The Temper Trap

During my PGCE year, my university often ran workshops during the study weeks that would supplement our classroom experiences while enhancing our ability to reach the Core Standards. One such workshop was about, or rather it was entitled, ‘Behaviour Management’. A frightfully misleading term used in professional practice to encompass everything from dealing with low level disruption to what to do in the event of a chair being thrown at you. It infers that you, the teacher, can ‘manage’ the behaviour of others. There is no other profession in the world that encourages this. Just look at any other work place that deals with people for comparison. Posters like the one below adorn the walls of hospitals, train stations and shops up and down the country. Their message is clear. It is the responsibility of those accessing the service provided to control their own behaviour.

By contrast, in teaching, we take the complete opposite approach. In the absence of such a policy we have adopted a culture of tolerance and understanding (try to remember that the people we deal with are children). We attempt to manage the behaviour around us and are encouraged to believe that we can. There is little discussion of the role of our own behaviour.

In life BT, I had little call to consider the behaviour of others or my reaction to it. The only time I ever raised my voice was to attract attention in a crowd or when the background noise required it. I don’t enjoy the process of shouting and I don’t like how I feel afterwards. I thought of it as being a loss of control and, if I’m honest, judged others when they did. It is only since becoming a teacher however that I really understand for the first time that while it is a loss of control, it is also a release of emotions. I have written before about emotional responses to teaching and again find myself asking how healthy it all really is.

I had my first experience of properly raising my voice last term when I reacted to a pupil’s constant interruptions by shouting. It had been a long day, my lesson wasn’t going as well as I’d have liked and this particular pupil often interrupts me and others. We had reached the third (or even fourth time) and I had had enough. It wasn’t just that I raised my voice, it was also that I sounded angry. It was completely out of character for me as a person and a teacher (I frequently separate the two) and my class reacted accordingly: with complete silence and shock. I sent the child outside and asked the TA to supervise the next activity. Once outside I did the only thing I could; I apologised. We had a restorative conversation about how we could avoid the same thing happening again and went back inside. The lesson moved on and while the pupil showed no sign of bearing a grudge, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, somehow, I had crossed a line. That I had fallen into the temper trap.

Not one of my behaviour management workshops addressed this. That at times I might have to manage my own reactions. All the strategies we discussed and role played were focused on the other individuals in the equation, the children. It was assumed that we, the adults, would be in perfect control of our own reactions at all times.

I have, of course, come to realise that everyone in the classroom is only human and with this humanity comes inevitable failings. For the children this will mean not being able to control their outbursts despite repeated warnings that they must. For the teacher this will mean losing patience when workshop guaranteed ‘behaviour management’ techniques fail them. The key for both is to have a way back. To be able to have that restorative conversation.

So how can we avoid the temper trap?

Here are some techniques I use in my classroom. They may or may not have been suggested at workshops.

1. Wait for silence. This is still the best advice I was ever given and I stick to it rigidly – I never talk when they are.

2. Have the starter on the table when they come in – there is a reason why this is recommended. When I haven’t planned this part of my lesson properly I really see it in their behaviour. 

3. Reward those doing the right thing. It helps create a positive vibe.

4. Give everyone a break. If it’s not going well, throw it out and do something else.