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…

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This post has 43 Comments

  1. This has really made me smile. I have taught many classes like this in my 8 years of teaching ( in previous incarnation I spent 17 years as a broker trying to engage oft disengaged bank traders). However do you think you could do a 3 week stint in a school where your position as Head is not known? With power comes respect, but gaining it from base level is something else.

    1. I began teaching at my school in 1998. I had a four year interregnum when I went to be Headteacher elsewhere and began as Headteacher in 2007. In 1998 I was a pretty green Deputy. It took me over a year to get only reasonably established. In the November of my first year I thought I couldn’t teach any more – set 5 of 5 both sides of the Year 10 timetable and I was shot. It’s about relationships. And they need to be built. Gaining respect from a base level takes time. Having said that, power does not breed respect if you use that power unfairly – if you abuse power you breed contempt.

      1. I appreciate your honesty on this matter. It is about relationships, and you have to balance a lot between what you let slide, and what you don’t while you build it. Being a woman can also put you at a disadvantage for a while, with some boys. However, you can get there, especially if you let go of what ‘school’ looks like. I always have pencils and paper because they show up with nothing, have them keep their work in the class, celebrate birthdays, and walk around the block, or the track when we need to. I take them for ice cream now and then. Whatever works to keep them coming. I don’t understand this line: “..set 5 of 5 both sides of the Year 10 timetable and I was shot” ? Great post. Thanks.

  2. Good to have my gut instinct confirmed by somebody with a heck of a lot more experience! thank you!

  3. This is brilliant advice and in my mind goes well beyond those 15 year old boys. Thanks for taking the time to get it all down in one place. I’ll be keeping this as a reference point.
    I think I’d add that there’s a lot to gain from taking the time to learn some selected pieces of truly complex material. The sampling of the feeling of mastery and the sense of knowing something difficult – as well as conquering a challenge together – really makes a difference. It builds confidence, shared experiences and capacity. Like anaerobic threshold training. Can’t be done alone.

  4. Great stuff…. My Yr10 Product Design students won’t know what’s hit em! 🙂

  5. Thank you for sharing this- some of it seems brave to me- like not setting homework or feeding the pupils. This has to come with support from above.
    I’ve got a similar class and at the moment our relationship is great and they are achieving but I do fear someone walking in and questioning my methods. I often have time out for a chat with them and use a lot of bribery!! I’ve set very little homework as I know if it’s important it’s got to be done in class.
    My advice to pgce students on building relationships with challenging pupils is to make it personal. Let them see a bit of yourself. If they mess up your lesson it’s personal. It upsets you personally. They respond to the human connection.
    Thank you again for this.

  6. This is splendid advice – and women teachers can do it too. I’ll add another – don’t let them down by missing their lessons – never have more important things to do – especially if you are the headteacher.

  7. Thanks for this John this chimes with me as an ex Deputy and now working in a Uni. Phil Beedle also talks about relationships at the heart of change and I like that you emphasise that there are no magic bullets. I observed a lesson recently where as a recalcitrant boy entered the room the trainee teacher said, “Fred (name changed) saw you did really well in the badminton competition at lunchtime) the boy changed like having the cliched light switch being thrown. In a sense why should we be surprised love (and I think that in its widest sense you are talking about loving the children) can conquer all. I hope that our very own education M&Ms are reading this too.

  8. I love the emphasis on the positive that shines out of this account – congratulations Mr T, sounds like you’ve got it. Some great practical tips (“Doorknob”? Who knew?) that I will definitely steal – ahem – borrow with appropriate acknowledgement. Keep up the inspiration.

  9. Reblogged this on The TRUVic Project and commented:
    To what extent a. have you noticed the following ideas by John Tomsett in practice at the schools you have been at and b. do these ideas resonate with you?

  10. I am a Child and Youth Worker who is so happy to stumble upon this blog; you summed up what I have been trying to for years… keep advocating for teens 🙂

  11. This almost makes me tearful, I wish my son had just one teacher who understood some of this. I’m constantly getting emails about him not bringing pens to class, or not doing homework – and I think this is completely missing the point and focussing on the small stuff that punches any interest in school or learning right out of him. I don’t know what options I have, he’s a bright, funny, articulate boy who is passionate about art, but the school system doesn’t work for him. What do I do?

