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The hallways of Ark All Saints Academy are calm in a hectic south London neighbourhood. Children here refer to themselves as ‘scholars’ rather than students, and they walk confidently and with purpose through the school’s corridors, on their way to clean and orderly classrooms. There’s no shouting to be heard, and no sloppy uniforms to be seen.
At the centre of it all is Principal Lucy Frame, an educator with nearly 20 years of teaching experience. “The people who become teachers only because they ‘love children’ are the ones who burn out quickly when they discover how difficult children can be,” she says. “But my philosophy is that all children deserve a good education, and that if their behaviour is standing in the way of that, then it’s our job to train them to be better.”
Here she offers several “hard-learned” tips on how to improve school behaviour, the most important of which is “you have to believe that there’s a better life out there for these children, and that you are the person that’s going to give it to them. This is the hardest job I’ve ever done, and I’m always looking for a better way to do things. But it’s rewarding because you’re giving children a chance in life. That thought always makes me feel better at the end of a hard day."
Tip 1: Hoorah for positive reinforcement!
I put the same amount of emphasis on praising a child when I see them doing something right, as I do correcting them when their behaviour is unacceptable. This is useful when you’ve got two children, one who is doing the right thing and one who isn’t. If you praise one of them, then the one who isn’t will usually correct their behaviour. We also do calls home to parents to let them know when their children have done well in school, not just when there’s a problem.
Tip 2: Win the hallways and the classrooms will follow
Hallways are where most arguments happen and it’s where children often feel most vulnerable. If your hallways are chaotic, then your changeovers won’t work and the first 10 minutes of each lesson will be lost as the teacher sorts out issues.
We expect every single member of staff to be out of their class, monitoring at the change of lesson. Every student is meant to stop and allow a person to walk past them before they proceed in the hallways. We call this ‘look and allow one.’ It helps everyone get through smoothly.
Tip 3: Learn to focus and distract attention
We use different techniques to focus student attention- countdowns, clapping out rhythms (where the students clap back) or I’ll raise my hand and all the students have to quiet down and raise theirs. Other times we will just say, ‘track me’ which means the students stop talking, and face the teacher with arms folded. If we could get every single class to do that in every single lesson, we would get rid of all low-level disruption.
You can also do the opposite to defuse situations. If a child’s feeling grumpy, I might try to distract them with humour, or I might ask to carry their bag and then say something like ‘Wow this is heavy, what’s in here? Look at this, you’ve got a dictionary – oh, I’m so proud.’ If the problem is serious, we will come back to it. If the problem isn’t that important, we have hopefully taken some of the emotion out of it.
Tip 4: Octopus arms
Many years ago when I was a trainee, my tutor told me ‘you need to fill the classroom with your presence.’ At first I thought that was hopeless, as I’m actually quite little. But what he meant was that nobody in your classroom should feel that they can’t be seen by you. Teachers should not be stuck at the front of their classroom so that students can hide in the back. Your room should be laid out so that you can get anywhere and everywhere at once, like you have octopus arms.
Tip 5: The aroma of confidence
Everyone thinks that children can smell fear, but what they really sense is whether you have authenticity. The teachers who immediately command respect are genuinely confident, and that usually comes from experience. There’s a phrase that goes through my head when dealing with a difficult student, which is ‘you will not win.’ I’ve been doing this for so long that I know, whatever happens, I will not lose in this situation. I’ve seen all the tricks.
There’s also something important about realising that your role doesn’t end at the classroom door. Your real authority comes from relationships and you build those all around the school- at lunch, at events and by meeting with parents. The teachers who have real authority are the ones who have relationships that run outside the classroom.
Tip 6: Parents are your allies, not your enemies
Don’t treat parents as if they are the cause of their child’s problems. One of the things I always say to parents is ‘you are the expert in your child’s life- you know them better than we do, so let’s work together.’ In meetings I make sure the parents never sit across from me, but rather next to me with the child opposite - because we’re the adults and we’re addressing the issues together.
Tip 7: Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em
There are times you’re going to be out of your depth and you need to know your limitations. Are you getting angry or are you shouting? If you are then you’re losing control of the situation and taking it personally. That’s when you need to get someone to help you. You mustn’t let things get to you- they’re only children. Years ago I was in a classroom with two boys throwing chairs and tables at each other – and I had to call for help, because I couldn’t break it up.
Another hint I would offer is that you need a buddy at the school. You need somebody on-site that you can go to for advice, or just to make you feel better. As Principal, I want my staff to come to me, but realistically, they’re not going to tell me every little thing, because they may be embarrassed and at the end of the day I’m their boss.