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Is teaching 90% crowd control?

Image: MercatorNet
"Teaching is 90% crowd control." I don't know who first coined that statement, but it's been around for years and I think there's a lot of truth in it. In this blog I nearly always write about lesson ideas and pedagogy, but have never directly addressed the issue of classroom behaviour. I think it's been a bit of an oversight, because for me ensuring good classroom behaviour in an atmosphere of attentiveness and mutual respect trumps any issue of language teaching pedagogy. Thankfully, these days teachers are much more open about issues they have in class and often share them readily in schools via social media. It's clear to me that there are lots of times when teaching is undermined by both low-level disruption and plain disrespect. You can't teach effectively in those circumstances

I spent my career in selective schools with good behaviour systems and was fortunate enough to rarely have to deal with badly behaved classes. I was able to teach with a smile, have an occasional laugh and get lots done. When I encountered disruption I was pretty mean, actually, and pupils were wary of crossing my path or interrupting the lesson. I didn't mind that. But even in the grammar schools I taught in, I can assure you there were teachers who struggled and required help. Students who are sweetness and light with one teacher can be a pain in the proverbial with others.

So, after that preamble, this post is aimed particularly at the many language teachers who encounter behaviour problems in their classes. It's actually an adapted extract from Chapter 1 of my handbook Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher. (That was a plug, if you hadn't guessed.)


Keeping them on task


Creating a successful learning environment is the number one priority for teachers of any level of experience. Learning won’t occur if students are inattentive and misbehaving. Where behaviour is already good and supported by an excellent school ethos and behaviour policy the challenge is to stretch classes to the limit with engaging and challenging activities. Many classes, however, take a good deal more management and effective teachers use a range of strategies to generate the right environment. For a detailed discussion of behaviour management I would recommend any teacher to read Classroom Behaviour by Bill Rogers (2015) and Teach Like a Champion 2.0 by Doug Lemov (2015).



Elements of good classroom management are neatly summed up by consultant and writer Tom Bennett as follows:



Three Rs of classroom management


Routines: embedding habits of conduct and learning that maximise the good of both  without the need to constantly create them on the spot. This means rules and consequences, but also “micro-behaviours” like how to scaffold essays, work in groups, or speak to a visitor.


Responses: the strategies that work best to restore order, promote a return to learning and deal with crises when they occur.


Relationships: interpersonal skills, body language, for example, but also the appropriate use of prior data, personal well-being, and working with parents, carers, etc. These are intimately tied up with cognitive and affective empathy.





Great teachers often use humour and a competitive element, e.g. dividing the class into teams for activities. They respect every student in the class, act promptly on low level disruption, minimise confrontation by taking the sting out of situations and show empathy with students, grasping what they may be finding hard or threatening. They use eye contact and facial expression to communicate feeling, employ techniques such as tactical pausing and take-up time (allowing students to take in an instruction before they act on it). They rarely shout; indeed they may speak deliberately quietly to gain more attention. They’re well-organised, business-like and punctual. They’re not over-bearing, but employ what can be termed “relaxed vigilance”. All of this is part of what it means to be assertive. Teachers new to the profession often don't realise how much power they can wield if they just do it.



They make effective use of their physical presence, e.g. they don’t always stand or sit in the same place in the classroom. They move to the back when all the class is focused on reading aloud from the board, creating the feeling that the class and teacher are working together. They sometimes place themselves near unsettled students or they gently move towards students who may be at risk of going off-task, having a quiet word in their ear rather than making a fuss in front of the class. They don’t create a distraction by moving around too much.



Great teachers sometimes award points or certificates for positive behaviour and achievement, tracking them over a period of time. They don’t praise in a routine way, but selectively and often confidentially, beyond the hearing of the class. They always show respect and never belittle any student. If they feel the need to criticise a class for poor behaviour or work, they quickly move on in a positive manner. They try not to let a bad lesson get them down; the students will forget it more quickly than the teacher. They’re usually “authentic”, i.e. when they show disappointment, anger or pleasure it’s because these feelings are genuinely felt. In general, they have a “no excuses” attitude, with a degree of flexibility, showing that they care by expecting the highest standards.



