Running the Room, by Tom Bennett

Why I read it:

I’ve been in pastoral roles for six years now, and as I said when I reviewed ‘Beyond Wiping Noses’, I felt that I’d always acted on instinct. I engage with research and many voices when it comes to curriculum and pedagogy, but hadn’t necessarily had access to an evidence base or evaluations of behaviour and pastoral matters. Tom Bennett is a well-known voice in the sector, and the government’s behaviour adviser, as well as being at the heart of ResearchEd, which is how I knew that this book would be well informed and balanced.

In summary:

The title of the book implies a practical guide for how teachers could run their classroom. Indeed, it delivers on that front. However, practical tips could be summarised in a concise 100-pager. Bennett is more ambitious, including plenty of research, theories, and the ‘why’ – not just the how. This amount of background reading and pondering helps us as teachers or leaders not to merely apply the methods blindly, but to think them through and adapt as necessary.

Care for children is at the heart of this book. Bennett explores how to nurture and include children, how to make sure they are well nourished and how we can provide the circumstances for them to thrive, covering sleep, ventilated rooms, how to make them feel safe, and rewards. A large proportion of the book is, of course, about how to create frameworks to help students make the right choices and to create focused learning environments, but it is not all sanction, sanction, sanction – there are a wide range of ideas and tools that are weighed up and discussed.

Key takeaways:

Culture: belonging and high expectations – classrooms should have a deliberate culture that is created by the teacher, but this doesn’t need to be framed in a punitive way, but as something positive that benefits everyone. To create the right culture, teachers needs to convince the class that: learning is important; everyone in the room matters; good behaviour is the best way everyone can get what they need.

Routines – Doug Lemov states that ‘perhaps the single most powerful way to bring efficiency, focus and rigor to a classroom, is by installing strong procedures and routines. You define a right way to do recurring tasks; you practice doing them with students so they roll like clockwork.’ Routines are vital. They help students feel they are walking into a safe, predictable environment – they know how to follow a routine – it’s comfortable and means they can use their brain power on what they are learning. But implementing and upholding routines isn’t as easy as reading a list about how to enter or exit the room – Bennett dedicates a comprehensive chapter to how to communicate and uphold routines and rules.

Motivation – Bennett examines a range of factors that could influence motivation, from the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic, to how a good meal at breakfast time can improve student learning.  To motivate students to behave well, Bennett explores how we can help them to feel / be successful at school, teach them how to focus and work hard, teach them that school is an important place for them to feel valued and be noticed, and help them discover ways to find satisfaction in behaving well. It’s a lengthy chapter, so if one of those areas sounds like something you want to understand more, have a read.

Parents – it’s towards the end of the book, but one of the chapters I’ve enjoyed using with staff at school is about working with parents. Bennett uses ‘build bridges before you need to cross the river’ in regard to building positive relationships with parents from day one, rather than waiting until something has gone wrong to expect support from them. Some of the most practical tips in the book are in this section, from scripting phone calls to help with confidence, to looking at the Benjamin Franklin effect of asking for their help to increase the chances of their support. Really worth reading!

Favourite moment:

Correcting behaviour when it’s going well, or in Bennett’s words ‘fences not ambulances.’

I suppose this is a similar adage to elite sports teams, or high-performing businesses, reviewing their practice when they are at the peak of success. That is the time to tweak, refine, evaluate. Bennett discusses how, once a class is behaving well or meeting your expectations, it is a great time to praise, reinforce that behaviour, and discuss your expectations. He suggests, for example when a class have come in really well, or completed a task exactly the way you asked them to, to discuss as a group what was good about it, and how that benefited their learning. It’s a powerful idea that I haven’t articulated before.

If we wait until something has gone wrong to reflect on the behaviour of the group, teachers risk only reinforcing the cultural norms or expectations of the classroom during periods of disruption or misbehaviour, creating a potentially negative cycle.

Favourite quote:

‘After a while, you could get used to anything’

Albert Camus – The Stranger

Well, I’m a sucker for a literary quote in a teaching book. But, one of the benefits of the lockdown has been a chance to break from our routines and take stock. What had we ‘got used to’ in our former working lives? Too many meetings? Too much marking? Behaviour not being exactly as we wanted it? But in the hustle and bustle, we can put up with things, and then all of a sudden, we’ve got used to them and, then, later and even worse ‘we’ve always done it that way’.

This book encourages us to reflect on what we want from our classroom culture, and then provides the means to cultivate that into whatever we desire.

Question and reflect

  • Are we deliberate enough in the way we plan and articulate expectations and culture in our classroom? Do we spend enough time reflecting on behaviour and motivation, compared with our efforts on curriculum and content planning?
  • None of us have ever truly mastered the behaviour of children – with that in mind, which areas could you reflect on and improve in your own teaching?

Read this if:

You are a teacher and you want to delve further into how and why students behave in different ways

You want to move beyond instinct or the context of your school, and look at further studies and perspectives about behaviour management

You want to read beyond just rules and routines into something more holistic

Buy the book here

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