Dealing with low-level disruption in the classroom

Lee Reid

Before becoming a teacher, Lee Reid worked as a research scientist investigating new treatments for neuropsychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and depression. He has been teaching for six years and is presently a senior leader in a large comprehensive school in Sussex. He is particularly interested in research that evaluates best practice to improve the attainment of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

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“Something wicked this way comes” is a phrase that every teacher I know can relate to. You don’t have to be a fan of The Bard’s wonderfully evocative imagery to know that within every classroom there exists, just beneath the surface, a complex interplay of social and emotional dynamics that if expressed can make teaching almost impossible - unless one is mindful of the emergent possibilities and exquisitely judicious when dealing with the consequences, should they be necessary.

All too often the managerial mantra that I am expected to espouse, when asked to grapple with persistent episodes of disruption, is to focus on the quality of teaching to ensure that the progress is outstanding. After all, engaged students that make outstanding progress do not misbehave, since they are in thrall to the wondrous vista of learning opportunities provided by a well-planned lesson delivered with considerable forethought and panache. Am I right? Well, the answer to that is of course, yes and no.

"We must put vulnerable children at the front and centre of our compassion and concern."

Not once during the course of my career have I regretted the time spent planning a lesson. Good lessons are built upon the solid foundation of carefully executed plans, and I am beguiled every day by the creativity and sheer excellence of the lessons that my team consistently provide to their students. However, there are times when Jesus Christ himself could miraculously reveal himself to a classroom full of students whilst joyously proclaiming the revelation of the Second Coming and the outcomes would be the same. Heads on desks, furtive texting beneath the table, expressionless eyes, a room full of children who appear flagrantly bored and keen to articulate their contempt for the purpose or significance of the subject matter you’re enthusiastically attempting to explain. This isn’t conjecture. This is a truism that every teacher in the land has experienced at one time or another.

The phrase most commonly used to describe this depressing state of affairs when encountered is ‘low-level disruption’, a phrase that myself and many of my colleagues revile. Recently I heard an experienced representative from an outside agency use the phrase ‘low-level distraction’ instead which evoked an involuntary spasm of contempt that I barely managed to disguise. Disruption, distraction? Who cares? Let’s be candid and stop tinkering with vocabulary. Let’s call it what it is, which is this: intolerable.

The issue of behaviour in schools is not just a rich and endlessly entertaining source of gallows humour in the staff-room. It is also the subject of serious academic research and debate. One of the best recent articles on the subject was published last year by Terry Haydn, a professor in the Department of Education at University of East Anglia (UEA). The paper sets out in very clear and entertaining prose the magnitude and scope of the problem. For example, the following passage may evoke in you, as it did in me, a wry smile of recognition:

"There are very few things in professional life less edifying than being, in effect, locked in a room with 30 children not fully under your control. In England, over 40% of teachers leave the profession within five years of qualification, and difficulties in coping with poor pupil behaviour emerges as one of the most commonly cited reasons for leaving teaching (Cockburn & Haydn, 2004; Barmby, 2006). In addition to learning deficits caused by poor classroom climate, Ronfeldt et al. (2013) have pointed out that high levels of teacher attrition and turnover also have a damaging effect on pupil attainment.”

So, let’s be absolutely clear: all the best available evidence strongly suggests that behaviour of students in English secondary schools today is a serious and substantial problem that is impeding the progress and limiting the attainment of many thousands of talented children year after endless year. The prevailing wisdom is that we must be flexible, we must be tolerant and we must put vulnerable children at the front and centre of our compassion and concern. Who would argue with that? Certainly not me, but the real question is “how”?

Despite, or perhaps because of, the volatile and wholly unpredictable nature of each teaching day, I remain fascinated by our profession. It really is among the most worthwhile and rewarding occupations I can envisage. What frustrates me is that the solution to the overwhelming majority of behavioral issues described in the research and endured in schools is so simple, so straightforward, so achievable and yet so rarely observed.

Implacable whole-school consistency is the key, articulated and enforced by the headship team in your school. Even with a clear behaviour policy in place, it is vital that teachers do what they can to establish the expectations for each and every class at the start of the year and reinforce those expectations in a completely uncompromising manner. I refer to it as a ‘class contract’. The precise wording will vary from teacher to teacher, but the basic principles are these:

1. Always listen while I am talking.
2. Always raise your hand to ask a question.
3. Always come prepared.
4. Always treat each other with respect.
5. Always try your best.
6. Always remember that here is no such thing as a stupid question.

Once these expectations have been shared with the class, the approach I personally adopt and advocate to my staff is to simply leave the room for a few minutes, leaving the students to contemplate and discuss the novel possibility of establishing a learning environment completely free from ‘distraction’ and to ponder the eccentric behaviour of a teacher who would dare to simply walk out, trusting them to have a sensible conversation and to reach sensible conclusions. On my return I ask the students whether any of the propositions are unreasonable or contentious. Unsurprisingly, students almost never question them because they are axiomatic.

"Students don’t require three warnings to remind them how to behave."

Another major advantage of the ‘class contract’ is that it completely obviates the need for warnings and reminders in class. Far too often I observe lessons in which the beleaguered teacher spends significant amounts of time at a whiteboard festooned with student names written underneath sad or smiley faces and highlighted by ticks and crosses indicating compliance or otherwise with the most basic standards of conduct. What a pointless waste of time and energy! Students don’t require three warnings to remind them how to behave.
The class contract has been established by mutual agreement and there are no warnings, since students are swiftly removed at first breach of contract and a sanction is applied. This sends out a very clear and unambiguous message which can initially be perceived as rather startling but very quickly gives rise to a calm and purposeful learning environment.

Without the committed support of an excellent management team this approach can be difficult to maintain. However, with support it simply works and empowers your students to relax and enjoy the uniquely rewarding pleasures that learning should always provide. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Too good to be true perhaps? You may do it already, but if you don’t, give it a try. I think you’ll like it, and I think your students will too.

Do you use similar tactics in your school? Let us know in the comments.

[Photo Credit: Associated Press]

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