The Four Stages in the Context of my Teaching Practice

Stage 1: Moving from Blissful Ignorance to Recognising Stark Reality

When I started teaching, I thought that my experiences in my final year practicum had prepared me for managing student behaviour as a qualified teacher. My first week of relief teaching proved that I was wrong.

I attended my first Graduate Teacher Module with literally two days teaching to my name. At the time, I was heavily focussed on curriculum planning for literacy and numeracy, an area in which I was most definitely “consciously unskilled”, and had little time to think about classroom management.

Some disastrous relief teaching experiences over the coming months marked my remarkably swift transition from Level 1 to Level 2 on the “Conscious Competence Ladder”, as I realised just how unskilled I actually was. This was indeed a most “uncomfortable” and extremely stressful period, as the development of my classroom management skills became a matter of survival.

In June 2009, a review of my strengths and weaknesses revealed my significant issues with: 

  • Gaining student attention, without raising my voice to excess (to be heard over the chaos)
  • Being fair and consistent with classroom discipline (particularly with ‘resistant’ behaviours)
  • Establishing my personal expectations for student behaviour.
  • Establishing a broad repertoire of graduated consequences, particularly for dealing with prolonged, more serious misbehaviour.
  • An overreliance on humour to defuse classroom management situations, which tended to aggravate cheeky behaviours (A big thankyou to the CMS consultant who pointed this out)
  • Establishing a repertoire of relief activities, games, and time-fillers for various year levels, helping to keep students on-task and interested on unplanned relief jobs (with no work left)

Moving from Level 2 into Level 3: Developing my Classroom Management Approach

Over the next three to four months, I made behaviour management a priority goal for for my personal professional development; engaging in widespread reading, collegial discussions, work-shadowing, and reflective writing. I particularly benefited from working with the DET Classroom Management Strategies (CMS)Trainers, where I observed teachers’ model lessons, and talked with the assessors about my developing management approach.

While working in Stage 2, I learnt one of the greatest lessons I ever learnt as a relief teacher. Through my observations of experienced teachers, and discussions about their behaviour management approach, I learnt that my colleagues were the greatest professional learning resource I was ever likely to meet, and that asking for help was not a sign of weakness.

One of the greatest resources I picked up on my relief travels, through about 13 schools at that stage, was a CMS PD handout,  based on excerpts from Barrie Bennett & Peter Smilanich’s Classroom Management: A Thinking & Caring Approach.


I used this text’s detailed explanations of the “Theory of Bumps” and explicit strategy descriptions to guide my journal reflections and goal setting for experimenting and evaluating new management strategies. Over time, I documented improvements in my use of attention signals, managing transitions, use of graduated consequences, and efforts to win over my most troublesome students.

One journal entry from July 2009 brings back some interesting memories, as I recorded my reflections on my “ghosting” behind misbehaving/off-task students and standing there until they noticed my presence. I remember reading over my notes from Graduate Module 1, wondering if this approach was too frightening for the students. I was starting to realise that some students HATE surprises, and I was worried that it might provoke an unintended and perhaps violent reaction, despite my intention to lighten up the situation with a mock-serious ‘look’.

With several students commenting that I was “scary” or “evil”, due to this aforementioned practice, I decided to position myself in the offending students’ line of sight, and soon abandoned this potentially negative practice.

Working in Level 3: Noticing a significant reduction in my management challenges

Returning to relief teaching in February 2010, I began to notice a significant change in my classroom management approach.

  • The student-teacher relationships I had worked so hard to foster in 2009 had led to a positive reputation amongst my students, and I was surprised by the level of enthusiasm I received in a variety of schools
  • I had clear expectations for student behaviour and attention, and wasn’t afraid to sit the class down and explain them
  • While continuing to express my ironic sense of humour, I was increasingly able to flexibly move to direct, explicit management strategies when the situation required
  • I was increasingly using a variety of management strategies, flexibly changing my approach to suit the particular student or class I was teaching.
  • I was finally starting to master my use of non-verbal and non-verbal techniques, and was improving in my management of lesson/class transitions

My increasingly confident management approach, accompanied by my experimentation with the use of instructional strategies to liven up boring relief activities, led to a marked reduction in my classroom management challenges – both inside, and outside the classroom.

