Behaviour Balance: Assertive teachers; supportive system.

On my travels around schools over the years I’ve seen hundreds of lessons in various different contexts.  Whilst a firm believer that school and college systems are necessary to support excellent behaviour, I have to say that, where behaviour is an issue in a lesson, a lot of the time I take the view that the teacher’s actions are the problem – and therefore the source of the solution.   It doesn’t matter how good the systems are if teachers are not using them.  This could be a lack of training or a deficit in the staff development process – but it’s worth exploring and reflection on.

Let me explain what I see.  I’ll describe seven scenarios, on a sliding scale:

Scenario A:  Oblivious 

Here, students are misbehaving, engaged in disruptive activities or even just continually talking and the teacher seems oblivious. They carry on regardless and literally don’t seem to notice what is going on around them.   It seems normal to students to chat whenever they want; to call out; to opt in and out.  The teacher doesn’t address the issues and reinforces the sense that this is all just how things are.

Scenario B:  Coping 

Here, the students behave as in Scenario A, but the teacher definitely notices.  However, instead of dealing with the issues, they just try to plough on, hoping that students will listen, hoping they will follow instructions, just getting through the lesson as best they can without ever tackling the behaviour at all; they just avoid the confrontation and cope.  Sometimes this manifests itself through seeming to focus on a few keen students whilst others in the class become disengaged.

Scenario C: Unassertive/half-hearted.  

In this situation, the teacher is trying to address the issues but is half-hearted in the use of warnings, sanctions, choices and consequences approaches or assertive verbal and non-verbal signals.  Students are not convinced that the teacher means it when they sound disapproving and, de facto, nothing seems to happen.  There’s a lot of ssshing, pleading and waiting in exasperated hope for compliance.  The result is that, whilst seeking to impose order and secure good behaviour, they never quite manage it or sustain it for long.  Often the sanctions come too late; they are applied retrospectively rather being used to nip things in the bud, as a lever to secure good behaviour.

Scenario D: Assertive

This is the optimal scenario.  The teacher identifies issues when they arise, addresses them immediately and assertively, establishing order, making the boundaries clear and deals with any sanctions as appropriate within the agreed systems.  They typically use rule reminders, rehearse routines and make it clear who is the adult in the room, never talking over talking and establishing absolutely clear expectations that are maintained throughout a lesson.  Everyone knows this will happen and so students respond accordingly.  The teacher has established their expectations and enforces them warmly and assertively every time.

Scenario E: Assertive but isolated. 

This is where a teacher has the skills to function as they do in Scenario D – but where there is some weakness in the external support system so that in situations where students become very disruptive and defiant, there is ambiguity about what happens next.  A normally confident and assertive teacher feels somewhat undermined and moves into a Coping mode – or an Excessive mode, neither of which is ideal.

Scenario F:  Excessive Control

Here, the teacher goes beyond being assertive, becoming autocratic, heavy-handed and repressive.  In seeking to manage behaviour tightly, they actually create an atmosphere that is not conducive to learning as there is no warmth, students feel they cannot budge an inch and responses to minor transgressions are met with excessively negative, often emotional responses from the teacher. Behaviour is certainly tight – the expectations are maintained – but at a cost.  It’s no fun for anyone and is hard to sustain. Even the students who are normally very polite and compliant, report their sense of injustice at how their peers are dealt with..

Scenario G: Excessive Out of Control

This is possibly the worst of all worlds: The teacher attempts to manage behaviour – he or she is certainly attempting actively to secure high standards  – but misses the mark massively, issuing sanction after sanction (machine-gunning, as we used to call it), often shouting a lot and conveying continual exasperation – but without ever securing sustained good behaviour.  Students develop a thick skin and simply defy the attempts at discipline, seeing fault in the teacher rather than adjusting their behaviour.

What’s to be done?

In order to address behaviour across a school I think we need to be open to discussions about these different scenarios.   Where the majority of lessons are Scenario D – which is true in plenty of schools – it is because the balance of teacher assertiveness and supportive systems has been found.  Where there is a lot of Scenario E, clearly the school systems are at fault. They’re not working. Good people are being undermined.

However,  in all the other scenarios, there is huge mileage in the teacher changing their approach – before the systems need to change.  The problem is that often teachers cannot self-diagnose; the self-awareness needed isn’t always easy – and someone needs to identify the issues and support teachers to address them.   The culture in which teachers can hear and respond to those messages needs to be right.   We need to have CPD and/or coaching processes that allow teachers to acknowledge their challenges and to develop the personal confidence and strategies needed to remedy them:  to be more assertive, less autocratic, more consistent with setting standards, more insistent on students listening on cue, warmer, stricter, setting higher expectations, being more consistent or judicious with sanctions – whatever it is.

Significantly, I think a big gap in our professional culture is that we’re often too defensive or even in denial about our struggles and anxieties.  You can’t change your practice if you don’t acknowledge it as something that needs to change – if you always externalise the issues: it’s the students, it’s the school systems.  It may well be that the school systems and culture are weaker than they should be but even if that is true there is so much teachers can do; they have huge power to shift behaviour through their actions.

See also

Behaviour Management: A Bill Rogers Top 10

Signal, Pause, Insist – in 10 Silver Arrows: Ideas to penetrate the armour of ingrained practice


Discussing Behaviour, Inclusion and Exclusion: 12 considerations.



  1. I have been lucky enough to have attended a broad array of schools and in a variety of contexts. Let me focus on A, chronologically. I am ashamed at the performance of myself and teenage colleagues at the treatment of some student teachers at the best school in Nottingham. It was reminiscent of Christians and Lions. In the middle of my career I was on the receiving end, astonished by the absence of management authority and it was my mission to survive. (On reflection I could appreciate the appeal of private schools in Scotland for parents – if I had had the money & realisation I would have pulled mine out too). Now, from my armchair, it is easy to be wise. Hereabouts it is Absence of resources. I despair for young teachers whom, I suspect, do not have the luxury of being able to step back and see the wood for the trees brought on by over inclusion and under arm bowling by some politicians who, despite initial best intentions are currently AWOL.


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