The Classroom Learning Environment – Be Aware of the Audience

I’ve already explored the ‘3 R’s of an Effective Learning Environment” in a series of earlier posts; however, I have a few further points which specifically relate to the effective management of challenging students. In particular, it is extremely important to consider how the rest of your class reacts to your challenging student’s antics.

To see how this looks in practice, I’ve decided to share a recent relief experience (some details changed); one which leads into my next post on teachers’ attitudes and actions.

My Day

Today was not an easy one. I was working in a relatively unfamiliar Year 2/3 class, which I had taught for a few hours previously. The fun and games started during Morning Fitness, when we were trying to play Fruit Salad on the oval.

A student came last, and several classmates made that extremely clear to him through their vocal comments and shouting. The next thing I knew, this particular student threw his hat on the ground, and ran off across the oval crying. While I was torn between chasing the kid and looking after the class, from experience, I made my first priority the removal of the audience.

  • Your ‘audience’ (i.e. the rest of the class) can significantly escalate these anger/flight situations through insensitive responses and actions.
  • While this is usually done inadvertently due to a poor understanding of their peer’s anger/emotions, some children may deliberately spark off the fireworks.
  • Always keep an eye on your so-called “innocent” bystanders. Some may not be as innocent as they look.

Sure enough, shouts of “Go home!” from certain children resulted in an extremely irritated teacher and a further alienated student, now sitting on the edge of the oval, crying his eyes out.

After removing the audience, talking to the provocateurs, and asking another teacher to keep an eye on the class for a few minutes, I set off to talk to my wayward student.

  • Most children can’t understand their peer’s anger, and an angry child may feel shamed if they lose control of their emotions in front of the class.
  • It is important to sensitively acknowledge the student’s emotions as valid and normal. You need to try and work out the purposes & triggers of their emotional / behavioural issues, and explore more positive ways to express & cope with those emotions.
  • This may involve working in partnership with the student’s support network – parents, grandparents, school social worker, mentors or psychologist.
  • Never underestimate the value of a volunteer mentor or social worker. They can have an amazing impact on your challenging students.

Later in the day, I faced a ‘crisis’ situation with another student. While I knew this particular child had a few issues, I had no real knowledge of his typical behaviours, warning signs, or the purpose of his behaviour. This made an early intervention / prevention impossible.

After returning to the class after an office withdrawal, the student appeared to pose no further problem; however, I soon found him standing at the classroom door throwing rocks (with amazing accuracy) at anyone who came too close.

I took steps to protect my students, trying to keep them at a safe distance; and calmly supported the Deputy Principal’s defusal of the situation. During this time, I became extremely annoyed with the reaction of my ‘captive’ audience, which I perceived as rewarding/supporting the negative behaviour.

  • Normally, in this sort of situation, it is imperative to remove the audience – either by removing the misbehaving student, or by removing the class.
  • It is virtually impossible to explain a peer’s behaviour to a class for privacy reasons; however, it is essential to teach them how to deal with & strategically ignore certain behaviours or situations.

The Moral of the Story: Never underestimate the influence of the audience.

Previous Posts on Effective Learning Environments:

The Three R’s of an Effective Learning Environment

Transforming a Year 3 Class into a Learning Community

The Third ‘R’ – (Shared) Responsibility for the Learning Process

Crisis Management Advice

WA Disability Services – Crisis Management Tip Sheet [doc]

Celebrating my First Year of Teaching

Today marked the end of my first year of teaching.

I have awaited this day for a very long time, and it has come about through my work in 23 schools across the Government, Catholic and Independent school sectors.


To commemorate this day, I thought I would share excerpts from my very first reflective journal entry, and publish my Top 5 list of First Year memories & special moments. Here goes:

My First Journal Entry: Week 8, Term 2 2009

“In the final days of my university degree, I recall my lecturer advising us to keep a diary or journal during our first year of teaching. She said that this record of our experiences would become a keepsake in later years. Now, as I begin my first entry, I hope that this marks the start of a more frequent reflection on my experiences. …

Over the course of my first 50 days of teaching, my conscious reflection on my teaching strengths and weaknesses has led to a remarkable transformation in my teaching style and confidence.

I won’t forget my first class, a Year 6 at [name removed], in any hurry. I replaced a graduate teacher (an old university colleague) whose father had died suddenly. The class was naturally unsettled, and their relief teacher was a nervous wreck. These two factors ensured a rather ‘interesting’ day, and I even walked out the wrong entrance on my way home!

