Beating the ‘October Blues’ – Better Learning with Better Behaviour

It is over a month in, the start of term vigour and optimism has waned for almost all involved, and everything begins to feel more like hard work. The ‘October blues’ phenomenon is something I have noted in my last few years teaching. As a subject leader, I have witnessed the spike in behaviour issues which appears as consistent as the coming of winter at the beginning of each October – the grace period afforded by September soon ends for most. Perhaps it is the seasonal shift, the cold winds and the interminable rain, compounded by tiredness from students and teachers alike; perhaps it is the students exercising that old adage that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ when it comes to their new teachers for the school year.

Now, we certainly cannot change the weather, amongst a whole host of other factors beyond our control. But we can dig in, reiterate core habits in our pedagogy and master our behaviour management techniques with the greater understanding of our groups granted to us by our graceful September (I would hope!). I have always taken a positive view of behaviour management. I have never believed in an ‘unteachable’ student (though that hypothesis has been sorely tested!), nor have I ever believed in the unteachable group. It is an incredibly powerful belief, one that can test the pride and self-image of a teacher, but can also liberate them, and their groups, from the fixed mindset of failure. I’m not arguing here for the grand transformations seen in films like ‘Dangerous Minds’, but instead for a much more quotidian, gritty and unheralded challenge to master the disaffected Year 11 groups; the chatty Year 7 students; the hormonal and erratic Year 9 groups, and every other archetypal group that tests our patience on a daily basis – some spectacularly so – especially when the ‘October blues’ descend.

The solutions – like the issues – are nuanced and multi-faceted, but if I were attempt to simplify them, my list would be comprised of the following:

Keep the main thing the main thing. The tiredness has set in, the meetings are clashing and the Open evenings are here already… The relentless pace of teaching today makes a mockery of Wilshaw’s home by three o’ clock assertion. With all the demands upon our time we must put the teaching and learning first – make those tricky decisions to prioritise, say no to opportunities and distractions. Focus upon planning your lessons and marking their work. Students very quickly size up a teacher and their standards. If you mark thoroughly, clearly and with consistency at the start of the year most students will commit themselves to working for you. If you give the feedback that involves them and shows the path to small, but crucial, steps to success, again, they will be much more inclined to follow you, to behave and to do some learning! Ultimately, great pedagogy is the best behaviour management tool there is – that is why planning is essential to progress.

Only accept the best work and create a drafting culture in your classroom. I think the key factor that underpins student behaviour is motivation. With high levels of motivation comes pride – with pride comes effort. By refusing sub-standard work you are explicitly sending a message that pride and effort is paramount. This week I had one of my groups complete a detailed written answer three times. The first effort wasn’t good enough – everyone did it again – some a third time. We then all completed a model version for what was the fourth draft for many. The reality is that if I don’t set the tone now, in the first half-term, it will be irrecoverable. In Ron Berger’s brilliant, ‘Ethic of Excellence’, he explains how peer and teacher led ‘critique’ can enhance motivation. It makes clear how students can be motivated by praise and positive relationships with purpose and the highest of standards. He also explains how a drafting culture it essential for real life and for success. In October particularly, you must make your students accountable to these highest of standards.

Help students to learn how to learn. I believe one of the most common failures that we have as teachers is to make assumptions about student learning based on our own personal experience. If you have become a teacher then the obvious reality is that you knew how to learn effectively on the whole; you probably had parental support in giving you the many subtle messages about the very literacy of learning that supported your success along the way. Many of our students simply fail at the first hurdle by not having this internal understanding of how to learn.

If a group is having difficulty with collaboration and group work ask yourself: have you made explicit what outstanding group work looks like; feels like and sounds like? This should be a task you can undertake with students to share these expectations – no doubt reiterating the messages about effort and behaviour with which you began the school year. Many students simply do not know what being a good learner feels like or how to become any better. We confidently talk to them about becoming ‘independent learners‘, but have you had students collaborate to try to unpick what we mean by an ‘independent learner’? If you have, is it memorable or visible in the classroom? A good task to undertake is to have students work in groups to create ‘the ideal [insert appropriate subject] student‘. They can have fun creating a name – you can give them prompt questions as a starting point. At the heart of the task is getting students to unpick how to learn effectively. You can select the best character – with a composite of the best skills, attitude and qualities required – and have that character visible and on display in the classroom. This can be referred to on a regular basis to reiterate the key messages about learning, whilst simultaneously providing a template for good behaviour in a very positive way.

Follow the school systems with the utmost rigour and complete relentlessness. Sometimes, despite the best pedagogy, eye-poppingly intriguing resources and a positive attitude toward every student, some students are still reluctant to get on board (perhaps it is SAD!). We know who they are – their names and reputation often precedes them, in September and in October! This is where you show them you care by having the highest of standards and being firm with the school behaviour systems. Try not to palm them off at the first opportunity – try to establish your authority with your detentions, your call to parents – before asking from support from your school hierarchy. Even if it fails with one student, the rest will surely take note. Be so relentless with your expectations and standards that one word can be shorthand for a host of things – ‘Active Listening‘ is very precise instruction to my classes (stop talking, pens down, eye contact to speaker etc.). This direct simplicity can be highly effective, even after a windy lunchtime with some epic fight on the school field! Keep it to the three ‘R’s’ – rigorous and relentless routines!

Don’t suffer in silence. I am writing this blog as a teacher and a subject leader. I know that the best of teachers still have tricky classes, they can still struggle; that inexperienced teachers will have nightmare lessons and groups and struggle even more. Any subject leader worth their salt has been there and knows that it is the core of their job to help in these situations – not judge staff, or throw their staff to the wolves. I have decidedly struggled with a fair few classes and I got through it because I shared it in my department and I wasn’t frightened of asking for help. My most important work is coaching teachers through those situations, imparting my experience, care and help them improve. All I ask for is that effort and care reciprocated – with that, no monthly dip or worse is insurmountable. I am not naive to think that every school has an entirely supportive approach – so if you are stuck in such a scenario, speak to colleagues you trust, make supportive connections beyond your school (like building a support network through Twitter for example). Finally, if you are suffering, know that across the country many are suffering with you, that your subject leader or head teacher have struggled in their time, and that the ‘October blues’ will inevitably pass like the seasons.

Next blog: ‘Nightmare November – The Annual Nose-Dive’…only joking!

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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

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