In March 2010, I reflected on several classroom/playground incidents where I was able to effectively respond to medium to high level management challenges. I have decided to share some journal excerpts here:

I had a major management success recently which I managed to effectively deal with an emotionally unstable student’s outburst (screaming) in class. By the time the Deputy Principal (walking nearby) looked in to see what had happened, I had the class working normally with the student in question given space behind me to calm down. She had a nasty shock – and so did I.”

I did have one situation where I felt of my depth, where I had to deal with a Year 4 student verbally threatening and assaulting a fellow student. My initial priority was to remove the protagonist from the situation, and then talk to the victim. To complicate matters; however, the protagonist kept returning to dish out more, and thankfully a more experienced teacher was able to provide assistance. While I didn’t perform poorly in the situation, I have drawn some positive lessons which will help me deal with similar situations in the future.

Today, (11/3/10), I was placed in an extremely challenging Year 4/5 class at [school removed]. While the Deputy Principal assisted with several severely challenging students, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself keeping the class under (reasonable) control for nearly a whole day. I experimented with having students sitting on the mat at the day (and when introducing some activities), establishing my signals and behavioural expectations. I borrowed this technique from another relief teacher, and I strongly suspect it helped establish my control over the class.

Moving into Stage 4: Redefining my Self-Development Priorities

As I write this post in early Term 3, 2010, I feel I am finally starting to move into Stage 4 in the development of my behaviour management skills. While I am still working on a few niggling issues (e.g. controlling student movement between classrooms, working out tailored management steps for particular students), I have become a more confident and effective classroom manager in sometimes challenging relief situations.

I am now moving my professional development focus from managing student misbehaviour to developing my instructional skills, learning how to translate a teacher’s daily work-pad / relief notes into meaningful learning activities. Having recently engaged in a variety of professional learning workshops at the Professional Learning Institute’s Autumn and Winter Vacation Schools, I am now working to translate my broad professional knowledge into my relief teaching practice.

Experimenting with Year 6 Reading

A good example of this changing focus was a Year 6 reading lesson I taught earlier this week, when I was asked to “read through a [dense and wordy] information sheet about the Australian Gold Rush with students, and have them answer the comprehension questions on the back in their reading pads”.

While in the past I might have literally followed the teacher’s directions, I decided to experiment with encouraging students’ practice of the ‘scanning’ reading strategy. I asked the class to read the questions on the back of the sheet, and highlight paragraphs / sections of the text which would help them answer them.

After allowing time for silent reading & highlighting, students shared information from the text which they could use to respond to the questions. Before moving on to the writing component of the lesson, I asked if someone could explain why “I asked them to scan the text”. Asking one of my most challenging students to share his idea, I was shocked when he correctly and succinctly answered that it allowed him to “get the gist of the text without reading everything”.

I personally took a lot of personal satisfaction out of this session, as I have finally started finding opportunities to clarify & develop my literacy teaching practice following my engagement in First Steps professional development seminars. I will be exploring this changing focus in more detail in a later post.

The Conscious Competence Ladder: The Four Stages of Skill Development

As I learnt in Graduate Module 1, there are four stages in skill development, and this has particular relevance to teachers’ use of behaviour management strategies.   

I am currently seeking permission to reproduce a definition of this model from the MindTools website. Until then, please visit this link for a full definition.

The Four Stages

Level 1 – Unconscious Incompetence
(You Don’t Know that You Don’t Know)

Level 2 – Conscious Incompetence
(You Know that You Don’t Know)

Level 3 – Conscious Competence
(You Know that You Know)

Level 4 – Unconscious Competence
(You Don’t Know that You Know – It Just Seems Easy!)

Part 6: My Experiences with the Third ‘R’

Moving to a more student-centred curriculum

To date, my experience with the Third ‘R’ has been limited to a form of curriculum negotiation in my Year 3 class of 2008, but what a story I have to tell …

As I began my teaching experience, exploring our Under the Sea theme, my initial planned learning experiences were primarily teacher-directed. Over the course of those eight weeks  I learnt how to facilitate open-ended learning tasks, encouraged students’ sharing of their prior knowledge and experiences,  learnt to keep my “teacher talk” to a minimum, and (unwittingly) tapped into a wealth of community knowledge.

