“If Pupils Behave Badly it’s the Teacher’s Fault!”

Some time ago I heard a very bold, and potentially life-threatening, statement from a colleague in the staffroom. He, we’ll call him Mr. Footinit, had just returned from a training day where he had clearly had a revelation and decided…

“If pupils behave badly in a lesson it is the teacher’s fault.”

Needless to say coffee was spilled and spat out en masse when he shared this little gem but I have to say… with some trepidation… this is a view I almost totally agree with.

We all know there are many factors which influence the behaviour of the young people in our care, including diet, home life, peer pressure, hormones, medical disorders, bullying and TV, to name but a few. We also know that, as teachers, we have absolutely no control over these factors at all; so how on earth can it be the teacher’s fault when a child misbehaves?

The teacher cannot ensure a child doesn’t stuff his face with additive-laden sweets and fizzy drinks for breakfast on his way to school any more than she can prevent him watching inappropriate films and TV programs at 3am. We teachers have no control over those things; they happen outside school so they are outside our control.

So there we go. Case closed. When a pupil behaves badly in class it can’t possibly be the teacher’s fault.

But incidents of bad behaviour seldom just ‘happen’. They are usually triggered by what can often seem relatively insignificant events and then escalate dramatically as a result of the reactions of others – including the teacher.

A teacher who reacts to challenging pupils with aggressive body language, shouting, sarcasm, unfair punishments etc. may cause resentment and open defiance together with all the associated behaviours. Similarly, when minor problems are left unchecked by the teacher they will undoubtedly get out of hand. When either of these things happen, Mr. Footinit’s comment is not too far wide of the mark.

The teacher who seldom ventures to the back of the classroom where the ‘likely lads’ hang out is asking for trouble just as the teacher who pre-judges and snarls at Ryan, Liam and Connor before they’ve had chance to sit down is asking for an argument. The way we approach challenging children is crucial in terms of managing the classroom and diffusing and de-escalating problems before they get out of hand.  And our approach is the only thing that is under our direct control.

We can’t change a child’s inappropriate parents and we can’t change what goes on outside the classroom but one thing we can change – tomorrow – is our approach towards our most challenging pupils; the way we interact and communicate with them. Obviously we communicate differently to people we actually like, respect and get on with because we feel differently about them than those who annoy us or cause us problems. Clearly then, the first essential step in changing our approach lies in taking a step back and changing the way we actually feel about these young people; changing our whole attitude towards them.

I interviewed hundreds of ‘at risk’ students recently to try and find out what it was specifically that made them so unsuccessful at school. These kids were aged between 11 and 15 and were the ones you’d always find scurrying around corridors during lesson time – usually because they’d been thrown out of the class. They were all ‘at risk’ of being permanently excluded from school because of their behaviour and negative attitude.

The results shocked me.

In EVERY instance, every single pupil told me that the reason they had problems in certain lessons and with certain members of staff was because the member of staff made it quite clear that they didn’t like them and didn’t want them in their class. Their attitude towards these kids was totally negative and was clearly conveyed in their body language, their voices, their facial expressions and their actions.

They had the expectation, if not hope, that unsavory behaviours were bound  to occur. As we all know, in this game, teacher expectations are a powerful force so the kids rarely failed to disappoint.

Let’s look at the following simple exercise to illustrate the important part our attitude towards challenging pupils plays in effective classroom management…

Two new pupils have arrived at your school and you are told you must have one of them in your class. Which one would you prefer?

Pupil A
– Mother died when he was 5. Father left home when he was 4.
– Lived with grandmother for 1 year before she died.
– Since then, lived in 3 foster homes and been excluded from primary school.
– Scars and burns – attributed to abusive father.

Pupil B
– Manipulative.
– Incapable of following instructions.
– Needs constant attention from staff.
– Violent towards staff and fellow pupils.
– Doesn’t form relationships easily.

Unless you’re someone who loves a challenge you would probably opt for Pupil A, based on the principle that you feel sorry for him. Alternatively, you may have already guessed that the two pupils are, in fact the same person. The description of Pupil A focuses on the person, his background and some of the terrible factors that have contributed to his failing. The description of Pupil B focuses on the behaviour the pupil displays.

The point of this little exercise is that when dealing with ‘problem’ children, it is easy to label the child solely in terms of their behaviour, rather than the whole child. Our attitude towards them then develops accordingly.

Teachers with negative attitudes generate problems for themselves. They wind kids up; they expect trouble (and get it). Their classroom has a negative air. When behaviour problems occur, which they frequently do in this environment, they quickly escalate into serious confrontations because the teacher’s response tends to be aggressive, sarcastic or dismissive.

The teacher with a positive attitude has positive expectations. Rather than being on the lookout for, and expecting, problems in the classroom they look for, and frequently find, solutions. They communicate on every level that they are there to help the pupils rather than find fault with them and when problems do occur, they respond in a manner that conveys care, fairness and consideration without compromising the need to be firm and in control.

If you want to see positive changes in your ability to manage difficult pupils a good place to start is with your attitude towards these young people. Try to remember that they aren’t born badly behaved. Remember they have a history which has shaped them and are likely to have had far more emotional pressure to deal with in their short lives than you or I ever will; and treat them accordingly. If you do that, no one can ever say it’s your fault when they don’t behave!



Rob Plevin has been sharing resources for teachers on Classroom Management & Student Engagement for 10 years following a 15-year career as a Special Education Teacher and Deputy Head Teacher.





9 thoughts on ““If Pupils Behave Badly it’s the Teacher’s Fault!”

