Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Leadership: reboot your school's behaviour for 2017

'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you...'

To mark the start of the new year and the Spring term, I wrote a short introduction recently for teachers to consider how they could approach refreshing the behaviour in their classrooms. In summary, it went a little like this:

  • 1.     Any behaviours that can be made into routines, should be
  • 2.     Communicate these to your class, explicitly and clearly.
  • 3.     Practise the behaviours until they become habits
  • 4.     Patrol the boundaries of these behaviours with micro-interventions
  • 5.     Sell the benefits

In this post I want to talk a little about the same issue for school leaders. I’ve been working with schools on behaviour for years, and one thing that struck me early on was that while there was a great deal the individual teacher could do to make a difference to in-class behaviour, how the school itself was run made an even bigger difference to behaviour outcomes. When I used to run the behaviour advice column for the TES the second most common woe was- maybe surprisingly- based around issues teachers were having with school behaviour systems. Systems matter. Good ones let teachers teach and students learn. Bad ones hose everyone's ambitions in molasses. 

Students are remarkably flexible in picking up how they should behave in different circumstances. Ever seen how a student will behave for one teacher but not another, as if they were two different people? They pick up cues and norms wherever they go; they act one way in the playground, another at grandma’s. The student is the constant factor in these scenarios, so it must be the scenarios themselves- the culture- that provide the explanation for the differences.
mutatis mutandis

In other words, there are different social norms and cultures adhered to in different zones of the school. And this suggests that the dominant influence over the pupil’s response is local, not generalised to the school. And that suggests that the school has a problem with its general culture. Its identity isn’t strong enough to influence behaviour in every room, and the teacher/ peer group is the key lever.

Many schools overcome this, and here are some discussion points about ways they can do it.

1.     Survey all staff and students anonymously.  Ask them what they think of behaviour. What are the problems? What do they think would be solutions? When do problems occur? Try to harvest some quantifiables. What % of lessons are disrupted? How frequently? This kind of self-reporting is subjective, but gather enough of it and you’ll find out how it seems to the people in the field the most. It’s also a useful metric to use over time as an indicator of strategy success. Of course, you have to share the results with everyone otherwise you look like Kim Jong-il.

2.     Be the architect of the community. Cultures happen whatever you do; it makes sense to attempt to build a good one rather than cross your fingers, screw your eyes shut and hope hundreds of unrelated people spontaneously and silently decide to build a society based on mutual collaboration, compassion and success. Deliberately construct visible social markers of what your school stands for. There are milestone events like whole-school assemblies, lesson transitions etc that need to be stage managed like Les Folies Bergère. But of course, everything that happens in school is an expression of the school culture. And of course, cultures cannot be entirely woven from an ether- you spin the threads on your jenny-  but leaders have reins no one else has a hand on.

3.     Everyone faces the same way. There are aspects of school life that require agency and autonomy,   
Planners on desks please. 
and areas where rightly, staff and students need air to breath, space to move and the freedom to self-manage. And then there will be other aspects of school behavioural life that need to be met by everyone. Non-negotiables of conduct to which everyone should try to cleave, like corridor etiquette, lesson starts, trips. Some of these will be essential to school life- prohibitions on fighting, for example- and others may reflect the culture of the school- standing up when visitors enter, or heads in books? I’ve been in groovy schools where the students wore jeans and called their teachers by the first name. I’ve been in others where you phone up and they say WE ARE BORG. Mileages will vary. But in every case the values and rules of the school need to be upheld by everyone, from Principal Skinner to Groundskeeper Willie.

4.     Communicate, train, monitor. Rinse and repeat until you achieve the shade you require. Fine ideas about great behaviour are worthless unless we a) tell people clearly what they are, b) give them the support to do so (for example CPD) and c) actually track that people are doing it. When I worked in restaurants I was treated to a maddening maxim- you get what you inspect, not what you expect. Trite, but true. This is where quite a few schools stumble, I think. Are we watching to see if the fine sentiments written on the sign next to the school gates are being met? Are we nudging those who ‘forget’? Retraining when needed? Teachers are typically untelepathic (apart from one notable exception in North Salem) and may need to be actually told what the behaviour standards are.

Running a school is one of the hardest jobs in the game. There are a million things to be done in a school. But behaviour needs to be pretty close to the top of the list.

Good luck in 2017

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