A good example of my early approach was the science lesson about fish adaptations, which saw students observe, handle and draw the features of real (dead) fish. This highly authentic and extremely unusual activity created quite a stir amongst staff and students; and while it achieved the desired learning outcomes, some students’ still live in “fear” of Mr Graffin’s “little friends” returning to haunt them!

18.01.2008 102 18.01.2008 103

Negotiating the Curriculum to Reflect Students’ Experiences, Knowledge, and Interests

As I became more confident in planning and facilitating student learning, I began to inquire into my students’ lives and communities through my “Fishing Equipment” & “Fishing Letters” activities. While I initially perceived this as a natural extension of my teaching, this change represented a fundamental shift in my theoretical understandings of my teaching practice, moving towards encouraging students’ active involvement in the learning process. 

Halfway through the term, I decided that students would write letters to inquire into the commercial fishing industry, supporting their achievement of the Society & Environment – Investigation, Communication & Participation outcomes.

As a prelude, I invited parents and students to share their fishing expertise and experiences with the class. The response blew me away, as they brought lobsters pots, fishing rods, shells, crab pots, a tackle box, diving float, mussel floats, rope splicing equipment, and even a GPS unit to class, much of which they loaned for our Open Night displays.

Picture 041Picture 058Picture 020

My students happily spent an entire lesson examining the different types of fishing equipment, and I had several boys and girls, including “Roy”, enthusiastically teach the entire class (and the teacher!) about how they used fishing rods, crab pots, and hand-reels in their lives. I discovered Roy’s deep love of mussels (shellfish) and interest in crabbing; and learnt that another student’s father ran a local mussel farm.

This activity marked a turning point for Roy, the most challenging student in the class. I had finally found a topic which he was interested in, and about which he could contribute his knowledge to the class. From this movement forward, I noted a significant decrease in his challenging classroom behaviours (while I was teaching), and a corresponding increase in his enthusiasm and engagement in his learning.

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Later, students brainstormed questions they had about the fishing industry, and wrote letters to various family members, local businesses, and John West Tuna (Simplot Australia), seeking answers. We ultimately received answers to most of our letters, with some amazing results.

18.01.2008 104



We received a wonderful letter from the marketing department at John West Tuna, who decorated their office with our students’ letters. They also sent us an inflatable tuna can, inflatable fish, and a carton of Tuna to Go. Naturally, the teacher got first pick…

We also received letters from WA Mussel Co-Op, and several students’ relatives working as commercial fishermen throughout Western Australia

So, what did I learn from this experience?

  • Negotiating the curriculum, even in a small way, can have significant, and sometimes unexpected positive impacts on the learning process
  • Students, and their families, can bring useful knowledge, expertise, and skills to class. Recognising these boosts students’ self-esteem and impacts on their classroom behaviours.
  • As a teacher, your choice of learning experiences, curriculum design, and teaching approach significantly influence your students’ motivation and classroom behaviours.
  • Effective, proactive classroom managers seek to engage students in their learning by making it interesting and relevant to their lives and experience. Motivated, engaged students are much less likely to misbehave.

These ideas are reflected in my teaching philosophy: “What students bring to class is where learning begins. It starts there and goes places.”
Ira Shor. (1992). Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change.

Part 5: The Third ‘R’ – (Shared) Responsibility

The Third ‘R’ of an effective learning environment relates to developing students’ sense of responsibility for their learning and classroom environment.

To effectively manage this long-term process, graduate teachers need to clarify their position in, and plans for their classroom learning environment. My personal approach has been influenced by my teaching philosophy and relief teaching experience in TRIBES schools.

I hope to create a classroom learning community where I facilitate, rather than dictate, the learning process. I want to develop my students’ skills for cooperation and higher-order thinking; enabling them to become active, informed and multi-literate learners. This means I will be ultimately positioning myself as a co-learner in the classroom community, using students’ questions, skills, and talents to drive the learning process, within the boundaries of the set curriculum. For this to work, I will need to develop the ‘Third ‘R’.

As a relief teacher, I have observed and researched various avenues for developing this in the classroom, with each strategy building on the last.

1) Developing Classroom Rules with Students

While classroom rules are an essential feature of virtually every classroom%20rulesclassroom; to be truly effective, students need to be given the opportunity to “own” their class rules by negotiating them with their teacher.

This sense of ownership ensures students share the responsibility for the effective running of the learning environment.