As the weeks went by, I was gradually exposed to more schools, and started implementing my pet astronomy project. I encouraged my classes to write to NASA and the Perth Observatory as part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009.

This activity generated a lot of discussion and interest, and [name removed] did eventually receive a reply from NASA. In hindsight, I would have planned the activity more thoroughly, contacting astronomers and observatories to find people willing to engage in the project. As my relief activity repertoire grew, I ultimately abandoned this activity.

As Term 1 turned into Term 2, I spent a significant amount of time working at [name removed]. I am grateful to the staff and students of this school, who have supported and stimulated my professional growth in the areas of behaviour management, fitness games, and as a facilitator of student learning. “

As I look back on my early journal entries, I can see the incredible personal & professional transformation I have undergone in my first year of teaching.  I am no longer a “nervous wreck”, and have vastly improved classroom management and relief teaching skills.

Remembering the terrible stress & exhaustion of my early days, I am grateful for the opportunities & professional growth relief teaching has afforded me.

I’m on a journey, and its’ been one hell of a ride!

The Top 5 Moments & Memories of My First Year


One: Watching my students learn & grow up

Over the past 20 months, I have had the wonderful opportunity to watch hundreds of my students grow up; forming into the young people & young adults they are destined to become. Watching the transformation, learning & growth of my students over time has been one of the greatest joys of my relief teaching practice. 

Two: The support of my colleagues 

As a graduate teacher, I have valued the support and guidance of my experienced teaching and non-teaching colleagues across a range of schools. I wish to extend a sincere thankyou to all those people who took the time to share their experience and expertise; answering the many questions presented to them by a teacher new to the profession. I hope to emulate you one day.

Three: Breakfast Club Moments 

I’ll never forget the stories and discussions shared with students over their morning toast and Milo. I love volunteering in these friendly, informal environments, and it has been a pleasure to work with the dedicated volunteers who run these school programmes. Three Cheers for “Mr Possum”. [Don’t worry, someone will know what that means!]

Four: My Professional Development as a Graduate Teacher

I have undergone significant professional growth in my first year of teaching, incorporating the benefits of other teachers’ many years of classroom experience into my own teaching practice.

Some of the highlights include:

  • My experimentation with instructional & collaborative learning strategies in my relief teaching practice
  • Cracking the code of First Steps Numeracy, an incredible Western Australian resource for the teaching and learning of mathematics. I’m now working to unlock First Steps Literacy, admittedly, a work in progress
  • Learning how to read & captivate middle and upper primary audiences using books by Andy Griffiths (e.g Just Tricking) and Roald Dahl
  • Developing my Teaching Files & Resources Database (4.01GB),  which now contains over 3000 units of work , teaching resources, lesson ideas, professional learning materials; as well as my catalogue of 1500 digital learning objects from the Teaching & Learning Federation.

Five: Paying off my university HECS-HELP debt

This one’s self explanatory!


Finally, the Top 10 Things they DIDN’T teach you at University/College

I highly recommend this Top 10 list, although I’d ignore the advice of Number 9. Having personal experience with Number 8, I can only agree that there are some things that Uni/College just doesn’t prepare you for. Sit back, and enjoy!

Here’s to another year.

A Relief Teacher’s Journey continues…

The Importance of Active Listening

To build positive relationships with your challenging students, teachers need to demonstrate an active interest in their lives, really listening to their thoughts, opinions, interests and silences.

You may only spend a few minutes talking to a student, but actively listening to them for those few minutes helps to build trust and mutual respect. The cup of coffee can wait. This is important.

Rob Plevin, in Magic Classroom Management, describes active listening as

“an effective way of showing that you value a person’s opinion.

We demonstrate we are listening by making eye contact, stopping other activities so that we concentrate fully on what is being said and respond to what is being said with nods, gestures and verbal cues.” (p.48) 


As teachers, we are important figures in our students’ lives, and the attitude we express towards them through our incidental conversations can have significant, often invisible impacts on their attitude, learning and personal development. By actively listening to our students, we treat and value them as people, not as insignificant “little brats”.

Never forget that challenging students are still children, and deserve to be respected and valued as such. It is easy to fall into the trap of reacting to the behaviours after they occur. Actually working to identify and counteract is difficult, but rewarding in the long run. Actively listening to your students is a simple first step.  

The Final Word on Relationships

For more information and advice on developing teacher-student relationships, I highly recommend the Stepping Stones to Positive Relationships series on the Behaviour Needs blog.


