When I was training to be a teacher I worked for a short time at quite a rough comprehensive school in the south of England.
One of my classes was a year 9 science group and my mentor had forewarned me about certain class members who were known to cause major problems. The worst known offender - we’ll call him Sean - ambled into our first scheduled lesson late, as was predicted by my mentor, the usual class teacher. He looked intrigued by the new student teacher standing awkwardly at the front of the room, and proceeded to dominate the lesson and command my attention for the next 45 minutes.
Sean did a marvellous job of preventing me from doing my job – teaching him ands the rest of his classmates. At the end of the lesson, the class rushed out at the sound of the bell, and I was not surprised by the ‘told you so’ expression on the face of my mentor.
I was ready for Sean next lesson. I met the class outside the room and let them in to get on with some work I’d left on the board, then waited at the door for Sean, late of course. He didn’t keep me waiting as long this time and as he strolled towards the classroom I casually leaned against the door, blocking his entry, and smiled.
“Sean, can I have a quick word? Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble.”
“What d’you want?”
“Well the truth is… all I want is what you want.”
“Eh?”. He was hesitant, of course.
“I’m guessing that what you want is to have an easy life, right?”
“Aye”, he grinned and seemed to relax somewhat.
“After all, none of us want to have a hard time, do we? And I know you’re bright enough to know what you have to do to avoid that. Sean, I know you probably find a great deal of school life to be a waste of time, right? But you also know that if you get in trouble you’ll spoil your chances of doing well. I want to help you do well, because if you can do well, you’ll have an easier life. So tell me Sean – what can I do to make the lessons a bit easier for you?”
He was clearly taken aback. I went on to tell him that I wanted to make sure the lessons were of use to him. The message I tried to get over was that I wanted to help him, I wanted him to do well. Then, quite unexpectedly, he told me that he struggled to understand sometimes, and had difficulty reading the textbooks. I sensed his relief once he had got this admission out of his system. The ice was breaking.
We made a deal, and agreed a few strategies that would help us both. I reminded him what was expected of him in class but that rather than reprimanding him straight away, I would quietly remind him if his attention strayed. We made up a few private hand signals so that the rest of the class wouldn’t have to be distracted and I arranged to have text enlarged for him. I promised I would try to include videos and practical activities (which he said he enjoyed) in as many lessons as I could. It was amazing how thankful he seemed in response to this little display of concern for his welfare and support.
That lesson, and the rest of my lessons with that class, were very different from then on. A 3-minute conversation had completely changed his behaviour.
He didn’t try to dominate the lessons. In fact, quite the opposite. He became my greatest ally. If there was too much noise I just had to give Sean a nod and he would manage to sort it out. Sean was one of the toughest, roughest lads in the year group and was aware of his influence over his peers - when he told the class to be quiet, they obeyed.
I’m sure you’ve heard it said that our most difficult students tend to be those with leadership potential and a dire need for responsibility. That was certainly the case with Sean.
I noticed some big changes in Sean over the next few weeks. He was never late. Often, he would be first in class and last to leave. Just a few words, a brief chat, a little recognition and some care had been all he wanted. He tried much harder in lessons; not for rewards, not for stickers, not to escape detention. Perhaps it was because he wanted to impress me, perhaps it was because he wanted more attention, perhaps it was because he had a greater sense of worth and felt more capable. Whatever the reason, the fact was he was putting in more effort without the need for reward systems, bribes or sanctions. He was punctual, he was pleasant and he was a real asset to the class.
We could treat every confused, lost, angry, hurt child as a troublemaker. But when we do so, nobody wins. We don’t change kids for the better by coldly and mechanically punishing them. Beneath all the anger, all the animosity is a kid that needs support, needs listening to, needs understanding.
What changed Sean in this particular instance wasn’t some unattainable, elusive ‘gift’ that some teachers seem to possess and others can only dream about. It wasn’t the school’s perfectly organised behaviour policy. It wasn’t an ‘all singing, all dancing’ lesson filled with exciting activities. It wasn’t a series of tangible rewards nor was it the threat of a hierarchy of increasingly severe consequences. It wasn’t even the result of praise and encouragement lavished on the boy every time he did something right. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things of course; they all help and have their place in our schools. But the one thing that always makes such a noticeable difference with the Seans of this world is that he was made to feel valued and cared for.
Kids like Sean become problems in our schools largely because they feel disconnected. They feel that the school has nothing to offer them; they feel they don’t belong there. If we are to help kids like Sean we have to reach out to them, show them we care about them, and support them.
Making sure all students feel a sense of belonging is at the heart of The Needs Focused Teaching Method.
If you’re interested in learning and applying this method in your school or classroom use the link below right now to check out the special Classroom Management Kit we've put together for you. It includes a comprehensive 'Fast Start' guide titled 'Improve Behaviour in a Week' together with two special collections of strategies and scripts to manage inappropriate classroom behaviour.