  1. Apologies, but this simply is not correct. It is just as much about environment as it is the teacher. Of course, the teacher does make a marked difference based on their attitude and expectations, but the teachers in my school who seem to conmand respect are the ones who shout and act aggressively. By contrast, I always treat pupils with respect, with clear expectations, and have positive relationships with almost all pupils; including the more challenging ones. Yet, the behaviour is not always great, and the mood of the pupils becomes almost non-existent if one of the aforementioned more openly aggressive teachers enters the room. I always remain firm but fair to all my classes, and I do not wish to be known as one of the teachers who threatens openly; yet I struggle often whereas they do not. So, simply suggesting that the way in which a teacher responds to pupils is the reason for their behaviour is inaccurate, and depends entirely on the context of the school (I work in the centre of Birmingham).

  2. Really?
    So on that premise criminals do what they do because the public aren’t “positive” towards them.

    Poor behaviour is a choice, and a student choice at that. Until we stop making all sorts of excuses, because that’s exactly what they are, excuses, and make students personally responsible for their behaviour than we are being totally unfair to them and not preparing them for the workplace where poor behaviour has real life consequences. Teachers should be allowed to teach, pure and simple. Don’t lay choices an individual makes at someone else’s door.

    Current SLT, still teaching and not trying to tell other teachers how to do stuff but supporting them in their very tough and demanding job.

  3. Interesting article, but one important factor you didn’t include.
    What if the teacher is a Supply Teacher?
    From my own experience going into schools, if a Supply Teacher is not given the support (and in some cases the respect of teachers) how are the students expected to follow suit.
    Change is coming too slowly (in this respect) and you’ll end up with only ‘cover supervisors’ covering (not teaching) students.

  4. As a teacher I am heartily sick and tired of people who don’t teach in a classroom telling me that I am wholly responsible for poor behaviour. Most students who are poorly behaved in school are also poorly behaved out of school. Is that my fault too? When I see one of my students throwing chocolate milk at the window of a shop and shouting racist abuse at the shopkeeper, do I assume that the shopkeeper has done something to provoke this onslaught? Do I assume that the shopkeeper deserves what he gets? Of course I don’t. Nobody with half a brain would make such an assumption. Yet, so many supposedly educated people make this argument in relation to teachers. In essence we are told to tip-toe around miscreants, pretending that their nasty, abusive, aggressive behaviour doesn’t bother us. Any attempt to apply the rules which apply to other students is bound to lead to another outburst. As this is so unquestionably “the teacher’s fault” many teachers feel that they have no option but to back down and apply a different set of rules to students who are prone to kick-off. In effect, they are being told to lower their standards. Inevitably, this has a knock-on effect. If you are the one teacher in the school who is prepared to confront Timmy Thug over his use of a mobile phone during lessons you are on a hiding to nothing. It is one of the great failings failings of the education system. Nasty, abusive, aggressive behaviour has devastating consequences for society and for the individuals who are allowed to sail through 11 years of schooling without meaningful challenge. Even those who are kicked out of a state school for their behaviour simply move on to another state school and are admitted with no pre-conditions. People wonder why students who have benefited from private schooling go on to do so well in life. As someone who has worked in both the private and public sector I would argue that it isn’t the exam results, although these are unquestionably better in the private sector. In my opinion, it is the higher standards of conduct in private schools and the fact that poor behaviour is not tolerated which produces polite, well-balanced individuals who impress at interview and are better able to deal with the challenges of life. I have worked in a number of schools, including some challenging ones, and, in my experience the schools which are successful are those which assign responsibility for poor behaviour to the students concerned and apply the discipline policy rigorously and fairly.

  5. It’s a tricky balancing act but essentially, a change of attitude may have the biggest impact – nice article and I imagine it’s something close to every teacher’s heart. Thanks for sharing!

  6. This is so wrong and also incredibly stupid. If you really believe this then your just enabling the idea that they’re (students) are not responsible for there choices. I was a grade A fuck up in school, (suspended 6 times in grade 8-9, averaged 150 absent classes per year grade 8-11) I still managed to graduate on time (2005-2010) despite my troubles. Why? Not because of teachers or my parents, because I wanted to do it for myself. I stopped making excuses for why I couldn’t do this or that and just pushed myself till I had completed everything I need to grad. Throughout that whole year in grade 12 trying to make sure I graded on time I wasn’t any less troubled or problematic, (I got arrested for possession for purpose of trafficking cocaine and heroine the same day of the grad ceremony) but I still finished high school, and if I didn’t I wouldn’t have blamed anyone else but myself. Kids these days are soft and love to blame their families or friends or teachers or whoever for their own problems and everyone wants to be so understanding that kids get away with not having to be accountable for their choices and actions.

    Dvs. 13/12/92.

  7. I massively disagree with this article! Last year I had 4 children with statements (or going through the four year process of getting one), non of them had support because of funding cuts. These children had needs that I couldn’t meet as a class teacher. But because my attention was distracted with them, other disruptive behaviours had manifested themselves causing further disruptions (this had occurred each year with the class).

  8. Whole school support is responsible for supporting children who exhibit challenging behaviour. A child who has experienced extreme stress could suffer with increased levels of cortisol for up to eight hours – hardly conducive to sitting at a desk, no matter how positive the teacher. We need to ensure schools are funded sufficiently to provide practical space and emotional support for these children. The whole school community is responsible for supporting both the child and the teacher. The government is responsible for ensuring poverty, and the resulting issues that ruin children’s lives, is eradicated. The current government is responsible for inadequately funding schools to support children who suffer the effects of poverty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>