I’ll also leave this topic on a note of caution, bearing in mind my initial naivety and inexperience as a beginning teacher. As teachers, it is important that we ensure our relationship-building efforts and teacher-student interactions are entirely proper and professional, and not liable to misconstrued or misinterpreted.

It is important to understand the relevant school policies and procedures, bearing in mind your legal responsibilities and duty of care. If you consider yourself uninformed, I’d suggest you talk to Admin, or contact your Union. I’ll certainly be doing so shortly.

Get involved with Breakfast / Lunchtime Clubs & Activities

Starting out as a relief teacher in early 2009, I was surprised to receive a student’s invitation to visit the morning Breakfast Club. What I found even more surprising was that this particular student was a member of the infamous “Room 15”, a troubled Year 6/7 class about which I had heard no end of horror stories. While initially hesitant, my acceptance of this invitation proved to be one of the most important decisions I made as a graduate relief teacher. 

the-breakfast-clubI found the Breakfast Club a friendly, informal setting for building respectful relationships with students, and it was the scene of many interesting conversations about football, skateboarding, gardening, and the latest mobile phones.

I found myself meeting the majority of my challenging students (Yrs 1- 7) over their morning toast and Milo™, and my regular attendance over time helped me earn their respect and trust.

While I no longer attend that particular school, I regularly volunteer in other schools’ Breakfast Clubs whenever I have the opportunity. I highly recommend this experience for relief staff & classroom teachers. You may only be able to spare 10 minutes once a week/fortnight, but it is worth it.

Lunchtime Clubs & Activities

Now, not every school has a Breakfast Club, but one school, where I have had extensive relief work, has developed an innovative whole-school activity timetable which runs during lunchtimes. Depending on the day, (rostered) staff members and students play rugby on the oval, play games on the library computers, or work in the Kitchen Garden. These activities are open to all students, and seem to be very popular.

These activities can provide valuable opportunities for teachers to get to know their students; catering to their diverse interests, and providing some with a safe environment during play breaks. This is particularly important for those challenging students who struggle to cope with the complex social demands of playground interaction.

Regular involvement in Clubs / Lunchtime Activity situations, even once a fortnight, can help teachers establish their reputation and make connections with challenging students. These activities don’t have to be a chore, and they can prove extremely rewarding. 

Relief Teaching: Chalk & Small Talk!

Becoming an Effective Relief Teacher

In my first year of teaching, I have learnt that effective relief teachers:

  1. Work to develop positive relationships with students and staff
  2. Demonstrate sound classroom management skills, and
  3. Have a repertoire of instructional strategies and relief fill-in activities

In my experience, the development of strong relationships has underpinned my survival and increasing effectiveness as a relief teacher. They have helped me establish a positive reputation in a variety of schools (where I have regularly worked), and contributed to a significant reduction in my classroom management challenges in relief situations. 

Chalk & Talk!

Whenever I work in a school, I make an effort to talk and interact with staff and students. Staying in the class all day does nothing to raise students’ (and staff) awareness of your existence. As you meet and interact with students in informal playground settings, you become less of a stranger, and, well, in my case, known as the “funny guy in the cowboy hat”. This helps to break the ice when you eventually meet these students in formal classroom situations.


You generally need to teach a class 2-3 times before students start to accept you as the genuine article, and it can literally take several weeks to months working in a school to build respectful, trusting relationships with students.

These relationship-building efforts must be complemented by a firm and consistent classroom management approach, and careful observation & handling of your behaviourally challenging students. 

The development of positive, respectful relationships takes a considerable amount of time and effort, and is virtually impossible to do as an agency relief teacher. I have been on both sides of the fence, and have come to love the opportunities and variety afforded by my independent relief teaching practice.

A Relief Teacher’s Story: Working with “Troy”

When dealing with challenging students as a relief teacher, I make a point of identifying and remembering their hobbies, interests, and talents, and try to incorporate them into incidental conversations or classroom learning activities. Believe it or not, given time, this little strategy can work wonders.

I first met “Troy” in mid-2009, and one of my earliest memories of him is of his playing power-games with the Principal. He was very good at ignoring instructions, avoiding work, and arguing/fighting with a student with Asperger’s Syndrome. 

This student caused me (and the Principal) more than a few management headaches, but funnily enough, I liked him. I was always fair and consistent when managing his behaviour, and dealt with his attention/power-seeking behaviours in a calm, measured manner.

Through informal conversations, in and outside the classroom, I discovered Troy’s passion for building expensive model cars. While I’m not particularly fussed with cars, I made an effort to talk about & follow the progress of his latest creation whenever I taught him. 

