How Routines Develop Classroom Culture
by Ray Cowdell
“Depending on what they are, our habits will either make us or break us. We become what we repeatedly do.” ―Sean Covey
Anyone who has been at Birchwood for the past 3 years will have seen the beginnings of a new dawn in the school and not just because Pete Bolton, the school’s site manager, got the windows cleaned! I certainly am looking up and hoping that we can return to the days of being a centre of excellence where we used to be a Beacon school, a Training School, part of the Leading Edge partnership where we were at the centre of school improvement, Ofsted deemed us ‘Outstanding’ and we were a school that ‘punched above its weight’. It was a tag I was proud of and I am confident we can return to those days, as long as we support each other in developing a culture within our classrooms.
For a teacher, behaviour management is never ‘sorted’, it is something that can work a dream one minute and fall apart the next. Irrefutably, behaviour has a huge impact on both T&L as neither can blossom if behaviour is poor. This is something all practitioners can relate to, but what can we all do to make behaviour more stable, because it shouldn’t be a rollercoaster? I believe consistency in our classroom routines is the key to success and the challenge is to maintain it, lesson in lesson out, week in week out, term in term out. After all, it is all too easy for inconsistency to creep in across lessons, departments and year groups and this is why students will learn to behave differently and ultimately manipulate the systems. A school can ill afford to have teachers who are inconsistent in their classroom approaches. The importance of recognising that all students deserve clear boundaries and high expectations of their conduct, for both their moral and academic welfare, cannot be understated.
George McMillan (2017), a Headteacher who transformed a school in Eltham, London advocates that regardless of background, children should know their place, respect adults and follow the rules, as adults (teachers) are in the position of authority. George also stated that labelling children in a way that results in them being excused of inappropriate behaviour is wrong and ultimately doing the child a disservice. This is an opinion that could provoke dissonance, for when he took over Eltham Green (now part of the Harris Academy Trust) his staff believed the students were unmanageable. He disagreed, changed the school’s systems and was proven correct.
In the long run, inconsistency does a school and the children it is supposed to be educating no favours whatsoever. When expectations become unclear, staff can become the ‘bad’ guys to the children and for what reason? Simply implementing a policy. Other staff can be classed as ‘alright’ (a glowing tribute) for not implementing the rules! No wonder chaos can rule if students are not getting that consistent message. If, for example, you confiscate a child’s hooded top in lesson 4 that means that they had already had 3 lessons where they have been able wear it. Therefore, is it any wonder why, in this situation, the child would become enraged and frustrated at the teacher confiscating the hooded top?
Fortunately, our robust and supportive systems mean that we have come together as staff so that consistency is improving across all departments, we just have to maintain it. To acquire that consistency, the school has introduced a number of T&L strategies that have helped us move forward. These have not been plucked out of thin air and branded the next big thing (like Learning Styles!), no, these are based on tried and tested methods that worked when we were children. Who says so I hear you shout? Well, for starters, no shouting out allowed, you are now on ATL 3!
Since undertaking and passing the NPQML in 2018, I started delving into the pedagogical issues that I thought were relevant to education. I strongly believe that if behaviour is good in a classroom then academic performance can thrive, although there is a caveat, “We don’t all have the same potential and not everyone can do anything, no matter how hard they might try” (Didau 2019). Having good behaviour management in your own classroom is not enough, especially if two doors down there is a problem. We need good behaviour management throughout the school and a change to the school’s culture is crucial for this to take place. The ones who noticed, witnessed the start of this in 2018 but as Sean Connery’s character states in The Untouchables “And then what are you prepared to do?”. This exemplifies that if ‘we’re going to open a can of worms we need to go all the way’. The past few years has demonstrated a Sean Connery approach. There have been welcome strategies implemented by SLT which has made teaching easier, enjoyable even. From the ATL 4 rule, ‘on call’ support, the extra staffing of Polaris and accessing alternative provision for students who benefit from the extra support provided. Few could argue progress has not been made.
I was interested in what everyday behaviour management should look like from inside a classroom because this is what we, as teachers can control. I read around the subject of ‘behaviour management’ and was introduced to such luminaries as George McMillan, Bill Rogers, Doug Lemov, Sam Strickland, Katherine Birbalsingh and Tom Bennett. Before this I learnt all I needed off Helen Green (Former Head of Art and longstanding Head of Year at BCHS)! There are others, but these educators (including Helen) can all be classed as ‘experts’ in behaviour and leadership, and all intimate that for a change in culture to occur teachers need to be doing the same practice, day in day out. We also need to do this as a team, we are Team Birchwood after all. There are routines important for us to adhere to if a culture change is going to happen, highlighted by Tom Bennett, a Government advisor on Behaviour, and supplemented by teacher, blogger and author Alex Quigley.
