‘If you are nice to them, then they will behave.’
That’s the gist of some pretty poor advice I received early on in my teaching career. The idea is that because student behaviour is influenced by a teacher’s actions, we should make decisions to minimise the problems we may face. If you just be kind and speak nicely to them, they will do it back. This was the advice I was given, and it was pretty poor advice.
I’m sure you can imagine how shocked I was when I realised that this didn’t work. My first job teaching a Year 6 class was in a very challenging school. No amount of kindness could’ve stopped me getting kicked in the shins, sworn at or having paper aeroplanes thrown at me when I was not looking. I wasn’t the only one: within the first term one teacher had quit, my partner teacher had walked out of her class in tears (5 years a teacher), and I myself walked out of my class quite shaken after trying to gain my class’s attention, who were quite merry in their conversation, for a solid 15 minutes (It was not a rare occurrence). I remember the feeling that came over me quite well in that moment: it was a deep feeling of helplessness; like there was absolutely nothing I could do. Thinking back on it now, it reminds me of Seligman’s Learned Helplessness Theory. For so long I struggled, and so, just like Seligman’s dog, I saw no other option but to quit.
The story seems grim and it was, and so it has shaped the way I think about behaviour ever since. It is definitely true that teachers do influence student behaviour. There is no doubt that the way you interact with students has an influence on how they act. It is a transactional process. However, my experience has taught me that sometimes it does not matter how positive or nice or kind or generous you are to students; sometimes students will treat you like dirt regardless. This is what happened in my classroom. I was positive, nice, kind and generous, but the students still treated me poorly.
Consultants, academics and even experienced teachers seem to communicate to me that I must not have been managing the situation very well. This seems to stem from observation that teachers who have calm classrooms seem to act in a calm manner and are ‘nice’ to their students. Sure, I acknowledge that it could be possible that I was just a poor, unkind teacher who therefore created a crappy climate in which the students felt trapped or unsafe or whatever, but I doubt that. I doubt that because there were better people than me experiencing the same problems in my school and other schools in my MAT. Bad behaviour was rife, and that was true for all of the teachers no matter how skilled or experienced they were.
No, it is probably the case that, given the opportunity, students in some settings misbehaviour regardless of niceties. It’s probably true that I am not a ‘natural’ at getting students to behave, but no amount of niceness was ever going to fix that in my classroom, nor the classrooms I had whilst teaching casually thereafter. Students were still throwing pencils into the fan and swearing at me when I asked them to listen so we could get started. Perhaps the solution to this problem is to put a natural into every rowdy classroom and get rid of the teachers like me. I’d pitch a guess that these teachers are too rare for that.
I eventually gave up trying to smile my students into behaving well and adopted what one would call a much more ‘traditional’ approach to behaviour management. A pretty simple system of rewards and consequences – one with bright lines for right and wrong that does not compromise. The thing is though, I am now in a school with a much better SES profile, so harsh behaviour problems are not prevalent in my context. I really feel for teachers in tough schools – it is impossible to describe how hard it is. If you are a teacher in one of these schools, my advice to you is pretty straightforward: ignore whatever they’re telling you about niceties because it will not be enough. Being nice to your students is, of course, exactly what you should be doing, but do not believe that this will be enough for students to behave in your classroom. In tough schools, it is likely the leadership that will make or break the behaviour in your classroom. I’d lean heavily on them or get out.