As a young teacher, learning how to handle misbehaving students in the classroom is one of the more daunting elements of the job. Strategies for dealing with challenging behaviour can be very personal, and there is no one-size-fits-all advice. So rather than me give you bullet-pointed advice, let me tell you about Kimber. He was one of those kids who will drive you not merely up the wall, but right up to the ceiling and out through the roof. Anyone who teaches for more than five minutes will know what I’m talking about. How to handle classroom discipline is a complex topic.
Kimber, round about thirteen, started to grow out of his wrists and ankles. He shot up. And his energy shot up with it. There was suddenly so much of him, and wherever he happened to be – like a school desk – the space available for him suddenly seemed so inadequate. Kimber was restless; he was a fidget; he was forever turning round; he couldn’t bear to miss looking at whatever sound attracted his radio-telescope ears.
He was not a bad lad. True, not one of your great intellects. They could have drained brains like Kimber’s out of England till the cows came home, and the nation’s genius bank would not have been diminished by more than half a per cent. Nor did he have what one might call a thirst for knowledge. Most of his resources in a classroom were devoted to keeping his backside in some kind of proximity to the seat of his desk and his front facing forwards. Sitting still must have been agony for him.
But he was not antagonistic. He did not plan mayhem before the teacher came into the room. He was not a smart-arse who was always on the look-out for a chance to win a verbal duel with authority. He did not inject disruptive comment into the proceedings; he did not spoil sensitive moments which the teacher had laboured for half the lesson to set up; he did not spend time thinking up awkward questions.
He was a cheerful, self-deprecating, over-limbed lad who had no intellectual pretensions whatever, and who regarded school as just something you got by as you got by everything else. There was no malice in him.
Types of misbehaviour in the classroom
There is an endless array of different types of misbehaviour, ranging from playfully mischievous to downright malevolent. So what was it about Kimber? Why was he such a pain? Well, of course he wasn’t a pain to anybody else; he was only a pain to a teacher. And it was because he was such a pain to a teacher that the rest of the class found him a source of entertainment; anything which made Sir go bananas must be a hoot.
So – to repeat – why was he such a pain?
Well, think for a moment of what teachers constantly demand – peace and quiet, bowed heads, the heavy breathing of total concentration on the task in hand, the scratch of twenty-five or thirty pens and pencils moving in beaverish unison, interrupted only the rasp of a pencil-sharpener or the rustle of yet another page of the exercise book being turned over.
But teachers are not satisfied even with that; they want similar silence when equipment is being given out, books are being distributed, cupboards and drawers are being closed, and pupils are being paired off with each other. Student behaviour never measures up. There is not a single movement in a classroom which can be done to the teacher’s satisfaction if the slightest murmur intrudes. ‘Quietly!’ It’s the only adverb they know.
To these aspirations, therefore, Kimber was total anathema. He was a walking virus to the computer programme of the lesson. Turning round involved talking, of course. Kimber was a sociable soul; he wanted to know how his mates were getting on; what they thought of the problem in front of them (like him, not much); how long they thought it would take; whether the rest of it would be set for homework; how they could get out of doing homework altogether; what was school lunch going to be today; had they noticed that Sir’s shoelace was undone, and that, with any luck, he might trip over – good for a laugh any time; had they seen the latest episode of Doctor Who; and did they know the one about the gym teacher, the hockey stick, and the pink garter. Student behaviour isn’t always about misbehaviour, more frequently its just annoying behaviour.
So when contemplating the issue at hand – how to handle misbehaving students – the approach must take account of a complex landscape of interactions and nuances.
How to handle misbehaving students in class
What about the teacher’s sense of order? Surely he could control his class, couldn’t he? There was such a thing as verbal correction. True. And turning wrath on to a single boy – pour encourager les autres? True again. Punishments, sanctions, detentions, keeping in, deprivation of privileges – was this list not enough for the most querulous of teachers?
Normally, yes. But then most classes did not contain a Kimber. You could impose the most draconian of penalties, and it would not limit his activities for more than a few minutes. After that, he would start again. It was not that he had any contempt, even disrespect, for the teacher; he probably quite liked him. I repeat, he was a sociable soul, with no malice.
He just forgot!
Or rather he suddenly thought of something else that simply had to be said to the boy behind or beside or in front of him, and its urgency drove all other thoughts out of his head (there was not room for very many at the best of times).
How to teach difficult students. Forget the rulebook!
There is no rulebook telling teaching how to teach difficult students and Kimber was a case in point. Threats could be dire, frantic, bloodcurdling, bone-chilling, or diabolically inspired. He was impervious beyond total deafness.
I developed a theory about Kimber. I reckoned that if you went into the room with a six-gun strapped to your hip and said, ‘The next boy to talk – I will shoot him,’ and a boy talked – and you shot him – Kimber would be talking five minutes later.
What happened to him? I have no idea. Probably went into some business or other which demanded camaraderie and resource, and there are plenty of those. Success does not depend solely upon academic laurels in school – perhaps fortunately for the anonymous majority. Lack of academic glory would never have held back Kimber; with his hail-fellow-well-mettery, he would have made ten times what the average schoolmaster earned. And he might well have sent his son to his old school, come in on parents’ evening, hobnobbed cheerily with his old teacher, and freely admitted that he had been a pain in the neck.
And the teacher would also have had to admit something: that, though it is easy to be driven right up the wall by the Kimbers of this world, it is difficult to remain really cross with them.
You do come down the wall in the end.
So, when all is said and done, learning how to handle misbehaving students is about learning to accept that the classroom is a diverse mix of personalities and, sometimes, you just have to accept that what you might see as misbehaviour, they just see as behaviour.
If you want to learn more about teaching, how to handle misbehaving students, or just to take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone, please take a look at my latest book, On Teaching, released in June 2019.