The best teachers are aware of motivational theories such as self-efficacy, i.e. the strength of one's belief in the ability to complete tasks and reach goals. They manage to create in their students the self-belief they need to persist with activities. They do everything they can to build confidence and remove anxiety in students. Equally they know how much students are driven by instrumental goals, e.g. getting a good grade in the exam, as well as, for some, integrative goals such as wanting to be part of the TL culture and community.



A sense of responsibility and pride can be engendered in students in a number of ways, e.g. as we’ve seen, you can get individuals to lead the class, or they can run a club, teach a partner or a younger student. You can send a postcard home to parents praising an achievement, relay a message to a class tutor or nominate someone “student of the month”. You can use exercise books as a privileged, confidential means of communication, praising or requesting improvement where needed. You can write a personal note to students and request a reply. Class exchanges, study trips, Skype sessions, Facebook groups and email exchanges can all enhance students’ integrative motivation.



Crucially an effective teacher has highly-developed empathy skills. What does this mean?



Cognitive empathy


This is the capacity to understand another's perspective or mental state. In teaching we can say that it refers to the teacher’s ability to marry every level of their teaching (e.g. planning lessons, classroom delivery, feedback provision, target-setting, homework) to their students’ thinking processes. We could break it down as follows:


1.  An awareness of the cognitive challenges posed by language learning in general and by the specific language items you’re teaching. For example, knowing that the learning of adjective agreement is tough for English-speaking students because the concept doesn’t exist in English; or anticipating that direct and indirect object pronouns in French will be especially hard because of the word order problems they create; or being aware of the challenges posed by the German case system.


2.  An understanding of how students respond to such challenges. This involves an awareness of how cognition in a language learning context is affected by individual variables, e.g. age group, gender, personality type, culture, etc. For example, younger students usually find it harder than older ones to apply grammatical rules taught explicitly. Some topics appeal to some groups more than others, depending on the make-up and background of the class.


Affective empathy


Also called emotional intelligence, this is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another's affective state. For the teacher this can work at a whole class level (feeling the general mood) or at an individual level (sensing at any moment how a student might be reacting emotionally to the task they’re doing).

Effective teachers seem either to do these things instinctively (the so-called “natural teacher”) or have learned to exercise them through reading, training or experience. Teachers who begin their careers very successfully enhance their skills with time and deliberate practice, while others who initially find the classroom hard can turn into excellent practitioners.



Learning aspects of cognitive empathy is easier for most teachers than mastering affective empathy, since you can, by contrasting English and the TL anticipate what will be easier and harder. For example, adjectival agreement, gender and tense usage are bound to be issues for English-speaking learners of European languages. A sound knowledge of second language teaching methodology is also easy to acquire, namely understanding the principles of natural language acquisition and second language acquisition theories.



Showing social and emotional intelligence requires observing and listening to students carefully, picking up any visual or spoken clues to their mood and detecting any relationship patterns between students. You can help the process along by effective assessment for learning (formative assessment) techniques, e.g. asking students how they feel about what they’ve learned, what their attitudes are to language learning, specific activity types and non-English-speaking cultures. Teachers with well-developed cognitive and affective empathy are able to avoid confrontation, be positive, make students feel cared for and self-assured, while not becoming over-anxious when things don’t go as planned. Anxiety spreads anxiety. Some teachers are, of course, more compassionate than others, but in general the more a teacher is able to look out to others rather than look in to themselves, the better.



It comes down to something Bill Rogers (2015) has written about:  when students talk about their teachers they may mention subject-related matters, but they’re more likely to talk about the kind of teacher they have, whether they teach well and interestingly, and whether they’re fair, considerate, patient and have a sense of humour. Above all they talk about whether their teachers care.


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