2) Differentiating & negotiating curriculum, themes, and learning experiences to reflect students’ interests, talents and expertise

With the pressures of an overcrowded curriculum, the need to meet system priorities (e.g. NAPLAN), and rigorous assessment and reporting demands, it is often difficult to negotiate core curriculum content with students.

What we can do; however, is differentiate the curriculum to reflect students’ interests, special talents, multiple intelligences, skills, and community resources. This can be achieved through Term themes (eg. Colonial Australia, Under the Sea, The Solar System); open-ended learning tasks (e.g inquiry projects); use of Blooming SMART matrixes; teaching higher-order thinking skills; and weaving students’ questions through unit learning experiences.

A step up from this might involve students negotiating assessment criteria and presentation mediums. Developing shared rubrics, and encouraging students’ to use different technologies/learning products (eg. PhotoStory, PPT, short movie, podcast) to share their learning, are powerful ways to involve students in the learning process. 

If a student has a special skill (eg. film-making), why not encourage them to use it in class – to share their learning and to teach others? Teachers DON’T have to be technological experts – use your more knowledgeable students’ as “peer teachers” instead.

The move to negotiating curriculum requires a shift in thinking on behalf of both the students and the teacher. Our students tend to be used to being passive receivers of information, and may lack the necessary skills and understandings to actively participate in their learning. Therefore, teachers need to explicitly teach the necessary social and cooperative skills prior to negotiating curriculum with their students. Also, teachers need to adjust to their new role and status in the classroom, moving away from being the ‘font of all knowledge’ towards being a “life-long learner”.

This is NOT an easy process, requiring extensive professional research and reflection, but implemented effectively, the rewards are life-long.

Excellent Resources – Curriculum Differentiation:

Blooming SMARTs Matrix 

Thinking Curriculum (Kurwongbah State School, QLD)

Tony Ryan’s Thinker’s Keys [pdf]

3) Explicitly teaching social or “working together” skills, which underpin collaborative learning

I have now taught in 21 schools in the Perth (Western Australia) metropolitan area, and I have only seen the explicit teaching of social skills in three, upper primary classrooms.

In our society, there is an incredible need to teach social skills as part of the everyday curriculum. By doing so, we are not only helping those children with special needs, but all our mainstream students as well. As the global economy increasingly requires collaborative, active learners & knowledge workers, this has become a pressing learning priority.

Social, or interpersonal skills can be effectively integrated across the curriculum (under the Listening / Speaking strands of the new Australian Curriculum), and reinforced across a range of learning activities.

Drawing upon my reading in this area, I would suggest focussing on one social skill each week; spending perhaps 30-40 minutes/week explicitly exploring what the skill looks/sounds/feels like, role-playing social situations, and incidentally reinforcing its’ use across the curriculum.

For some excellent social skills teaching resources, and professional learning materials, I highly recommend a visit to these sites: 

Kurowongbah Unit – I Can Make a Difference (Yrs 1-3) [doc]

4) Develop a classroom community based on the four TRIBES agreements


While I have seen the enormously positive impacts of the TRIBES approach in some extremely challenging schools, my professional knowledge or training in its application is minimal at present.

I will seek to develop my understandings in this area over the coming months, and eventually plan to undertake formal TRIBES training. I will update this post then.

In the meantime, I would recommend visiting these sites for further information:

TRIBES Official Site: 



Sourced from:

Part 4: Transforming a Year 3 Class into a Learning Community

Let us return to my challenging Year 3 class in 2008; where over the course of eight weeks, I transformed an extremely difficult class into a vibrant learning community characterised by respect, empathy, honesty, an inviting atmosphere, and a lively exchange of ideas (Otero, 2001). This was brought about through the creation of a safe learning environment and my efforts to develop positive relationships with all my students, particularly the more challenging ones.

Dealing with challenging behaviours

As I will discuss in more detail in a later post, one of my greatest challenges of this teaching experience was dealing with eight year old “Roy”, a student liable to throw things at the teacher, run away from the class, and draw the teacher into power struggles. After observing and analysing his behaviour (from my position as the second pair of “eyes” in the classroom), I set out to counteract the major causes and reinforcements of the negative behaviours.