Tom Bennett highlights that, “Behaviour is crucial to the success of both you and your pupils. When your classes are civil and keen, content is covered, and everyone’s opportunities are multiplied. However, learning can dissolve in the presence of even a few stubborn individuals determined to set their shoulders against your ambitions.” We now have a short-term way out (ATL 4) to approach individuals who pose this barrier and they don’t come back to the lesson, but we must try our hardest to engage every student in our classrooms and develop a relationship that is mutually respectful. If teachers are not able to accomplish this, and let’s be honest it is not always possible, we should acknowledge that the reasons underpinning challenging behaviour are often nuanced- and a culture in which teachers are made to feel individually responsible for this is not helpful for either the teacher or the student involved.
That being said, no student has a right to detract from the learning of others. “When we establish firm parameters and high expectations, then, and only then can we focus on developing great relationships.” (Alex Quigley). A teacher-student relationship is not about personality though and being a student’s mate, it is about a child accepting that the teacher is in charge first and foremost. I do feel a teacher must want to get to know the child too though. If we know what makes a child tick then we can find some common ground and teaching can become easier. Again, this is not always possible. On occasion, a discussion between the child, teacher, line manager and parent may take place. This should be viewed as a positive step forward and one that should be initiated by the teacher as soon as a problem arises. Allowing relationships to worsen and potentially become toxic is not a resolution I would recommend.
The classroom guidelines for us as staff to cherry pick and follow are:
- Outline the class routines
Our first point of call should be at the door. Alex Quigley states “Meet them at the pass. Students are incredibly quick in forming judgements about teachers, so all the small details of meeting them matter – positive, open gestures, direct eye contact, smiles and assertive body language. Be at the doorway – even when you are desperate to set up the computer or whatever else.” If any student does not look to be ready for learning you can stop it there and deal with it. If we have a starter planned (and we should), one of the obstacles of setting up is eradicated, as students have a task as they enter. As a teacher who doesn’t have their ‘own’ room and is nomadic, the starter within the school’s T&L policy has made my life so much easier in settling the class early and getting them learning sooner.
Normally, in September, we all spend some time establishing the ground rules. One I have always governed by is Alex Quigley’s ‘One rule to rule them all’. No-one speaks whilst the teacher is speaking. When a student is speaking the same rule applies. To everyone. No compromises. No let-up or allowance for low-level chatter or the smallest of distractions should be accepted. However, how many of us have to be stricter when it comes to cutting out warnings for low level chatter and going directly to ATL 3? I know I do. Sam Strickland, Headteacher and author regularly asserts on Twitter that if every child is warned twice before a sanction is given, this is potentially 60 warnings for a class of 30 students. Over 5 lessons this equates to 300 warnings and over a week this is 1500 warnings before one sanction is given. Sam Strickland states that being stricter “helps reinforce and endorse the hard work of peers and a consistent approach across a school is integral to staff morale, staff workload and staff well-being.” Consequently, by being stricter we are supporting colleagues and helping all of our students.
Tom Bennet states “Any behaviour you want to happen routinely should be explicitly defined for the class as a routine. You want a class lining up outside? Tell them. You want them to stand behind their chair and wait to be seated? Tell them.” This became part of our everyday T&L a few years ago whereby we expected students to line up, dress properly, to sit where ‘we’ told them to. This reinforces the authority that George McMillan commented on. We are the adults and we are in charge. Whether you agree with seating plans, lining up and using a starter is not the debate. The debate is uniformity. If we, as staff, are all utilising the same strategies the students learn to accept what is going on. This is exactly how behaviour is learned, just ask Skinner and Pavlov (‘Children are not rats or dogs though!’, says the libertarian at the back. That is not the point being made here). So, the next time you rush your class in without checking that shirts are tucked in, you might slowly be eroding the standards that we all are trying to uphold. The routines we enforce can be academic or social (see Lemov, 2011) and we can save ourselves a few years of repeating and reinventing instructions by ensuring students know them from the off.
