Stage 1: Moving from Blissful Ignorance to Recognising Stark Reality
When I started teaching, I thought that my experiences in my final year practicum had prepared me for managing student behaviour as a qualified teacher. My first week of relief teaching proved that I was wrong.
I attended my first Graduate Teacher Module with literally two days teaching to my name. At the time, I was heavily focussed on curriculum planning for literacy and numeracy, an area in which I was most definitely “consciously unskilled”, and had little time to think about classroom management.
Some disastrous relief teaching experiences over the coming months marked my remarkably swift transition from Level 1 to Level 2 on the “Conscious Competence Ladder”, as I realised just how unskilled I actually was. This was indeed a most “uncomfortable” and extremely stressful period, as the development of my classroom management skills became a matter of survival.
In June 2009, a review of my strengths and weaknesses revealed my significant issues with:
- Gaining student attention, without raising my voice to excess (to be heard over the chaos)
- Being fair and consistent with classroom discipline (particularly with ‘resistant’ behaviours)
- Establishing my personal expectations for student behaviour.
- Establishing a broad repertoire of graduated consequences, particularly for dealing with prolonged, more serious misbehaviour.
- An overreliance on humour to defuse classroom management situations, which tended to aggravate cheeky behaviours (A big thankyou to the CMS consultant who pointed this out)
- Establishing a repertoire of relief activities, games, and time-fillers for various year levels, helping to keep students on-task and interested on unplanned relief jobs (with no work left)
Moving from Level 2 into Level 3: Developing my Classroom Management Approach
Over the next three to four months, I made behaviour management a priority goal for for my personal professional development; engaging in widespread reading, collegial discussions, work-shadowing, and reflective writing. I particularly benefited from working with the DET Classroom Management Strategies (CMS)Trainers, where I observed teachers’ model lessons, and talked with the assessors about my developing management approach.
While working in Stage 2, I learnt one of the greatest lessons I ever learnt as a relief teacher. Through my observations of experienced teachers, and discussions about their behaviour management approach, I learnt that my colleagues were the greatest professional learning resource I was ever likely to meet, and that asking for help was not a sign of weakness.
One of the greatest resources I picked up on my relief travels, through about 13 schools at that stage, was a CMS PD handout, based on excerpts from Barrie Bennett & Peter Smilanich’s Classroom Management: A Thinking & Caring Approach.
I used this text’s detailed explanations of the “Theory of Bumps” and explicit strategy descriptions to guide my journal reflections and goal setting for experimenting and evaluating new management strategies. Over time, I documented improvements in my use of attention signals, managing transitions, use of graduated consequences, and efforts to win over my most troublesome students.
One journal entry from July 2009 brings back some interesting memories, as I recorded my reflections on my “ghosting” behind misbehaving/off-task students and standing there until they noticed my presence. I remember reading over my notes from Graduate Module 1, wondering if this approach was too frightening for the students. I was starting to realise that some students HATE surprises, and I was worried that it might provoke an unintended and perhaps violent reaction, despite my intention to lighten up the situation with a mock-serious ‘look’.
With several students commenting that I was “scary” or “evil”, due to this aforementioned practice, I decided to position myself in the offending students’ line of sight, and soon abandoned this potentially negative practice.
Working in Level 3: Noticing a significant reduction in my management challenges
Returning to relief teaching in February 2010, I began to notice a significant change in my classroom management approach.
- The student-teacher relationships I had worked so hard to foster in 2009 had led to a positive reputation amongst my students, and I was surprised by the level of enthusiasm I received in a variety of schools
- I had clear expectations for student behaviour and attention, and wasn’t afraid to sit the class down and explain them
- While continuing to express my ironic sense of humour, I was increasingly able to flexibly move to direct, explicit management strategies when the situation required
- I was increasingly using a variety of management strategies, flexibly changing my approach to suit the particular student or class I was teaching.
- I was finally starting to master my use of non-verbal and non-verbal techniques, and was improving in my management of lesson/class transitions
My increasingly confident management approach, accompanied by my experimentation with the use of instructional strategies to liven up boring relief activities, led to a marked reduction in my classroom management challenges – both inside, and outside the classroom.
In March 2010, I reflected on several classroom/playground incidents where I was able to effectively respond to medium to high level management challenges. I have decided to share some journal excerpts here:
I had a major management success recently which I managed to effectively deal with an emotionally unstable student’s outburst (screaming) in class. By the time the Deputy Principal (walking nearby) looked in to see what had happened, I had the class working normally with the student in question given space behind me to calm down. She had a nasty shock – and so did I.”
I did have one situation where I felt of my depth, where I had to deal with a Year 4 student verbally threatening and assaulting a fellow student. My initial priority was to remove the protagonist from the situation, and then talk to the victim. To complicate matters; however, the protagonist kept returning to dish out more, and thankfully a more experienced teacher was able to provide assistance. While I didn’t perform poorly in the situation, I have drawn some positive lessons which will help me deal with similar situations in the future.
Today, (11/3/10), I was placed in an extremely challenging Year 4/5 class at [school removed]. While the Deputy Principal assisted with several severely challenging students, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself keeping the class under (reasonable) control for nearly a whole day. I experimented with having students sitting on the mat at the day (and when introducing some activities), establishing my signals and behavioural expectations. I borrowed this technique from another relief teacher, and I strongly suspect it helped establish my control over the class.
Moving into Stage 4: Redefining my Self-Development Priorities
As I write this post in early Term 3, 2010, I feel I am finally starting to move into Stage 4 in the development of my behaviour management skills. While I am still working on a few niggling issues (e.g. controlling student movement between classrooms, working out tailored management steps for particular students), I have become a more confident and effective classroom manager in sometimes challenging relief situations.
I am now moving my professional development focus from managing student misbehaviour to developing my instructional skills, learning how to translate a teacher’s daily work-pad / relief notes into meaningful learning activities. Having recently engaged in a variety of professional learning workshops at the Professional Learning Institute’s Autumn and Winter Vacation Schools, I am now working to translate my broad professional knowledge into my relief teaching practice.
Experimenting with Year 6 Reading
A good example of this changing focus was a Year 6 reading lesson I taught earlier this week, when I was asked to “read through a [dense and wordy] information sheet about the Australian Gold Rush with students, and have them answer the comprehension questions on the back in their reading pads”.
While in the past I might have literally followed the teacher’s directions, I decided to experiment with encouraging students’ practice of the ‘scanning’ reading strategy. I asked the class to read the questions on the back of the sheet, and highlight paragraphs / sections of the text which would help them answer them.
After allowing time for silent reading & highlighting, students shared information from the text which they could use to respond to the questions. Before moving on to the writing component of the lesson, I asked if someone could explain why “I asked them to scan the text”. Asking one of my most challenging students to share his idea, I was shocked when he correctly and succinctly answered that it allowed him to “get the gist of the text without reading everything”.
I personally took a lot of personal satisfaction out of this session, as I have finally started finding opportunities to clarify & develop my literacy teaching practice following my engagement in First Steps professional development seminars. I will be exploring this changing focus in more detail in a later post.