Some Ideas about Teaching
Controlling Difficult Classes
(Please find below the
text of a paper I put round staff a while ago when we were suddenly faced
with a 'monster class' one year! It is offered humbly, and I don't pretend
that it is the whole story - but it helped to get us through the time, and
people may find it of use.)
Where you find yourself having difficulty with a class – you need to go back
to first principles. The following are ideas only, and are offered humbly.
However, it strikes me that good control is based upon:
1. Teach well
Sometimes, faced with a problem class, the temptation is to fall back and
back until all the tasks are undemanding, routine – and boring (and there is
little wonder they get restless). Refuse to let them drive you back into
poor teaching. Devise good lessons and insist on teaching them; a good
lesson gives you the moral authority to demand co-operation.
2. Start every lesson in the pupils’ experience.
The first principle of teaching is: ‘Start where they are at, and take them
where you want to go.’ When my lessons are going badly, it is usually
because I am forgetting to start the lessons by placing the subject in the
context of the pupils’ experience, and am simply pitching straight into the
content – ‘Open your textbooks at . . .’
Always start by talking about a related topic that pupils know about.
3. Give the class your full attention
Be there waiting for the pupils when they arrive; and make it clear that
interruptions are unwelcome. When they arrive, make it clear that they are
welcome – if necessary, ACT happy! If the pupils are aware that you dislike
them, what have you given them to do but spend the next hour trying to ‘get
Start every lesson by telling the pupils what they will be doing – ‘You will
be listening to me for the first 5 minutes, then we’re going to spend 10
minutes reading, then . . .’ etc. Keep to your promises.
Make sure that EVERYTHING you will use in the lesson is out and to hand.
This applies, not just to the items you will need for/during the lesson, but
to those things they will need in the lesson but may not bring (pen, pencil,
crayons, rulers etc.). You need to think for them. Set up the lesson so that
you won’t need to leave them/ turn your back on them for a moment.
6. Task Difficulty
Pupils often fuss because they do not properly understand what they have to
• Make sure that the
work tasks you are requiring them to do are simple enough for them to do –
that they can read the passage, do the writing etc.
• Make sure that they
listen while you explain the task/ give them a written copy, so they know
what to do!
• Why not give them
two-or-three tasks of differing difficulty and let them choose which one
they want to do – e.g. either do the questions, do the cloze exercise or
copy page n from the textbook. Most of them will choose the
boring-but-easiest task – but it is their choice, so they have no right to
• [VITAL, and usually
forgotten by teachers with discipline problems] Explain HOW
you require them to do each task – in silence? working with a partner? etc.
– and insist they work like this.
7. Concentration time and changeovers
Don’t expect a naughty, less-able class to do a task for a long time – they
can’t hold their concentration. Split up the lesson into more, shorter
segments than you would for a more able class. ‘Ring the changes’.
But remember that changeover times in a lesson are opportunities for
disruption, so – when you change course in a lesson – have everything ready
and there for the change (e.g. put the things out on their desks for the
next phase while they are working on the previous phase), and make sure you
explain clearly HOW they are to clear away the last activity and get ready
for the next.
8. Silent Working
Build into each lesson plan a time when they will be sat doing some activity
on their own in silence for a while (what they can manage, without being too
ambitious). Insist on this as a crucial element and mark successful
completion of this as an achievement (reward?). Make it clear that they must
not even ask for help, but must sort out problems themselves – to disturb
the silence in any way is to fail the task. Perhaps play some music (Mozart
is supposed to be best) while they do this.
9. Social Engineering
Do not allow troublemakers to sit next to each other. Find the pupils who
can work together without disrupting the lesson. Put the pupils where YOU
want them in the classroom – it is your classroom – and don’t let them swarm
in and choose for themselves. Do NOT move disruptive pupils to the centre
front to be near you – it has no effect anyway. Put them at the fringes/back
of the room, with at least one very good pupil between them and the rest of
the class (‘buffer zone’). Fill the centre-front of the class with
motivated, good pupils – it will change the whole climate of the classroom.
Sometimes just one or two pupils can disrupt the whole lesson. Come to an
arrangement with a senior member of staff that those pupils will copy at the
back of their room for a few lessons, and not come into yours at all until
they are prepared to behave.
Mark out the troublemakers – not always the pupils who are giving you
trouble – and isolate/deal with them.
Remember the truth, that most of the pupils at least want a quiet life, and
to enjoy the lesson; those who arrive wanting trouble are a minority. Don’t
let that minority sour the whole class for you.
10. Threats and bribes
With older/more able naughty classes, in the lessons immediately before
break, lunchtime and home time, you can make it clear that, IF the class
disrupts/delays your agenda, they WILL spend the time doing what you said.
But they will do it in their time at break/ lunch/ after school. ‘I will
have 1 hour’s work from you.’ But I generally don’t think the punishment
route works as well as one would like, and I certainly don’t advise spending
10 minutes extra with the class you have problems with.
a. If you do
give them a punishment (e.g. 5 minutes extra work), write a big ‘5’ on the
board and explain that they can win that time back with good behaviour. If
you have any sense and opportunity, you will make sure that they have done
so by the end of the lesson. And even if they haven’t, find an excuse (e.g.
‘SOME of you have been marvellous, and I don’t see why good pupils should
suffer for the few naughty ones’) to go and get your break!
b. I prefer the
positive approach. With difficult classes, propose up-front something that
they like at the end of the lesson (to watch 10 minutes of a film, have a
quiz, play a game etc.). Every minute they delay the other items on your
lesson agenda, of course, comes off their ‘nice time’ at the end – with,
perhaps the same opportunity to ‘win back’ the time with good behaviour.
11. ‘Autumn Leaves’
‘Going wild’ with a naughty class is usually a mistake. Do not greet them
with a tirade. Do not try to bully them into submission (you will stack up
problems for yourself when they are older and bigger than you). Demand
obedience, but be fair. Be assertive. Be calm and calming. Generally, let
them settle like autumn leaves.
12. Divide and Rule
Fall out with a whole class rarely, and with caution. You cannot beat 30
pupils who are out to get you. If you have to get cross, do so with
individuals, and make it clear – this is a nice class, with potential, but
the lessons are being ruined for everybody by (at the most 4) named
individuals. As the teacher, you will have to discipline those individuals
for the benefit of the rest of the class. Some children find the teacher
getting cross upsetting – always apologise to them for having to get cross
with the other pupils.
It is not necessary to win all the time, every lesson. But next lesson, walk
in, and yet again demand proper behaviour. Don’t relax your standards. Don’t
give up – a pupil who last lesson took you on and beat you, may not have the
stomach for another battle. 90% of successful teaching is sheer damned,
The only failure is to stop trying – they are the sad staff. A teacher
addressing discipline problems is doing what any teacher should, and what
every teacher has to.
Aug 5 2003, 11:13 AM