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Drop the ego

Behaviour Management

Drop the ego

a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

Here is a common scenario that perplexes teachers around the world. The teacher nonchalantly asks a student (Dahlia) to pick up a piece of rubbish. The student quickly proclaims that the litter was left by another student and is somewhat offended by the unfounded and unjust accusation. The teacher expects the student to obey their commands and couldn’t possibly say ‘oh well, don’t worry about it then’. The student on the other hand (rightly feeling defensive) is not going to take this lying down. In the student’s mind, picking up the rubbish is an admission of guilt. The teacher asks politely again – the student digs their heels in and replies, ‘no, it isn’t mine’.

The teacher’s heart sinks as he or she imagines how this could unravel: first there is a battle of wills, then a second teacher is called for support, then Dahlia is sent to the office – parents may even be called. All the while, she can’t believe what is happening – the injustice of it all. One minute she was casually eating her sandwich while minding her own business; the next she was sitting in the principal’s office for the first time – how did it come to this? The teacher too is distraught at what is unfolding. Who would have thought a simple request would blow up like it did? So what happened exactly?

This situation happened because the teacher was more concerned with his or her ego than the student’s welfare and the facts of the case. A simple ‘oh I know, you’re not in trouble, but can you do that for me as a favour while I pick up rubbish over here, thanks Dahlia’ may have averted disaster. Another simple strategy is to say ‘no problems, you pick that up for me when you’re done eating and I’ll get everyone to help clean this area so we can have a clean school’ or even agree with the student ‘you are correct, some students forget the rules, however please do me a favour, thanks Dahlia’. At this point, the ‘turn and walk’ tactic also comes in handy.

However, if after turning and walking, Dahlia still doesn’t pick up the rubbish, what is the teacher to do? One option is to selectively ignore and move on. Another is to return, pick it up and say, ‘come on Dahlia, I thought you were helping me out here? I thought we were best buddies!’. In other words, there are various options available to teachers instead of escalating to high-level responses and engaging in an unfair and unwinnable battle of wills. If her teacher had the opinion that Dahlia must comply with all directions irrespective of the situation or the facts at hand, he or she can expect these battles on a regular basis. While threats and intimidation may eventually be successful, the teacher is the real loser here.

Another simple yet effective solution is for the teacher to simply pick up the rubbish – crisis averted. The teacher could easily say, ‘okay Dahlia, I will pick it up even though it wasn’t mine either – problem solved’. If the teacher suspected it was indeed Dahlia’s rubbish, things may go down differently – but in any case, why bother arguing anyway? Modelling best behaviour is a best practice behaviour management technique (also found in this book). Remember why you got into teaching in the first place – did you imagine spending your days arguing with children over a piece of rubbish?

Another option is to make a light joke about it, ‘well you know I get cranky without my coffee so I will pick this up just so I can get my coffee. You now owe me big-time Dahlia – big time’. She will naturally protest, and the teacher will respond with a cheeky smile and say ‘nope, big time’ while walking away. Both know it was all in jest. Notice the teacher is not concerned in the slightest that students may now see him or her as a pushover. Dahlia continues eating her lunch while enjoying the sunshine as well-behaved as ever. The teacher continues to the staff room for a much needed coffee and with many more rapport credits in the bank.

Modelling best behaviour is a best practice behaviour management technique.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Behaviour Management Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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