I sought to build a positive relationship with “Roy”; circumventing his attempts to draw me into power struggles by maintaining a calm, gentle demeanour, quietly ignoring his attention-seeking behaviours, and removing him from the class to let him calm down (e.g. sending him on errands). I tried to be a positive male role-model, treating him with respect, and working to engage him in his learning. These actions significantly enhanced the “safety” of the classroom learning environment.

Meanwhile, I sought to develop a strong rapport with all my students, taking an active interest in their lives, and listening to their ideas, thoughts, and silences. I noticed “Edward”’s short-sightedness, a possible reason for his delayed literacy development. I also discovered Roy’s passion for aeroplanes and the Fremantle Dockers, loaning him my military aircraft books and commiserating over the football each Monday morning.

While most of my informal interactions with my students occurred during Morning Fitness, when I walked around the oval with my student ‘entourage’, I also spent some time at Recess and Lunch talking to students. I even played football with the boys on several occasions.

Developing positive teacher-student relationships

By really listening to my students, I was able to develop strong, trusting teacher-student relationships, with enormous positive impacts on our classroom environment and learning. It was in this environment that I began to uncover some of the hidden anxieties my students were bringing to class, and this knowledge helped me to respond to their behaviours and emotional needs.

I sought to be open and honest in my interactions with my students, sharing my experiences, humour, and passion for learning. I accepted their eccentricities, and nurtured their interests through engaging learning experiences. I was sensitive to students’ emotional needs, and encouraged them to talk about their troubles with someone they could trust. I explained that while problems may be out of our control, sometimes we need to talk about them. Several students chose to confide their concerns in me, and I supported them in the best way I could, referring one serious case to the school Social Worker.

Responding to Parental Concerns regarding Bullying

During the course of my Internship, I discovered that Daniel’s emotional problems were being exacerbated by another student’s spiteful bullying, and the firm resolution of this issue led to an improvement in his classroom behaviour.

Later, when a parent alerted us that her daughter was being bullied, we uncovered a wider, more serious problem involving a number of girls in our class. While my colleague dealt with the perpetrators, I supported the victims, sharing my experiences of bullying as a child and suggesting strategies for dealing with or avoiding future incidents. Our swift response helped to resolve the issue, leading to a more harmonious classroom environment.

Part 3: The 3 R’s of an Effective Learning Environment

The 3 R’s: Relationships, Respect & (Shared) Responsibility

In the course of their everyday work, a teacher takes on many roles – teacher, guide, role-model, learner, authority figure, confidante, disciplinarian, communicator, and the list goes on. Teaching is so much more than “chalk and talk”, and our students are not the “empty vessels” of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.

As a relief teacher, I have worked with and observed the practice of experienced classroom managers, and realised that their classes have several important features in common. They are characterised by positive, open relationships (with students, parents, and colleagues), mutual respect, and a shared responsibility for the learning process. These are the “3 R’s of an Effective Learning Environment”.

The Teacher’s Attitude is Key

Student misbehaviour, in most cases, is not a subversive challenge to the teacher’s authority. Yes, some students can be extremely frustrating, distant and downright irritating, but they are children, and should be treated as such. Their behaviour can be extremely challenging and disruptive, but it often purposeful and influenced by their social environment.

Research shows that effective classroom managers treat student misbehaviour as a natural and normal part of schooling. They take proactive steps to prevent or reduce the severity of their students’ misbehaviour, seeking to minimise the disruption to the teaching & learning process.

As many experienced teachers have taught me, through their words and actions, the creation of a safe learning environment and the development of positive student-teacher relationships are key elements of effective management practice. 

A focus on the students’ needs

As human beings, we have three basic needs – the need for food, shelter, and safety. It is a symptom of modern society that a significant proportion of our students only feel safe at school. In some neighbourhoods, many students turn up to school hungry, having skipped breakfast. Therefore, teachers and schools play an important role in their students’ lives. 

A safe classroom learning environment is created by the teacher, developed through their words, attitudes, actions, classroom management approach, and the kinds of relationships they develop with their students. 

I have two fundamental beliefs:

  • No student should fear their teacher.
  • No student deserves to be intimidated, bullied, or provoked into violence by their classmates. 

