Sunday, 18 September 2016

Re-Establishing Yourself

The most daunting thing about starting work at a new school is re-establishing yourself. I genuinely believe it is why many some staff end up as 'lifers'; in a stressful job, being an established member of staff takes away a whole lot of hassle. In a new school, you are a great unknown with no past, no legacy and no reputation. It's not that different to being the new kid in the playground.

After 5 years growing from a 22 year old NQT to established teacher and Head of House in my first school. This job had provided a steady learning curve, dealing with many challenges and difficulties; thankfully I learnt many behaviour management tricks and tips. The longer you spend in the classroom, the better you get. Even if you believe some people are born natural teachers, put them in front of a tough class and they no doubt struggle.
I moved schools for a promotion to second in department, and later had the opportunity as a Head of Year. However, my first year in my second school was tough, I had particularly difficulty KS4 classes who were not universally challenging, but certainly were in my lessons. I was doing everything that I believed (and still believe) to be right, but the students were trying me out.

Several staff said, "the girls here always give new staff a rough ride". I'm not entirely sure of their intention with this. I'm also not sure about the (supposed) Bill Rogers quote I've been told on numerous occasions... "They are just testing to see if you are good enough to teach them" - I always wonder why can't they do this by waiting, listening and evaluating? Why do they have to do this by shouting out, humming or refusing to work? 

The point naturally came, eventually, when behaviour management became far less of an issue for me. It was an all-girls school, where there is always the opportunity for low level disruption, distraction and non stop chat. There was also naturally instances of outright defiance and rudeness. However, once I was established, these issues became far less.
I had set out my ground rules, not just in my first lesson, but over a longer period of time. Students knew what I would tolerate and what was not acceptable. Even if I had never taught them. Crucially I also knew all the 'characters'. By the time I was HoY 11, they were usually 'my characters'. I built a reputation of being fair, but firm. Relentless, but forgiving. 

They also knew me. They knew my wife (who also worked in the school), they had met my little son, knew I had met Pope Francis, supported Southend United, loved Bruce Springsteen, enjoyed watching Westerns, went to St Joseph's parish church... These things matter. This comes from working somewhere for five years and putting a little of yourself into your lessons and having normal human interactions with all that you encounter. 

Sadly too often you don't realise exactly how established you are, or what you mean to students and colleagues until either they leave, or you leave. I've always found it a humbling and emotional experience. Leaving a school, and your position of establishment, often gives a great sense of affirmation and realisation - you have done, at the least, a decent job and positively influenced the lives of those around you. 

It was one of the things that kept me up at night during the latter stages of the summer holidays. It's certainly the reason that many people don't move schools. How do I start again? How do I get back to where I was?

I think first of all, you need to realise that it will take a while. I'd suggest at least half a term to fully establish yourself with your classes, perhaps best part of a year with other students (and of course new colleagues). Students are creatures of habit (Do your 6th form always sit in the same seats even though you have no seating plan?), and like to know exactly what the boundaries are - even if they still then kick back against them. 

My suggestions:
  1. Seek out the behaviour, and reward, systems. What sanctions can you use? Use them early, but wisely. A few detentions shows you mean business. Send a student out, call home, write an email or two. Show your students your expectations are high. Don't escalate everything too quickly though. 
  2. Explicitly give your expectations. A first lesson that has part of it dedicated to copying down a set of rules / expectations is time well spent. Revisit as and when necessary. That may be every lesson to start with. 
  3. Deliver the best lessons you can. Poor behaviour is not always the result of the teaching, but if you can show you know your stuff and you are willing to put time and effort into your lessons, it will get noticed.
  4. Follow things through. Always. Don't let a student get away with not turning up to a detention, or it will be hassle for the rest of your time in school. Equally, don't turn a blind eye. Students will work out your weakness and exploit them. 
  5. Be a visible presence. Volunteer for lunch duty, get out in the corridors. Challenge uniform. Confront behaviour. You will become known quickly.
It's not easy, but it will get easier. You will make mistakes, but you'll get most of it right. Don't give up, and ask for guidance and support. Some things will be out of your control, but lots you can try and sort.

If you have new staff establishing or re-establishing themselves, help them out. Don't undermine them, or patronise them though. Find out who is causing the issues and do something about it. Behaviour management is a team game. It's important to be playing together, and all with the same goals.