This issue focuses on the importance of teachers being emotionally aware in order to set a good example. This requires the ability to assess how their actions (body language, gestures etc.) are perceived by pupils

Readers of previous Behaviour Matters articles will be familiar with the importance of the adult as a role model in the teaching and learning environment. I hope that articles on topics such as self-calming have helped colleagues to understand the importance of managing one’s own emotions before attempting to deal with a difficult group or individual student. It is, I believe, widely accepted that over 75% of communication is non-verbal. Not only what we say but also how we say it is a major contributory factor in providing a safe and stimulating working environment. For the student looking to “push your buttons” or to disrupt the concentration of fellow students, your own attitude and your ability to control your own behaviour is highly influential. Your verbal and non-verbal behaviour plays an important role in building strong and effective relationships with your students and, indeed, in your own well-being. Teachers who feel constantly under pressure and stressed due to the challenging behaviour of their students begin to question their own professional ability, certainly do not enjoy their work, and at worst can find their health being affected.

Typical traits of passive behaviour when working with students can include:

  • A passive tone of voice, almost whining and often interspersed with tutting, or exasperated sighs.
  • Palms of the hands often open with arms out straight in a questioning stance.
  • Shrugging the shoulders while looking skywards and shaking your head from side to side giving a “No, no, no!” message.
  • Linked to all of the above is the final passive trait, that of asking a question such as: “How many times do I have to tell you…?” or “Now what am I going to do with you?”

Question one opens a dialogue with the student, which you certainly don’t want, and question two demonstrates that you actually haven’t a clue what you are going to do in the current situation!

Passive behaviour as described above can quickly change into aggressive, particularly when the strategy (passive) you have chosen seems to be making things worse. Unfortunately, some teachers do not go through the passive stage, but go into aggressive right from the start:

  • Loud, threatening tone of voice, generally giving short and sharp direct instructions.
  • Typical visual signs of aggression: tensed muscles, clenched fists, sweating, etc.
  • Verbal comments that berate the student, leading to emotional and certainly verbal abuse.
  • Direct and fast movement towards the student with the resulting invasion of personal space.
  • Overt physical behaviour such as banging the desk or slamming books down on the table.

This style of aggressive behaviour again demonstrates to the student that you are out of control. You are prepared to get your needs met regardless of the feelings of others. The lasting effect on students of both passive and aggressive behaviour is a total lack of respect and belief in you as a teacher and role model. At worst you leave the student with a sense of misplaced power over you as a teacher or a deep-seated fear of you.

Practical Tips
Take some time to reflect on your own preferred style of management. Do you have any of the traits mentioned above in your style of classroom management? It might be worthwhile at this point to consult with a colleague to help you identify your own natural and preferred style of management.

If you work with a teaching assistant, spend some time discussing each other’s management styles and the effect they have on the students. Try to be specific in your descriptions of your behaviour. Look closely at the following:

  • Use of language. Do you ask lots of questions? Do you always give direct and forceful directions and certainly not expect a reply?
  • Body language. Look at your overall body posture. Arms folded? Hunched or drooped shoulders? Tight, tense almost too upright?
  • Measure your heart rate while at rest and compare this to your heart rate while teaching, and again while dealing with a difficult situation. If you have a heart rate monitor try wearing it during the morning or afternoon and monitor your average heart rate.
  • Try to record (get a colleague to write it down) exactly what you say during an interaction with a student. Was your verbal language overly passive or clearly aggressive?

It is clear that all of us will demonstrate behaviour that fits neatly into either passive or aggressive at some time during the working day. However, remembering how it can affect the behaviour of our students should be sufficient to remind us that behaviour can be taught and also caught. As the role model, we must remain in control of our thoughts and emotions. They are the drivers of our own behaviour.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2008

About the author: Dave Stott is the author of Behaviour Matters. He has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher level. He has worked in mainstream, special and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a successful consultant and trainer.