The impressive number of interesting, insightful and sometimes fiery responses to Mark Brown's 800-pound gorilla blog give some idea of how the topic of student discipline can really get the hearts of the Ajarn community's teachers pumping.
This question of how to control students' behavior in the classroom is something that seems to be close to a pedagogical obsession.
A teacher's Achilles heel
When you do come across a teacher who finds control to be 'no problem', they are actually quite awe-inspiring. How on earth do they do it? Is there a trick? What is it? As a teacher trainer, I think I'm supposed to have that answer, so when I'm invited to do a training workshop at a school the topic of choice is inevitably some variation of this intractable problem.
I have two opinions on classroom management. Firstly, I don't think that it is one unitary 'thing'. It's far too complex and encompasses too many other aspects of the classroom. Tessa Woodward, in the chapter on classroom management in this book presents a list of practical skills which might together comprise classroom management: attracting attention, starting the lesson, dealing with space, praising, thanking, dealing with late-comers, asking people to do things, predicting what's coming next, and so on.
It's a long list, and Tessa's is probably not complete. The upshot? A teacher needs a lot of skills to manage a group of 35 (50? 60?) (young Thai) students. What skills?
Secondly, I don't believe that there is any teacher that actually 'has it' when it comes to classroom management. Teachers who are good at managing their classes are always playing around with techniques, trying new ideas and abandoning old ones. They'll be quick to tell you there isn't 'a way' when it comes to managing classes.
Let us spend this blog investigating the question of classroom management. To do so, I'd like to use a visual example from a movie, something we can all relate to in some way. Before starting, I freely concede that the example I've used here is a parody, it's out of date, and probably not totally relevant to the world of English language teaching, but what the hell, it'll do the trick. Ready?
Kingergarten Cop: muscle-machine Arnold is a stereotypical bad-ass killing machine who scares the living daylights out of drug lords and street gangs, but is outclassed by a group of 15 pre-school kiddies.
If you haven't seen the movie, here's Arnie's first encounter with his class. It's a disaster. He goes back to his hotel, collapses in a jumbled heap and skips the gym. As teachers, we smirk, but also sympathize: a class that isn't going well can feel like it's never going to end, and when it does it leaves you drained and depressed. Arnie's response – the kids are 'horrible.
I get a lot of mileage from this scene. I come into contact with a lot of teachers, and I hear this line surprisingly often: “They are +pejorative” ('horrible', 'arrogant', 'uncontrollable', 'difficult' etc). In one message I recently received, a manager explained that a teacher had refused to teach a class because 'the students are noisy and disrespectful'.
What's interesting, however, is not that Arnie loses control: we all lose control at some point. The issue is his reaction that the kids are 'horrible'. We see later in the movie, though, that the kids aren't horrible. They are just active, curious kids – they love playing, they respond to games, they need sleep, they have their own interesting preoccupations with genitalia and death. In fact, by the end of the movie Arnie loves them. The horrible-ness of the class disappears once Arnie implements systematic changes that the kids respond to.
So let's rewind a bit and look at it all again. Why did Arnie lose control? Was it really because the kids are horrible? Arnie walks into a class untrained, unprepared, and with an agenda at odds with the children's educational interests. Really, how could anything have gone right? In a panic about one child, he leaves the classroom unattended and we all know that turning your back on the class is a bad idea, right? Back up even more - watch how he enters the classroom: can you identify some of the micro-skills that Tessa Woodward talks about that might have led to the resulting chaos?
Classroom management muscle
What we can learn from Arnie here is that students are noisy and disrespectful but there is something the teacher can do. Once he was prepared and had techniques at his disposal, things went much better with Arnie's little classroom. I'd argue that this is the reason why it's important to be trained, prepared, sensitive to the students, and willing to adapt to their needs.
The fact that a class of pre-schoolers can destroy the destroyer is the laugh we get from this 20th century action thriller. Kids are hard to handle, even for the most hardened street-fighting, muscle-infested meanie. As an aside, did you know that director Ivan Reitman also had trouble with these kids while directing the movie? But since we've bought into the charming caricature of the classroom, we can delight in the fact that Arnie needs less than 1 hour and 51 minutes to learn all he needs to activate his classroom management muscle.
Post script: if you are going to copy Arnie, please don't use a whistle, just don't. Please.
Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TEFL Course in Bangkok.