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Surviving and succeeding in the first year of teaching: How to manage a challenging class

surviving-teachingAlex Galvin, Senior Education Lead, SSAT, writes…

In this series we are sharing advice for new teachers from Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School on how to make a success of your early months in teaching. This latest entry tackles how best to manage a challenging class…


We all encounter classes that we find challenging. It happens at various times throughout our teaching career and can sometimes just be the result of an unfortunate mix of students. When it happens it can leave us feeling unnerved, wondering if we have lost our grip, and losing sleep.

We must remember that while there may always be a class that you find challenging, the prospect of such a group is often worse than the reality. And there are also a range of strategies that will help to overcome your worries, including:

  1. Remember that impressions matter. You don’t want to be seen by your class to be worried or to give a sense of disliking your students. Use the same rituals and routines as you would with others – being at the door as they arrive, smiling, saying hello to individuals by name, asking for coats off. Be relentlessly positive in your view of the class and what they can achieve. Make sure that you recognise achievement wherever possible but be clear about what you are praising – students quickly see through empty or insincere praise.
  2. Speaking to individuals in the class is really important because you want as many of the group as possible to respect you as a teacher and to enjoy your lessons. This will therefore minimise the impact of any troublemakers. Avoid pre-judging anyone. Ignore anyone who tells you ‘Katie always causes trouble, makes sure she sits on her own.’ Establish fair and consistent expectations for everyone and then deal with individuals on the basis of how they are working in your lesson.
  3. Remember that lesson design is important. With a challenging class, pace and variety of activities are more important than ever. High quality, clearly structured content will carry you through. And the more students that experience a positive lesson with you, the more they will want to come back for more.
  4. Don’t let any conflict get personal. If an attention-seeking student is trying to gain attention, don’t show that you’re getting annoyed. Don’t give them the attention they are craving. Instead emphasise the way their behaviour is impeding the class’ learning rather than upsetting you.
  5. Give choices. If a student continues to be disruptive, give them a choice. ‘Stephen, you’re distracting the people around you. Now do you want to come and sit here at the front, or are you going to stay where you are and concentrate?’
  6. Avoid public confrontation as it may be precisely what the students is after. Instead, deal as best you can with the situation in the lesson and deal with the behaviour at the end of the lesson when you can talk to the student one-to-one.
  7. Remember that you can turn a blind eye to some behaviour. If Stephen is now not disrupting the class, but equally not getting much work done, ignore it for now. See him at the end of the lesson, one-to-one, to express your disappointment and to set a deadline for the unfinished work to be completed by. Be firm about this – demonstrate an unshakable expectation that in your lesson work must be finished.
  8. Share the problem. It may be that other staff are having problems with the same students. Talk to your head of department or mentor. Do not view seeking advice or support as an admission of failure, it is important that students see you using established behaviour-management structures and referring issues to more senior staff where appropriate. See if you can arrange to watch someone else teaching the same or similar group. Don’t allow your worry about this group to dominate your experience. Keep it in perspective and stay optimistic. Start each new lesson with them as if it’s going to be great, not as if it will be an ordeal.

Advice from those who’ve been there and done it

The best way to deal with a challenging class is to provide them with an interesting lesson where they don’t want to mess about. If the lesson is interesting and fun, you have already started winning the battle. The other vital ingredient is a huge lump of praise. You only need to watch a pupil’s face light up when you tell them they have done well and you will see the benefits!
Lorna, Bartley Green School

Always ask for help, don’t be afraid. I thought I was failing because of some pupils’ behaviour but my head of department and deputy headteachers helped me reinforce my authority in the school.

Rewards are great; it may be a puzzle game at the end of a lesson or merits. Don’t underestimate the power of positive rewards, even my year 12s loved gold stars when revising for exams!
Kathryn, Little Heath School

Invest time into building positive relationships with students. Go the extra mile (learn their names, find out their interests, be firm but fair, be understanding, treat them as individuals, give them chance after chance). Set clear boundaries and do what you say you’ll do – don’t say things that you won’t/can’t follow through on.
Stephen, Whitley Abbey Business & Enterprise College

Careful planning and a positive approach to classroom management were the best pieces of advice I received. If there is a good pace to the lesson and work is matched to the individuals in the class they are more likely to engage. This means problems with behaviour can be avoided. Praising members of the class who were getting it right often motivated those who weren’t to recognise this for themselves and put it right. This helped to maintain the positive atmosphere in the classroom rather than creating negativity.
Sarah-Jane, Little Heath School

Never lose your temper – it’s amusing for pupils and that’s the reaction they want. But you will lose respect. When negotiating with a difficult pupil keep it simple. Give them a course of action, a process and a consequence – then allow them to choose. 95% will choose the desired response. Avoid being drawn into an argument – simply state the desired behaviour and give a consequence.
Darren, The Swinton High School

Set clear expectations. Start off strict – there will always be a honeymoon period with some classes but don’t let this lull you into a false sense of security. I’ve sometimes asked my professional mentor/head of department to come and observe a challenging group and give me specific feedback on my behaviour management techniques – it is important to be proactive and seek advice and support.
Rachel, Lady Lumley’s School



What are your experiences of your first year in teaching? What worked for you? What didn’t work? Let us know via Twitter with the hashtag #SSATsurvive or in the comments below.

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