skill that lets the students focus on their learning. Having high, blindingly obvious expectations for how students should act in the classroom helps build this important skill. This is especially true for our most vulnerable students who without great behaviour through self-regulation are doomed to low progress and low attainment, which will seriously impact their quality of life in the future. Trust between a teacher and their most vulnerable grows through good behaviour. The relationship is lost from the beginning if bad behaviour is the norm. Adding more student-centred fluff is not the answer. We should be supporting these students through a clear, strict approach.
Behaviour is the elephant everyone chooses to ignore. If we lift the bar on behaviour across whole systems, we will see an unprecedented jump in NAPLAN data. Of course, I could be wrong, but I doubt it. Behaviour is a powerful prerequisite for learning; success will ensue.