Teacher credibility based not on personality but on Positivity, consistency and certainty

This concludes with some practical ideas to implement positivity, consistency and certainty in behaviour systems

You don’t need years of experience across several schools in differing contexts to be convinced that teachers with greater credibility in the eyes of the pupils are more effective at managing behaviour, indeed they have much less negative behaviour to deal with than others. Nonetheless the evidence has been gathered and is compelling in supporting the significance of teacher credibility too. The effect size on behaviour (typically measured by the reduction in disruptive behaviours in lessons) is a massive 0.9 putting it very close to the top of the elements behind effective classroom management.

The issue here is not, therefore, convincing staff of varying levels of experience that this intuitively obvious factor is as important as they always thought it was. Rather it is in demystifying how teacher credibility can be built and maintained within and across classes.

But why would such a commonly understood reality need demystifying at all? Teachers receive training during their Education degrees, PGCEs, Teach First inductions etc. in strategies to both manage behaviour in the round but also build credibility with classes of potentially unruly youngsters so that your teaching effectively has a chance to shine. This training has improved immeasurably since the ‘don’t smile until Christmas’ mantra shared 25 years ago and there are a wealth of resources available on the internet as well as staffrooms full of wise old heads giving sage advice to their younger colleagues.

In essence it is because the myth of the cult of personality still prevails and toolkits and strategies for improving behaviour are shared without being embedded. By default teachers are taking these back to their isolated rooms to apply on their own. Unless strategies are applied consistently across lessons teachers will fail to support each other and will miss the chance to put expectations beyond the question of pupils. We need to remove all variability from the consequences of pupils’ choices and can only do that together. For that reason systematic shared practice lays at the heart of the most effective school wide management systems.

The Myth of the Cult of Personality

Behaviour training sessions are usually amongst the most popular with staff. Though leadership teams implore them to focus on teaching and learning, literacy, raising achievement and engaging with pupil voice – staff in the trenches welcome input on the issue that keeps them awake at night before returning from holiday – will they still listen to me? Everyone empathises with the strategies given, recognises the scenarios shared where it goes wrong and can at least remember one lesson where they deployed the approaches suggested to good effect. Behaviour training reassures that we are all in the same boat, reminds us that this can be achieved and encourages us to try again with the pupils we have been unable to reach.

Behaviour training is engaging, accessible and rarely taxing. It is also passionately and impressively delivered by someone who will assure you that you need no special ingredients – just ‘these ideas consistently applied’. There is absolutely no need for the element that has kept you enthralled for the last hour (or more). That element is, of course, the incredible charisma that they have oozed, leaving you wanting more and rushing to request more at your next INSET day. This is a microcosm of what we do too often with classroom management – we implicitly suggest the opposite of what we preach and appear to prove that big, charismatic personalities will always be more successful in this regard.

The media reinforce this almost every time they portray an inspirational teacher. Robin William’s portrayal of Professor Keating in Dead Poets Society encouraging his awe-struck pupils with cries of ‘Carpe Diem’, Hilary Swank’s Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers winning over disaffected inner city pupils to relate the horrors of the holocaust to their gang-affected realities, Michelle Pfieffer’s cringe worthy noting of ‘I do Karate’ on the board to win over a similar group in Dangerous minds, Morgan Freeman’s Joe Clark in Lean on Me – the list goes on and in every case charisma runs through the veins of our lead character – the heroic teacher.

None of this is helped by our own experiences of teachers who held classes in the palm of their hand – either through brilliance or terror – during our own education, some of whom even did the things we are not supposed to do (like roaring at children) yet managed to be effective because they just seemed so good at it. The hidden truth is that these teachers’ success was based on their consistency and certainty not the roaring itself. Classes learned how to avoid the roars because they were about the same things – typically uniform, talking out of turn, being late or running in a corridor.

So the myth of the cult of personality endures because:

• We have all seen it work (or at least think we have)

• The appeal of charisma and indeed authority (and potentially money – let us not ignore that a good number of these charismatic people are now in senior positions)

• We have experienced some success when attempting to emulate it

• Fundamentally it is too often misunderstood and we credit it with success when actually there is an underlying set of strategies and a consistency in their application that is bringing that success

But it is also damaging because:

• It is exhausting and close to impossible to maintain

• It can undermine colleagues who can’t emulate it

• It is incredibly difficult to support when things go wrong because it can be unpredictable and treacherous professionally

• Critically it adds uncertainty and inconsistency to pupils’ learning and

• Weakens the connection between pupil behaviour and consequences which lays at the heart of their real learning of how to conduct themselves

However we can build our credibility, together, by doing the right things consistently.