- Make them practise it until they get it right
Tom Bennett outlines that “it seems an odd thing to ask, getting students to practise entering the room, for example. But doing so makes it far less likely that anyone will misunderstand what you want. Many teachers forget that good behaviour has to be taught, just like any other part of the school syllabus. We wouldn’t expect students to innately know the boiling point of sodium (883°C), so why should we assume they know what we privately mean by good conduct?” When the students do not reach the standards that I expect I ‘teach’ them, I am sure many of us do, but if this is not a blanket approach by all staff the effect will be diminished. There is a way to enter a classroom and behave appropriately on a corridor and every student can do it irrespective of who they are. You don’t believe me? I managed to get my very lively year 9 class to line up outside M1 and walk quietly past reception as I led them to the sports hall. After October HT, this was initially loud and disrespectful, but slowly and surely this group got the message and by the time Christmas arrived they were as respectful as the quietest year 7s on their first day of high school. The admin staff, whose office is parallel to this ordinarily noisy walkway, even thanked me.
Not so long ago, trepidation might have been expressed about insisting on my strategy to get a lively group to walk through the foyer, but why shouldn’t we give all students the opportunity to practise and learn behaviour that they can be proud of? There is an argument that by taking away certain triggers you can plan for behaviour, but when does that child ever learn how to behave? Please note, I am not saying you should not plan for behaviour, just that our most challenging students may need teaching basic routines.
- Sell the benefits
Tom Bennett tells every class that he loves teaching, wants the best for them and believes that everyone in the room is capable of great things. He tells them that if they all cooperate, everyone wins, and lessons can become more interesting. He tells them that the only way to get there is by working together in following rules that optimise the children’s opportunities. Tom tells them that he cares so much for them that he will move mountains to make sure everyone is safe, secure and can learn in peace. And he’ll make sure no one disturbs that pact. He has never heard a pupil reject this contract.
So, if we are not doing what Tom does where do we start? You can try copying Tom’s mantra or saying something similar. Also, try ‘killing’ the students with kindness and praise them when needed. My students have to earn my praise, but when my year 9 class walked through the corridor without a murmur I let them know how proud I was of them. One thing we cannot ignore though is the behaviour of the majority, they certainly need championing too. Additionally, who of us have used terms like ‘ah, my favourite year 9 class’, to make a class feel special and wanted? We must get the students on side by using positive reinforcement, and utilising rewards and sanctions appropriately. The weighting of positive over negative, ‘stick over carrot’ is always a contentious debate, with Hackenberg (2009) reporting the value of a loss was worth approximately three times more than a gain. Consequently, our school system of using behaviour points and achievement points may be the best method to promote good behaviour as long as the ATL 3s and 4s are being used consistently.
Behaviour management is so much more than a system based on punishments though. Behaviour might well be suppressed due to punishments, but our long-term objective is to change poor behaviour. Balliet and Van Lange (2013) analysed 83 studies involving over 7000 participants and they argued that punishments are only effective when there is a great deal of trust between the members of its examined societies. Therefore, where there is trust present, members of a society adhere to norms that encourage both cooperation and the punishment of individuals who defy cooperative social norms. Teachers are natural salespeople, and it is our duty to build and sell this trust in our classrooms. We sell our subject and the content every day, so selling the benefits of good conduct cannot be out of our skillset.
- Make it happen – always follow up
Tom Bennett states “Words are easy. But if you want to turn those sentiments into a glittering tower, you need to build it brick by brick. That means reiterating the expectations ad infinitum. Sanction, reward, rebuke and celebrate. Eventually, routines embodied in repeated behaviour become habits.” I talk constantly about respect in lessons and let the students know when they are not being respectful. I certainly advocate that behaviour precedes learning in my classroom. I must get the former in place for the latter to prosper. Sometimes, ATL 4s and phone calls home might be necessary to reinforce this message but students feeling that sense of accountability for their actions is an important part of the system. Alex Quigley asserts “we need to follow through with every sanction. Maybe letting some small, seemingly insignificant misbehaviour – a rude comment or a missed homework – go would be the path of least resistance. But beware – seeds are sown in the collective consciousness of a group.” Therefore, if I am speaking to a year 10 student about respect and how they should be speaking to others, then out of professional courtesy I want all of that student’s teachers doing the same. Following up with parents/carers can be one of the most daunting of tasks a teacher can undertake, because we can fear the worse, but invariably parents/carers are supportive. Including parents in the behaviour process is key and we must sell them the benefits of what we are doing because we need them to trust the process too. Do not be afraid to phone home.
There is a caveat to following up and being assertive. Our classroom challenge is when to initiate the ATL 3. Some teachers may impose it straight away, others may give a warning, then there are the ‘reasonable steps’ to acknowledge the nuance in underpinning some challenging behaviours. What we are faced with is Sam Strickland’s 1500 warnings notion and that will not serve the staff or students well.