Over time, Troy’s attitude towards me changed. He was increasingly happy to talk to me, and became more respectful in his speech and manner. He still demonstrated his attention-seeking behaviours, and I remained firm in my management approach. I’ll never forget the moment when he finally recognised my authority, but sadly, I was never to directly teach him again. Running into him several months later, I still remember his shocked and pleased expression when I asked about his model-making activities. Yes, I remembered! Sadly, like so many of my success-stories, he has since left the school.

Small Talk: “From little things, big things grow”

As a relief teacher, I am often seen wandering aimlessly around school playgrounds and ovals; playing games (football, hand-tennis, soccer), fostering good-natured AFL (Australian Rules Football) rivalries, and simply chatting with students.

Many teachers are surprised to find that I do this in my own time (i.e. not on duty), yet it has proved to be the single most positive strategy for reducing my classroom management challenges, and building respectful relationships with some extremely challenging students.

As Rod Plevin points out in Magic Classroom Management (2008, p. 43);

“We seldom just ‘chat’ to our worst students despite the fact that having a real, sometimes ‘pointless’ dialogue with another person is one of the very best ways of building relationship and trust.

Dialogue is a unique relationship-builder because it evolves over time into a “connection” – and when steps are made to form this connection, pupils relate to us much more positively.”

A few minutes is all it takes:

“Getting a pupil, particularly a difficult pupil, to spend a few minutes chatting when they’d rather be away with their mates is difficult, so you have to appeal to their interests. One way might be asking their advice on some new resources that you know they’d be interested in.

That might be all that’s needed to get a conversation going, and even if you only talk for a few minutes it’s something to build on. Each little interaction you have outside the classroom environment will do wonders for your relationship with that child.” (p. 44).

Working with “Roy” (Professional Internship, 2008)

As I discussed in my June 21 post, Transforming a Year 3 Class into a Learning Community, I sought to develop a strong rapport with all my students; taking an active interest in their lives and experiences, and really listening to their ideas, thoughts, and silences.

I made time to talk to my students at breaks (e.g. during the 10 minute eating time) and informally interacted with students, parents and carers before and after school. I paid special attention to my “challenging” students; observing their playground interactions with other students, and making an effort to discover (and exploit) their special interests and talents. These actions helped me understand and connect to “Roy”, my most challenging student, and supported the creation of a safe learning environment.

Through informal conversations, I discovered Roy’s (my most challenging student) passion for aeroplanes and the Fremantle Dockers (AFL team). I loaned him my military aircraft books and commiserated over our football defeat each Monday morning.

These actions helped to build our teacher-student relationship and had dramatic impacts on Roy’s classroom behaviour. He made an effort to moderate his behaviour, and he never “exploded” into his aggressive chair-throwing & escape act while I was teaching him. Working with him again last year, I believe I was one of very few, perhaps the only teacher “Roy” ever came to respect and trust.

My experiences bear out Rod Plevin’s comments on this topic:

”You see, when you really get to know a pupil you become aware of their triggers – the things that upset them and cause all sorts of problems in class. And when you’re dealing with damaged children who carry all kinds of emotional baggage and flare up for no apparent reason, this is valuable knowledge.

After all … stopping behaviour problems from occurring is much easier when you know in advance what causes them!”  (p. 44)

The 3 Keys (Part 1): Building Positive Relationships

When formulating my “Jigsaw Approach to Classroom Management” back in 2008, I made the following observations:

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.

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.

In my teaching experience, I have found these two factors to be absolutely critical in successfully working with challenging students. I am not alone in thinking along these lines …

… one of the most common objections which comes up when we talk about this subject… “I’m a busy teacher, I don’t have time to build relationships with challenging students?”

The answer to that is “You don’t have time NOT to build relationships with challenging students.” 

Think about the amount of time spent mopping up incidents, and dealing with students who don’t follow instructions – THAT is a huge waste of time. 

Many teachers complain that they are unable to do their jobs purely because of the time spent dealing with behaviour problems. Students are more likely to behave for a teacher they respect, trust and get on with so spending time building relationships with them is going to SAVE you time in the long run.

Chris (June 15, 2010). Making Time to Build Relationships with Students. From the Behaviour Needs Blog

Coming Up: Relationship Building Strategies

1) Small Talk: BIG Rewards
2) Get Involved with Breakfast / Lunchtime Clubs / Activities
3) The Importance of Active Listening