Some Ideas about Teaching



Controlling Difficult Classes

(Please find below the text of a paper I put round staff a while ago when we were suddenly faced with a 'monster class' one year! It is offered humbly, and I don't pretend that it is the whole story - but it helped to get us through the time, and people may find it of use.)

Controlling difficult classes

Where you find yourself having difficulty with a class – you need to go back to first principles. The following are ideas only, and are offered humbly. However, it strikes me that good control is based upon:

1. Teach well

Sometimes, faced with a problem class, the temptation is to fall back and back until all the tasks are undemanding, routine – and boring (and there is little wonder they get restless). Refuse to let them drive you back into poor teaching. Devise good lessons and insist on teaching them; a good lesson gives you the moral authority to demand co-operation.

2. Start every lesson in the pupils’ experience.

The first principle of teaching is: ‘Start where they are at, and take them where you want to go.’ When my lessons are going badly, it is usually because I am forgetting to start the lessons by placing the subject in the context of the pupils’ experience, and am simply pitching straight into the content – ‘Open your textbooks at . . .’
Always start by talking about a related topic that pupils know about.

3. Give the class your full attention

Be there waiting for the pupils when they arrive; and make it clear that interruptions are unwelcome. When they arrive, make it clear that they are welcome – if necessary, ACT happy! If the pupils are aware that you dislike them, what have you given them to do but spend the next hour trying to ‘get you back’?

4. Agenda

Start every lesson by telling the pupils what they will be doing – ‘You will be listening to me for the first 5 minutes, then we’re going to spend 10 minutes reading, then . . .’ etc. Keep to your promises.

5. Administration

Make sure that EVERYTHING you will use in the lesson is out and to hand. This applies, not just to the items you will need for/during the lesson, but to those things they will need in the lesson but may not bring (pen, pencil, crayons, rulers etc.). You need to think for them. Set up the lesson so that you won’t need to leave them/ turn your back on them for a moment.

6. Task Difficulty

Pupils often fuss because they do not properly understand what they have to do.

•  Make sure that the work tasks you are requiring them to do are simple enough for them to do – that they can read the passage, do the writing etc.

•  Make sure that they listen while you explain the task/ give them a written copy, so they know what to do!

•  Why not give them two-or-three tasks of differing difficulty and let them choose which one they want to do – e.g. either do the questions, do the cloze exercise or copy page n from the textbook. Most of them will choose the boring-but-easiest task – but it is their choice, so they have no right to complain.

•  [VITAL, and usually forgotten by teachers with discipline problems] Explain HOW you require them to do each task – in silence? working with a partner? etc. – and insist they work like this.

7. Concentration time and changeovers

Don’t expect a naughty, less-able class to do a task for a long time – they can’t hold their concentration. Split up the lesson into more, shorter segments than you would for a more able class. ‘Ring the changes’.
But remember that changeover times in a lesson are opportunities for disruption, so – when you change course in a lesson – have everything ready and there for the change (e.g. put the things out on their desks for the next phase while they are working on the previous phase), and make sure you explain clearly HOW they are to clear away the last activity and get ready for the next.

8. Silent Working

Build into each lesson plan a time when they will be sat doing some activity on their own in silence for a while (what they can manage, without being too ambitious). Insist on this as a crucial element and mark successful completion of this as an achievement (reward?). Make it clear that they must not even ask for help, but must sort out problems themselves – to disturb the silence in any way is to fail the task. Perhaps play some music (Mozart is supposed to be best) while they do this.

9. Social Engineering

Do not allow troublemakers to sit next to each other. Find the pupils who can work together without disrupting the lesson. Put the pupils where YOU want them in the classroom – it is your classroom – and don’t let them swarm in and choose for themselves. Do NOT move disruptive pupils to the centre front to be near you – it has no effect anyway. Put them at the fringes/back of the room, with at least one very good pupil between them and the rest of the class (‘buffer zone’). Fill the centre-front of the class with motivated, good pupils – it will change the whole climate of the classroom.
Sometimes just one or two pupils can disrupt the whole lesson. Come to an arrangement with a senior member of staff that those pupils will copy at the back of their room for a few lessons, and not come into yours at all until they are prepared to behave.
Mark out the troublemakers – not always the pupils who are giving you trouble – and isolate/deal with them.
Remember the truth, that most of the pupils at least want a quiet life, and to enjoy the lesson; those who arrive wanting trouble are a minority. Don’t let that minority sour the whole class for you.

10. Threats and bribes

With older/more able naughty classes, in the lessons immediately before break, lunchtime and home time, you can make it clear that, IF the class disrupts/delays your agenda, they WILL spend the time doing what you said. But they will do it in their time at break/ lunch/ after school. ‘I will have 1 hour’s work from you.’ But I generally don’t think the punishment route works as well as one would like, and I certainly don’t advise spending 10 minutes extra with the class you have problems with.

a.   If you do give them a punishment (e.g. 5 minutes extra work), write a big ‘5’ on the board and explain that they can win that time back with good behaviour. If you have any sense and opportunity, you will make sure that they have done so by the end of the lesson. And even if they haven’t, find an excuse (e.g. ‘SOME of you have been marvellous, and I don’t see why good pupils should suffer for the few naughty ones’) to go and get your break!

b.   I prefer the positive approach. With difficult classes, propose up-front something that they like at the end of the lesson (to watch 10 minutes of a film, have a quiz, play a game etc.). Every minute they delay the other items on your lesson agenda, of course, comes off their ‘nice time’ at the end – with, perhaps the same opportunity to ‘win back’ the time with good behaviour.

11. ‘Autumn Leaves’

‘Going wild’ with a naughty class is usually a mistake. Do not greet them with a tirade. Do not try to bully them into submission (you will stack up problems for yourself when they are older and bigger than you). Demand obedience, but be fair. Be assertive. Be calm and calming. Generally, let them settle like autumn leaves.

12. Divide and Rule

Fall out with a whole class rarely, and with caution. You cannot beat 30 pupils who are out to get you. If you have to get cross, do so with individuals, and make it clear – this is a nice class, with potential, but the lessons are being ruined for everybody by (at the most 4) named individuals. As the teacher, you will have to discipline those individuals for the benefit of the rest of the class. Some children find the teacher getting cross upsetting – always apologise to them for having to get cross with the other pupils.

13. Persistence

It is not necessary to win all the time, every lesson. But next lesson, walk in, and yet again demand proper behaviour. Don’t relax your standards. Don’t give up – a pupil who last lesson took you on and beat you, may not have the stomach for another battle. 90% of successful teaching is sheer damned, obstinate persistence.
The only failure is to stop trying – they are the sad staff. A teacher addressing discipline problems is doing what any teacher should, and what every teacher has to.

Aug 5 2003, 11:13 AM





To cite this page, use:   CLARE, JOHN D. (2003/2006), 'Controlling Difficult Classes',  at Greenfield History Site (