If we make it happen, “our time can then be reinvested in greater learning strategies. Students will be working in sociable, optimal ways that maximise their chances of success, both civil and academic” (see Marzano et al., 2003). That is what we all want right? Tom Bennett asserts that “teaching students to self-regulate provides the ultimate liberation from the caprices of the moment. By inculcating good habits in our students, we multiply their agency in the classroom and beyond”. Even if you do not understand the word ‘inculcating’, it makes sense doesn’t it?
As we teach our students, standards may start to slip, so there is nothing wrong with a ‘reboot’, as Tom Bennett calls it. In the last week of Lockdown 2.0 I was not happy with how year 8 lined up outside the gym, therefore we practised it again. Since returning to the full timetable I have been in full reboot mode. I am sure there are more of us doing the same. As Tom Bennet instructs “Walk back into the classroom any day of the week and say: ‘Let’s pause the lesson to talk about how we behave towards each other. Let’s revisit what you need to do and why. And let’s commit ourselves to that goal.’ You need to show the room that you take their behaviour seriously and you expect the highest standards of them. And what you do will have far greater impact than what you say. When your actions match your speeches, you teach them lessons they will never doubt or forget.” The next few weeks are perfect for this, but I still don’t think we should be thanking CoVid 19!
Our language is so important in establishing consistent behaviours. Alex Quigley terms it ‘confident leadership’ (and acting, at first, if necessary). “If the teacher doesn’t lead, then students will quickly fill the void. Your tone and body language matter. Move about the room, plotting a confident path (Lemov, 2010), diffusing low-level misbehaviour before it even happens.” Vague instructions can beget misbehaviour and distractions of our own making. To combat this, Alex Quigley suggests developing shorthand phrases that signal to students a whole list of responses in just a single word or phrase. For example, ‘active listening’ might be a key trigger phrase that means ‘put your pens down, look this way, don’t have anything in your hands, stop speaking and listen’. If this is something you are not comfortable doing, just be clear and concise in the instructions given. Asking for ‘silence’ is far clearer than asking for ‘quiet’.
Ultimately, a shift in culture is occurring at Birchwood High. Not only in behaviour, but in aspiration too and with this our students can hopefully develop ‘character’. Traits such as resilience and perseverance can be fostered if we teach students that working quietly and respectfully is beneficial. Why does a room need to be ‘buzzing’ with chatter for learning to take place? I, like millions of others have learnt amazing, life-changing things whilst being silent! This is not to suggest chatter and discussion cannot take place in our classrooms. As practitioners though we will know/learn when to allow our students more freedom and when to pull back on the reins.
My final point is to leave you with the prophetic words of David Didau who highlighted that “we’re only likely to display good character if we’re held accountable for our behaviour. Most people will conform to social norms and what is acceptable quickly becomes acceptable. So, if we want students to develop positive character traits we should make sure that the culture of our schools is pretty intolerant of indolence, rudeness and general arsing about. This is clearly the role of school leaders. Individual teachers are powerless to change school culture but maybe the best thing they can do is maintain the very highest standards of behaviour within their sphere of influence.” Good things can happen if we are in control of our classrooms and supported by SLT, but we must all be in this together. We are an amazing group of gifted teachers and staff, so it should be easy..!
Balliet, D. and van Lange, P. A. M. (2013) ‘Trust, punishment, and cooperation across 18 societies: a meta-analysis’, Perspectives on Psychological Science 8 (4) pp. 363–379.
Bennett T (2020) Resetting and rebooting behaviour https://earlycareer.chartered.college/resetting-and-rebooting-behaviour/
Bennett T (2017) Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour. London: Department for Education.
Didau D (2015) A few thoughts about character education: https://learningspy.co.uk/leadership/a-few-thoughts-about-character-education/
Didau D (2019) Making Kids Cleverer. A Manifesto for Closing the Advantage Gap. Crown House Publishing Ltd.
Hackenberg, T. D. (2009) ‘Token reinforcement: a review and analysis’, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behaviour 91 (2) pp. 257–286.
Lemov D (2010) Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Lemov D (2011) Teach Like a Champion: Field Guide. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.
Marzano R, Marzano J and Pickering D (2003) Classroom management that works: Research based strategies for every teacher. Alexandria: ASCD.
McMillan George (2017) BPN Webinar ‘Saving Behaviour’
Quigley Alex (2019) article Behaviour Management: Practical tips. https://impact.chartered.college/article/behaviour-management-practical-tips/
Skinner, B. F. (1953) Science and human behaviour. New York, NY: Macmillan, p. 190.