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There’s no Brownlow for Behaviour

I’ll admit it, I’m a footy tragic. My code of choice is AFL, I adore the Richmond Football Club, and I think watching the Tigers do their thing might just be the only good thing about Winter.

Nothing is better than seeing 36 athletes in peak condition battle it out for the four points every weekend. I love the competitive team nature and the opportunity for individual glory. As a Tiger fan, it doesn’t get much better than the 2017 season, with Richmond taking the premiership and club champion Dusty Martin winning the Norm Smith Medal, Brownlow and club Best and Fairest to boot. I can live off that for years!

So, while it is clear that I am a fan of competition and may even go as far as to say we, as a society, have probably veered too far in the other direction with participation ribbons seemingly handed out for showing up. There is one place that I am confident is no place for competition, and that is, in the classroom. And I feel even more strongly about this when it comes to student behaviour.

When we pit our students against each other in a competition for who displays the most desirable behaviour, we just aren’t starting with an even playing field. Some of our kids have natural talent and extra coaching opportunities, others have missed half of pre-season, and others still haven’t got a pair of boots that fit or a ride to the ground.

Yet I think as teachers, we can create competition between our students without ever really examining why or considering the merits of such a system.

We display students’ names on charts and award stickers when we observe a behaviour we want to see and take them away just as quickly when they mess up.

We clump kids in groups on tables (we choose the teams), sit students who display desirable behaviours next to those who often do not, and hope that their good example will somehow rub off by osmosis. We come up with systems to award points to groups of students when they can all show the behaviours we want to see and strip them of these points if one person messes up. We perhaps think that this competitive team environment will be the answer to improving our classroom climate. Still, when we sit back and think about it, we unintentionally create an atmosphere where kids get annoyed at others if they inadvertently let the team down or even give up trying if they believe they or their team can’t win.

The other downside to this system is that it takes a lot of vigilance from us, the teacher, to notice and reward desired behaviours while being seen to fairly punish inappropriate behaviours by removing points, stickers or stamps. And in a busy classroom environment, it can be very hard to get this right all the time, and our kids certainly notice when we don’t.

So, what’s an alternative to the competitive approach? I reckon it’s a collaborative one. Classrooms can be spaces where students and the adults in the room work together to create the class climate they desire. Behaviours can be modelled, encouraged, and recognised by a simple affective statement, “I’m really proud of the way you all got straight onto your task today. Keep it up class.”

When we see behaviours that don’t contribute to the classroom culture, we are keen to create when we can point out the impact a student’s behaviour has on other class members. “It’s frustrating that we need to wait for you to get organised for the lesson. Quickly make your way to your table”.

Not only does this help our students to understand how we conduct ourselves in the classroom, but it also gives them opportunities to practice, mess up and try again, all without letting their team down.


Check out other articles Kirsty has written here.