I have been a teacher of English for 24 years and this much I know about teaching disengaged 15 year old boys (most, if not all, of which will be obvious).
Eighteen months ago we withdrew 14 C/D borderline disengaged Year 10 boys from their English classes and I taught them. It was a win-win – they stopped disrupting others and they made real progress.
I have insider information about how to teach disengaged 15 year old boys; I have one. And it’s worth acknowledging that being the Headteacher helps.
Relationships are everything. Fullan says, The single factor common to successful change is that relationships improve. If relationships improve, [things] get better. If relationships remain the same or get worse, ground is lost. Invest lots of time in developing relationships with each boy. Get to know about them personally, so that you have something to discuss with them during those idle moments when they are queuing at the door waiting for the change of lesson, or when you meet them round school.
Boys fart. A lot. Just don’t react. Or if you do, shout Doorknob! dead quick. That stops it. See below for full explanation.
Laugh with them and let them laugh at you. One day mid-lesson I was singing Lovin’ You by Minnie Riperton (yes, I know that sounds incredible) and they were giggling. I challenged them to name the artist; if they could I pledged I would buy them a copy of Call of Duty 6 each, at £40 a throw, due to be released that week. After some ridiculous guessing, Jordan said that his gran often plays that song and that he thought it was something like Minnie Rip-ton. It took a whole week before he admitted he’d looked it up on his phone, and mobiles are banned at our school.
Know their culture. The fact that I knew who John Cena was and how to do a choke-slam was awesomely good in their eyes.
Trust them. I found this quotation from Seneca in Clive Stafford-Smith’s own This much I know in the Observer magazine: The first step towards making someone trustworthy is to trust them. Choose your moment and use the phrase, I’m going to trust you to do this, looking directly into their eyes. It works.
On some things you have to compromise. I know it encourages learned helplessness, but just buy a stack of biros and don’t get precious if you lose a load.
No matter what the subject, get them talking. We all have a story to tell. They love to debate a subject. As a one off, sit them round a dining-style table and give them a paper plate and ask them to write down one person they’d like to invite to have a curry. And then have a group discussion about who would be on a shortlist of six; works every time. And if they can talk about their work but cannot write about it, use a dictaphone whilst they’re telling you about it; the transcripts are magical.
Give them structure and establish routines. For instance, make finding their work as easy as possible. Even if you are the guardian of their work 99% of the time and you rarely let it out of your sight, that’s OK in the long run, because at least they’ll have their notes to revise from in May of Year 11.
Never, ever, ever, ever, ever diverge publicly from believing that every single one of them will get a minimum of a grade C. Not once.
Don’t bother setting homework whose completion is essential. Doling out punishment for incomplete homework detracts from the precious time you have with them in class when you can influence what they do and how they think. They complete homework badly, if at all, and then you waste time writing in their planners at the beginning of the next lesson when a sparky start is crucial if they are going to learn anything. Set extension homework, having made sure all the essentials are covered in lesson time.
Don’t drive on with something just because there is a specification to get through when it’s clear you are draining them. It is crucial you do something light-hearted and refreshing for an hour instead. If you don’t have a break, the consequences are dire.
I know it’s unbelievably obvious, but know your sport. Of course I support Manchester United – I was born in Sussex. When we lost the league to City at the end of last season, I walked into the library for our lesson, Monday period 1, and the boys were standing in front of the newspaper rack pretending to read the centre pages of all the papers; every light-blue sports back page faced me in welcome.
Don’t give them out individual copies if you are analysing texts – use a single copy on the board so you know who’s looking at what.
Feed them a lot. Stupidly, it took me ages to work this one out. I knew my own son wasn’t worth talking to if he was remotely hungry; when I made the connection I threw all the cake I could find at the problem. It was sponsored by our Raising Achievement fund. There was a moment, as I walked in with a tray of chocolate Butterfly cakes, when Louis said, Oh Sir, I’m really gonna work hard from now on. It took just a tray of Butterfly cakes to change his behaviours which had been ingrained for nearly 11 years of school. Oh, and serve breakfast before morning examinations and lunch before afternoon ones. BTW, Louis got his grade C in English Language GCSE.
Construct as many learning tasks as you can that get them moving round the room. They have to get rid of that energy somehow.
A reprimand now and again does no harm whatsoever. They’re boys – as long as you’re fair, they’ll be fine.
Let them know you know what they think they know. And always be the adult.
Every time there’s a minor victory, celebrate! I have built my whole career around a line from Virgil, Success nourishes them: they can because they think they can, a better version of Henry Ford’s famous dictum. And keep things competitive; I’m not averse to awarding hard cash.
Doorknob! Apparently, if you’re an adolescent male and one of your mates farts, if you shout Doorknob before he shouts Safety you can hit him as hard as you like until he has touched the handle of a door, hence Doorknob! I told you I had insider info…