Each school needs to have principles which are non-negotiable and truly underpin all of its procedures in managing behaviour. The most effective of these that I have encountered have all been based on a variation of Positivity, Consistency and Certainty. These have then, in turn, been supported by strategies that all teachers engage in, contribute to but then commit to consistently applying in each of their class environments. This collective approach and corporate consistency sends a powerful message to pupils and reinforces the message that their choices need to be better.

Building Positivity, Consistency and Certainty

Positivity builds relatedness, gives alternative routes to attention and encourages and builds an atmosphere that is supportive of the effort to succeed and the freedom to fail. It keeps the door open for those that break rules and fall short of expectations to return to the conduct that is expected of them next time. It is the true source of inspiration, encouragement and openness to new ideas. Fundamentally it is the easiest and most powerful antidote to everything we encounter that is challenging in teaching.

Sadly it is too often the case that classrooms are filled exclusively with positive comments about learning and negative ones about behaviour. The clear message sent to pupils is that to get attention in this room you either contribute to and succeed at learning (not inherently a bad idea of course but requiring commitment and potentially challenging for some pupils) or you misbehave – which is clearly the easier option.

Some things to try:

• Learn and use the pupils’ names

• Follow your instructions by catching three pupils doing the right thing. This will instantly change the ratio of positives in your room to the good. It will also implicitly repeat your instructions three times, give you a chance to demonstrate that you are noticing all parts of your classroom and finally make any warning given to a pupil still not doing the right thing inherently fair – after all they were ‘told’ four times!

• Make positive phone calls – weekly is sufficient

• Give pupils notice if they are to be asked to contribute / answer a question then check privately that they are confident if the question is challenging

• Remember and refer to pupils’ successes regularly

Consistency is the backbone of classroom management as it is around a fair, predictable structure of expectations and consequences that the pupils learn to make better choices. Within classrooms we need to endeavour to limit the variables to what we are teaching and the choices that the pupils make. This logically limits their learning to how to learn more effectively and how to manage their choices in order to experience preferable outcomes and consequences.

This consistency comes through effective planning of systems, expectations, routines and curriculum delivery. When effectively managed it instils the confidence to step up to the learning challenges we put before pupils.

Some things to try:

• Ensure that your rules and consequences – positive and negative are displayed, referred to and adhered to at all times

• Structure your lessons in the same ways – hook, starter, teacher exposition, guided practice, plenary (for example)

• Use and update seating plans regularly

• Use common routines for managing instructions for example M.I.N.T. (Materials, In or out of seat, Noise Levels – which you define and practice – and Timing) then getting a pupil to repeat to check understanding

• Circulate the room regularly when pupils are working and check their books to increase accountability and show that you care what they write

• Mark their books regularly

Certainty is the real source of student trust in a teacher’s credibility. It does not need to be based in severity, in contrast severity actually builds resentment and encourages a view that things are personal and therefore variable. It is the indisputable reality that there will be follow through that helps pupils work out where the boundaries are and, through absolute faith in that certainty, stop questioning and challenging those outcomes.

In simple terms this means delivering on anything you say you are going to do. If pupils are certain you will follow through on consequences (positive and negative), but also that you will plan engaging lessons, that you will mark their work and that you will remember and refer their previous achievements they will ultimately stop challenging the boundaries of your expectations.

Some things to try:

• Keep all consequences (positive and negative) simple and practical – these should be easy for you to follow through and record as you said you would. A short detention on the same day or even straight after the lesson if at a natural break in the day is much easier and less likely to require chasing up if they miss it

• Have set times to record actions taken, to communicate with parents and to mark books. These are all more likely to happen if planned and made routine

• Include references to previous successes at similar tasks to those in the current lesson in your planning. Not only is this positive and a great aid to tackling any lack of confidence about a challenging task; done regularly this reinforces the sense that you remember and follow through.

Next time we will consider ways to develop common expectations of all lessons based on the most effective, evidence based approaches.

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