It Takes Two To Tango – Kate Cory-Wright
Joyce Grenfell’s highly recommended “Nursery School” videos are an amusing insight into typical behavioral problems that take place all over the world. Two excerpts from her Going Home and Free Activity Period
Teacher to Hazel and Dicky: Thank you Hazel for putting the chair straight for me. You’re a great help. And Dicky, thank you for closing the cupboard door for me. (Pause) Dicky, is there somebody in that cupboard?
Teacher to Susan: Susan! We NEVER bite our friend. Now say you’re sorry, Susan. No, you needn’t kiss him. No, you needn’t hug him. Susan, put Sidney DOWN!
While Grenfell’s classes are hilarious, the reality is not so funny. In a poorly controlled class, the best-laid lesson plans go wrong and your students learn little. Worse still, teacher exhaustion and demoralization usually follow mismanaged classes. On a bad day, we might sigh: “If they behaved better, I could teach actually them something!”
The number one question is: Do I really have a discipline problem? Dr. Andrew Littlejohn points out that: “Many ‘discipline problems’ are not problems at all – it is often the teacher’s reaction that makes it a problem.” Memories of myself as a young teacher make me smile now, but they didn’t at the time. Three teenage boys, who frequently “forgot” to bring their homework to class, drove me to despair. Years later I bumped into one of them, who apologized sincerely. His apology was enlightening: “I’m sorry for misbehaving, Sra. Katy. It’s just that we loved watching you get angry.”
Of course behavioral problems genuinely exist. Although they are commonly attributed to boredom or one student trying to attract attention, they often arise from a flawed relationship between students and teacher. Teenagers, in particular, need to feel that you are in charge. And young children are prone to pushing the limits, to see what is acceptable and what is not. One of my favorite scenes from the Grenfell videos concerns Hazel, who gets her finger stuck in the keyhole. As soon as Hazel frees her finger, Nevil decides to do the same, resulting in the need for a fire engine. Clearly, by calling Hazel “poor Hazel”, Grenfell unwittingly sends a message to the other kids that she will tolerate this action (and even provide sympathy!)
It’s very tempting to blame our students for behavioral problems. After a recent class with my young learners, I was dismayed to find the floor covered in orange juice (again). Initially I was annoyed with them, but the fact is, the juice incident was my fault, too. The rule was clear: we clear up together at the end of the class. However, by forgetting to ask the learners to clear up that day, I wasn’t consistent about my own rules. Consistency is paramount.
It is even more common for teachers to take responsibility for behavioral problems, but should they? Provided our rules are fair, rational, and clearly explained, then our students know what’s right and wrong. In such circumstances, Dr. Littlejohn advocates joint responsibility: “Approach the issue as their problem as well as yours”. Discussions and classroom contracts are both effective ways to negotiate behavioral problems.
A typical discussion might begin like this: “We have a problem. Our group work isn’t working, is it? What can we do about it?” Witha recurring behavioral problem, just one discussion might help you stop repeating yourself. Grenfell reminds us how this feels:
“Nevil, I said get up off the floor, please.”
“Hazel, dear. I don’t want to have to tell you again. Please come away from that door…”
“Sidney. Please take that paintbrush OUT of your ear”.
2. Classroom contracts
Classroom contracts come in many shapes and sizes, depending on the age and purpose, but they work the same way in principle. First, students and teachers brainstorm rules together. Next, after everyone has agreed, students make the contract and sign it (very young learners can put a thumbprint). Finally, place the contract in a visible spot. You can use posters, lists, spidergrams, Linoits, or even Wordles. Without doubt, contracts are more time-consuming than discussions. However, they significantly help reduce student-teacher tension. You are no longer nagging students to adhere to your rules, but rather to their rules!
Some practical notes:
1. How many rules should the contract include? Leslie Embleton, a teacher, once generated more than 30 rules during a brainstorming session with his 13-year-old students! He then reduced the list to ten key rules by negotiating with his students.
2. How long should the contract last? After a while, the contract loses its validity and novelty. So set an “end date”. After that, students can be asked to redefine the contract, focusing on areas that didn’t work well in the first contract.
3. What to do when students break the contract rules? If possible, hold a class discussion. Again, encourage student involvement and responsibility. Ask students: “You have broken rule x. What happened? What can we do about it?”
4. Should the teacher sign a contract? Some teachers fear they might lose control if their students ask them to complete a contract, too. Others see it as an ideal win-win scenario (“I promise to do X if you promise to do Y”).
As with all tailored solutions, only you know what works best in your situation. Good luck!
Grenfell, J. Nursery School: Free activity period (YouTube video)
Grenfell, J. Nursery School: Going Home (YouTube video)
Littlejohn, A. A-Z Discipline http://www.andrewlittlejohn.net/website/az/discipline.html
Littlejohn, A. and Breen, M. P. The Significance of Negotiation www.andrewlittlejohn.net/website/docs/
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