As September begins we all allow our thoughts to drift towards the inevitable. Whether it be the classes who will challenge us with their existing knowledge, or the ones who will challenge our ability to engage and manage their behaviour.
The idea of losing control of a class is still particularly terrifying to me, and I’m sure this does not change with experience. However, for me, this is not the ultimate fear I have about a new class. The behaviour that worries me the most is not even particularly subversive, it is simply that the pupils have a very different expectation of the classroom than I have. During my NQT pupils certainly took advantage of my naivety, the most common phrase in my classroom particularly from my year 11’s was “but Mr/Mrs lets us (insert bonkers demand/casual party atmosphere.)” For the first term I steadfastly ignored this and wrote it off as nonsense, but as I observed around the school I noticed that actually Mrs/Mr Blank Did allow music,feet on chairs, shouting out, sharing notes during assessments and throwing tennis balls at the teacher as a mini-plenary! Yes, really!
Needless to say as term two approached I began to question myself. Was I over killing classroom behaviour, I certainly wasn’t getting what I wanted consistently. Perhaps I was in the wrong school for the ethos I wanted – perhaps they’d behave if only I’d submit,give-in, let go…. I am a little ashamed to say that I tried all of the above, except the tennis balls (that seemed too much.) It worked, the kids were happier, lessons were easier and we actually got more done. It seemed grossly counter-intuitive. In giving in to the ethos of a small majority of ‘favourite’ teachers I’d got my classes on side.
However, by term three chaos reigned. Whatever magic skills these teachers had, I didn’t. I reverted back and when the children asked why, I regrettably told them it was because they had spoilt it ; in other words I told them explicitly I didn’t trust them.I have never made either of these mistakes since. I set out my rules and I stick to them doggedly, any adjustments are made because of a change in my beliefs not that cool Geography teachers.
This came as much through experience as anything else but recently I was reassured by this passage of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’
“Hiero the Syracusan…. rose from a private station to be Prince of Syracuse, nor did he, either, owe anything to fortune but opportunity; for the Syracusans, being oppressed, chose him for their captain, afterwards”
This reminds of a central message and most (in)famous quotes of ‘The Prince’, “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” I’m unsure if a teacher can be both,perhaps they should aim to be; it is much easier to maintain group control when all parties are pulling in the same direction. Hiero was elevated to his status by a sort of bottom up democracy, at least as Machiavelli sees it, and this may well be the ideal state for a teacher. Our subject knowledge and teaching skills may convince them to ‘elevate’ our status, without us needing to enforce it.
Importantly to me, Hiero was not an easy rider. Once elevated to Prince by the people he changed almost all the structures of the kingdom. Machiavelli writes:
“(Hiero) abolished the old soldiery, organised the new, gave up old alliances, made new ones; and as he had his own soldiers and allies, on such foundations he was able to build any edifice: thus, whilst he had endured much trouble in acquiring, he had but little in keeping(his kingdom.)”
He demolished and rebuilt, Machiavelli insists that this is an example of how leaders can maintain control easily once they have seized it. Of course, the initial stage is extremely difficult but it is worth it. I find huge solace in this passage and will be reminded of it when things get tough in that first term. Don’t get me wrong, I have no intention of having my students fear me. I take those terms to be two extremes, more applicable to keeping control of ancient kingdoms in troubled times.
Nevertheless, I do think the pupils in my room should feel secure in the expectations and know that these are consistent. There will be no return to Radio One while we work, or shared notes during assessments- no matter how cool the Geography teacher is. That said, I do hope that like Hiero my status is elevated not through force of will, but through shared purpose. I always explain the ‘why’ of my rules, and they are always in line with the staff handbook, that way there is at least of shared purpose and elevation option. As far ‘wowing’ with my skill, I can only put in the groundwork and hope the pupils feel (and, indeed are)successful in my room. Regardless, the solace will be enough for the tough times and the inevitable ‘but, we are allowed to in Geography!’
N.B I bare no ill will to Geography teachers, I just picked a subject with cool teachers!