To feel safe, our students:

  • Need clear guidelines or rules for appropriate behaviour. They need to own those rules, and understand the consequences they face if they choose not to abide by them.
  • Need to be treated with respect; as individuals with diverse interests, skills, and talents.
  • Need to feel like they belong, a sense of identity as part of a class, a school community
  • Need a sense of purpose, and degree of shared responsibility for the learning process

Finally, EVERY student has the right to feel safe at school, especially those students who exhibit challenging/violent behaviours. Some of the best teachers I have ever worked with, including my own Year 1 teacher, strive to make this happen. This is a difficult, long-term process, and you will have your successes and failures. This is why I became a teacher. 

Part 2 – My Jigsaw Approach to Classroom Management

Back in 2008, my reflections on my school experience and professional reading led me to develop a practical construct to describe my classroom management approach. The result was:

My “Jigsaw” Approach to Classroom Management
Key Ideas

1. The classroom teacher’s attitude to student misbehaviour underpins the effectiveness of their management response.

2. A safe learning environment relies on positive teacher-student relationships and positive peer relationships. Teachers can develop such relationships by taking a meaningful interest in their students’ lives, and promoting an anti-bullying ethos through their words and actions.

3. Make an effort to forge positive, respectful relationships with your more challenging students. Study the purpose and triggers of their behaviours, and learn about their backgrounds. Use behaviour management strategies which target the cause of their misbehaviour, and remember they too have the right to a safe learning environment.

4. A proactive classroom management approach relates to the facilitation of the teaching and learning process as well as the preventative management of student misbehaviour.

5. Fairly and consistently apply your system of graduated consequences. Ideally, such consequences should foster student self discipline and bring about behaviour change.

(Michael Graffin, November 2008)
What does it all mean?

The “Jigsaw” construct represents the four interrelated dimensions of a harmonious and productive teaching & learning environment. If one or more of the jigsaw ‘pieces’ are missing, the classroom environment becomes dysfunctional. Looking back on my 2008 experiences, I believe the key to the transformation of my class into a vibrant learning community was the creation of a safe learning environment, the missing piece of the puzzle.

Translating Theory into Practice

As my early relief teaching experiences soon revealed, there is a significant difference between having professional knowledge about classroom management and actually applying that knowledge in your professional practice.

As mentioned above, each “jigsaw piece” is critical to a successful classroom management approach. While I thought I was relatively competent in each dimension, I soon discovered that I had a lot to learn.

Engaging in frequent reflection on my classroom management strengths and weaknesses as a relief teacher, I

  • Engaged in extensive professional reading, focussing on excerpts from Classroom Management: A Thinking & Caring Approach, by Barrie Bennett & Peter Smilanich
  • Discussed my situation & potential management strategies with experienced classroom teachers and Deputy Principals
  • Set goals for improvement; experimenting with and refining my use of various management strategies.
Through this long-term reflective process, I have become a more confident and competent classroom manager, and a more effective relief teacher. I have undergone significant professional growth in this area, but recognising the different challenges of different classes and schools, the reflective process continues to this day.

Creating a Classroom Environment That Works – Part 1: The Context

On my final student teaching experience in 2008, I taught what I thought to be a Year 3 “class from hell”. I was an inexperienced and vulnerable student teacher, exhibiting a complete lack of confidence in my teaching and behaviour management abilities. I then found myself teaching one of the largest and most difficult classes in the school.

Describing my experiences in my 2008 teaching portfolio, I described how I explored ways to manage and motivate students with extremely challenging behaviours and special learning needs:

  • “Roy” was renowned for extreme aggressive outbursts – throwing things at the teacher, running away from class, and drawing the teacher into power struggles. 
  • “Daniel”, a student with extremely low self-esteem, produced poor work and withdrew completely into himself when stressed, [tending to curl up] under his desk.
  • “Edward”, working at a K/PP level in Literacy and Maths, [exhibited] a challenging ‘baby’ attitude and inconsistent performance. 

I went on to record how “I literally transformed my class into a vibrant and enthusiastic learning community; witnessing some remarkable changes in some of my most challenging students … [through] perseverance, care, teamwork, and a reflective engagement with behaviour management theories”

It is no understatement to say that working with these students prompted considerable professional growth in the areas of behaviour management and facilitating student learning. In fact, my experiences in this classroom have had a profound impact on the classroom & behaviour management approach which I continue to apply and refine today. 