    1. Go tell the Headteacher just what you’ve told me here. Keep the art going at home. In some ways we have to drag boys through GCSE – I think they thrive more easily when they can narrow down on what they enjoy post 16.

  12. Brilliant post. I have been doing lots of this for a while and was starting to think I was mental. Now I know that even if I am, I’m not the only one.

  13. Loved this thank you! Have to remember it all though… Agree with some of the comments that sometimes you feel vulnerable doing some of these – e.g giving out snacks or prizes for motivation. If I might add one more, could I suggest use of Ict, seems to really grab them especially things like samlearning or even just getting them to translate an idea into a prezi or ppt.
    1 question – on the texts do you scan them in and show them on the whiteboard/ projector or??

  14. I cannot believe some of the rubbish on this blog-I have a good mind to forward to this to OFSTED and see what they think about not setting homework, laughing at poor behaviour, bribing students with Cake and not being honest with students regarding their ability. If there is no way a student can achieve a Grade C, why insult their intelligence by lying to then that it is possible.

    1. I can understand how you might think this Matthew. I am currently writing a more detailed blog about the writing process. I work in an English Department which, based on last summer’s results, which included this cohort of boys, is ranked in the 4th percentile nationally, where 92% of students made expected progress and 82% of FSM students made expected progress. As Michael Wilshaw says, what’s good is what works, and whatever we are doing in this English department, the data suggests that it works. I hope you like my follow up blog.

  15. Method in the madness; what experience confirms is what works, works. In some schools, John’s actions might be seen to undermine, but in others, by believing in the children once more and showing them hope and reinforcing an undeniable belief that they will pass, confidence in their learning process is re-established. Nothing but nothing damages a classroom atmosphere than poor behaviour – if the teacher causes that damage, its even harder the school than if the children create the problems.

  16. Brilliant! I just came across this post (probably tweeted by @jameswilding) and I love it and saved it to reread as a reminder. I am going to start bringing food in again. I used to feed my students but stopped 2 years ago as a result of administrative pressure.
    BELIEVING IN THEM goes far, and if the students respect you they will rise to the occasion. Having confidence in them does not mean you lower standards.
    Now I have to go read what all else you have written.

  17. Just discovered this and very grateful I am too. We’ve just re-set our Year 10 History classes and I’m taking on an all-boys group. There are some great ideas here, some of which I’ve tried using in mixed gender groups and found it doesn’t often work with the quieter boys or the girls who seem to shrink away as the boisterous lads rear their heads. Really looking being able to try some of these things out with this new group and seeing how it works out. Thanks for the advice.

  18. The man is a god. The way he taught me English was better than I have ever been taught in my 5 years at school. I have tons of respect for John. Thank you.

  19. Brilliant advice even for teaching the engaged at some time in some place.
    Tucked in there was this one which I think is key….”And it’s worth acknowledging that being the Headteacher helps”. Helps in all sorts of ways.
    If we were able to give students the idea that teachers could do everything the Head is able to do i.e. set rules etc and ensure that teachers who apply the rules would have support right to the top I feel that many of our troubles would be lessened.
    I think this post shows that this Head is a principled professional and some of the success here is I feel down to the way they lead the school i.e. small group of 15 in a wider context.
    I get the feeling that here we have a supportive Head with high expectations of staff and students. This is an unbeatable combination.

  20. I had to teach Maths on Friday afternoon to 14 year olds here in Brisbane, Australia. Boys and girls, government school, low ability students. I was on a 6 week contract at the school. Everything seemed stacked against me. So I did something I never do, I handed out gratuitous praise: My first words every Friday when I walked into the classroom were, “My favourite class! You know I really look forward to teaching you” or words to that effect. The reality was that I was always in a panic about the misery they could inflict on me. Of course, there were never any brilliant results, but they responded well to my positive expressions and those lessons were, perhaps, the least stressful of the week for me. Go figure.

  21. I’ve just read this and cried. Too late in my case to turn around a class that has just been taken off me. My first “failure” in 27 years of teaching. In my last “lesson” with this class the ringleader and two of his cohorts were standing, swearing and shouting at me, accusing me, inter alia, of boring them and wasting their parents’ money. Feel free to contact me. I’d love to chew the fat a bit.

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