‘I predict a riot!’ Supporting your mentee to notice and deal with low level disruption

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Low level disruption in the classroom is the scourge of teaching and learning.  It eats up time and energy and takes away learning opportunities from the wider class.  It is also something which teachers can learn to address and develop strategies for managing in the classroom.  There is an enormous amount of advice out there for teachers looking to develop their approach to classroom management and behaviour for learning.  This advice spans an ideological spectrum, and individual teachers and school contexts will need to explore this spectrum to decide where they can best adopt and implement strategies which are both effective and suit their ethos. 

This blog is instead intended to address a question raised by an ITTE mentor on Twitter:

My concern in this blog is, therefore, to consider how mentors of beginning teachers might help them to develop their awareness of when they need to address behaviour in their classroom and how to help them identify when strategies could be employed and positively impact their lessons. 

When mentoring a beginning teacher, it is really tempting to engage in judgementoring (Hobson & Malderez, 2013) approaches and/ or leap in to ‘rescue’ the situation in the classroom.  However, where low level disruption is concerned and there is no ‘danger’(in a health and safety sense) to pupils, there are more sustainable ways of supporting beginning teachers without stepping in as a first line response.

If your main concern is that your ITTE student is able to really focus upon a target other than that of behaviour/ classroom management, you may decide to utilise your own ‘low level’ behaviours to minimise the low-level disruption and distraction in the classroom.  In this situation, if you are in the classroom in a supporting or observational capacity, you may wish to deploy a ‘Paddington stare’ (aka. the ‘teacher look’) or move so that you are positioned near the main instigators.  In independent work you may also wish to go and engage the individuals involved in the creation of low-level disruption and seek to quietly redirect them back to their work.  In the ‘moment’ these actions can be helpful in allowing the training teacher to focus on their primary areas for development. 

However, in the longer term the student teacher needs to be supported to:

  1. Recognise the low-level disruption as a problem impacting pupil learning;
  2. Be equipped to tackle the low-level disruption.
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1. Recognising the low-level disruption as a problem impacting pupil learning

For a considerable amount of the ITTE year, beginning teachers are focused almost entirely on teaching rather than learning, their own planning and enaction rather than pupil outcomes.  In fact, a sign of their progression through the year is their growing awareness that the planning and teaching they do is only worthwhile if it leads to pupil understanding.  An often unexpected consequence of this is that they do not always recognise why low level disruption is such a problem if it isn’t interfering too much with their enaction.  Mentors will hear their mentee express the view that ‘they don’t mind a little bit of chatting during the independent work’, and until they see the link between low level disruption and pupil learning it is likely they won’t be swayed from this view and therefore will not be prompted to act.  Consequently, ITTE students need to be helped to recognise the impact of low-level disruption on pupil learning, for example by comparing the work of pupils from a lesson troubled by low level disruption with work from a lesson where it was tackled.  Another brilliant approach to take is to film the lesson and then ask the ITT student to narrate what they see of the ripple effect low level disruption has on the whole class – often this will come as a real surprise and the scales will fall from their eyes.   

2. Equipped to tackle the low-level disruption

Having recognised the impact of low-level disruption, the beginning teacher then needs help to know how to tackle it.  This is where the film is also useful because the mentor can support the mentee, through questioning, to identify when and how they could have intervened to improve pupil learning at various key moments.  In this way, rather than telling them what they should have done, you equip them to reflect and have ownership of their development and identify strategies and approaches which feel more achievable. 

However, they also need to support to identify appropriate strategies to manage low level disruption.  Often experienced teachers do this in imperceptible ways – a raised eyebrow, a targeted question or by moving to occupy a space in the room near the distracting behaviour.  Student teachers need an experienced teacher to articulate this for them because they simply don’t know what they are looking for.  Consequently, one of the most helpful things a mentor can do is to sit with them as they observe another teacher, articulating for them the ways in which the teacher nips the low-level disruption in the bud and refocuses the lesson onto learning. 

They also need to be supported to understand that effective classroom management comes in many different forms and that they don’t need to become their mentor to be successful.  Giving them opportunities to observe someone with a similar classroom disposition/ persona as them can be an important step to them understanding how to achieve a classroom which prioritises learning.

Avoiding a riot

For ITTE students learning to teach is a bit like plate spinning – they just cannot do all of the things at the same time for fear of the lesson crashing down around them.  The most helpful thing a mentor can do is to create opportunities for them to consider and analyse focused aspects of their practice outside ‘the moment’ of the lesson. 

References and Further reading:

Haydn, T. (2012) Managing pupil behaviour: working to improve classroom climate, London: Routledge.  –  As Dr Harris  helpfully reminded me in the original Twitter thread, Dr Terry Haydn’s book is a goldmine of support for developing approaches to managing pupil behaviour and comes highly recommended.

Hobson, A. and Malderez, A. (2013). Judgementoring and other threats to realizing the potential of school-based mentoring in teacher education. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 2 (2), 89-108.

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