Food for Thought 

To close, here’s some food for thought for those final year university students with romantic visions of their future classes. I thought my Year 3 class was a “class from hell”, yet on my extensive travels as a relief teacher, I have taught worse, and not just in upper primary either. As a teacher, your class is what you make of it, but don’t expect your first class to be angelic. You may get lucky, but don’t be surprised if you end up with a “seriously difficult” class on your first appointment. It happens. The trick is to be prepared. 

A Process of Trial & Error: Developing My Classroom Management Approach

I have found classroom management a very complex topic to learn about, let alone write about, so I have divided it up under four major headings:

  1. Classroom Management – Creating a Learning Environment which Works
  2. Behaviour Management – Strategies for Dealing with Student Misbehaviour
  3. Complex Behaviour Situations – Dealing with Aggressive/Violent/At-Risk Children/the “Class from Hell”
  4. Advice for Graduate Relief Teachers

I have learnt some valuable lessons in all three major areas of classroom management, and have had some major successes with managing more complex behaviour situations. By sharing my experiences here, I hope that some of my readers will be able to better prepare themselves for their first years of teaching. 

Thoughts on Classroom Behaviour Management

Classroom Behaviour Management.

Those skills we wish were taught in first year university, but (at least in my case), most definitely were not.

Those skills, without which a class can effectively fall apart; where unruly and sometimes violent students reign, and drive even experienced teachers to and sometimes beyond breaking point. I have witnessed this first-hand, and it happens more often than many would care to think.

I was once advised by a university lecturer to keep a journal of my first year teaching experinces; and despite being too shellshocked to write for nearly four months, my early journal entries reveal a significant, and necessary preoccupation with classroom management. In those days, it was a matter of survival.

As a relief teacher, I enter unfamiliar school and classroom environments on a regular basis. Unless you have the opportunity to develop a reputation amongst the student population, a process which takes a considerable amount of time and effort, this unfamilarity almost always translates to unruly student behaviour, and sometimes, major behaviour management challenges.

With my heady combination of inexperience, nerves and poor classroom management skills, I had my fair share of “disaster” days. I have quite literally had classes descend into total chaos, called for Admin assistance on more than one occasion, experienced the horrible piercing sound a student makes screaming their lungs out in class, and let us not forget the day I had to send seven students to buddy class (Day 2 of my teaching career).

Perhaps the most ‘memorable’ experience was the time I had a student fire pieces of paper at my head with his home-made catapult, prior to his forcible removal from the class, numerous escapes, attempts to scale the roof, and kicking me in the leg. Pity Admin didn’t warn me that this student was in the class, because with my past history of dealing with such students, I might have been able to handle the situation better. Amazingly, I managed to keep some semblence of control that day, despite the chaos going on outside.

To be honest, the collegial and administrative support I recieve as a relief teacher shapes my lasting impressions of the schools in which I work. These impressions are generally positive, and I have found most of my teaching colleagues to be extremely supportive, particularly in hard-to-staff or low-socio-economic schools.

I still remember my first day of teaching, when the teacher next door kindly introduced herself and offered her assistance if needed. A particular thankyou goes to the Year 6/7 teachers at one particular school, who supported me the day after my worst ever management disaster (last year), offering to give up their DOTT to support me if I had to face the class again. This offer was above and beyond the call of duty, and thankfully proved unnecessary. I later found out that a teacher with 30 years experience couldn’t control the class either, a most reassuring observation.

I am also grateful to those Deputy Principals who willingly lent their support in crisis situations, and didn’t judge me negatively for it. In some cases, I was afforded the opportunity to try teaching the class again; but sadly, many “disasters” meant I never returned to the school. While thankfully my relief teaching experience now enables me to deal with most problems in the class, I still regret being denied these valuable opportunities to learn from my mistakes.

In those early days, I had my good and bad days. Yes, some were really bad days, like those I described here, but I learnt so much by reflecting on my experiences, researching classroom management strategies, and frankly, asking my colleagues for help.

Herin lie several fundamental lessons, learnt from painful experience:

1) Don’t be afraid to ASK for help (when you’re drowning)
2) Engage in Professional Learning – RE: Classroom Management
3) Plan, Experiment, and Reflect on your Management Approach.

In the following series of posts, I will explore how I dealt with the significant challenges I faced trying to develop my classroom management approach, and share some key ideas and strategies which guided my reflections & skill development.