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“Girls, just be sensible! Boys, come out from under the table!” Initial encounters in the classroom

Keith Sullivan

Establishing credibility with a group of students for the first time is transactional and often complex. This article uses a case study of an initial classroom encounter to show how things can go wrong. Suggestions for improved classroom practice are first made from a common sense perspective, calling on classroom knowledge and experience. Further improvement is suggested through the use of three theoretical perspectives: symbolic interactionism, sociometry, and pedagogical strategies for fully engaging the students.

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“Girls, just be sensible! Boys, come out from under the table!”
Initial encounters in the classroom

Keith Sullivan

Establishing credibility with a group of students for the first time is transactional and often complex.1 When novice teachers enter a new classroom, they may not have the instruction or experience required to handle challenging pupils. They also need to use different strategies with more cooperative pupils. More established teachers experience similar initial classroom encounters at the beginning of a school year, or whenever they are required to take over someone else’s class, either permanently or as a reliever.

This article uses a case study of an initial classroom encounter to show how things can go wrong, then makes suggestions for improved classroom practice. These suggestions are made initially from a common sense and experiential perspective (calling on classroom knowledge and experience). They are then reflected on and discussed. Further improvement is suggested through the use of three theoretical perspectives: symbolic interactionism; sociometry; and pedagogical strategies for fully engaging the students.2 This discussion draws mainly on the work of Hargreaves (1967, 1975), Ball (1980), Furlong (1984), and Laslett and Smith (1996). Although the work of these educational researchers is stimulating and useful, many other points of reference could have been called on.

The classroom episode

The following description of a classroom episode was recorded in a New Zealand primary school classroom a few years ago. It should be read with the following focus questions in mind:

1.&&What is this episode about?

2.&&What do the events tell us about the relationships among the children in this class?

3.&&What strategies does the teacher in the episode use to establish her authority and control over the class?

4.&&What strategies do the children adopt to challenge and disrupt the teacher’s authority and control?

5.&&What is likely to occur if things continue as in the scenario?

6.&&If you were the teacher, what would you do and why?

The actors

The major actors in the classroom episode are:

•&&Mrs Andrea Carter, a teacher

•&&three giggly girls, including Anna (Group 1)

•&&two boys and a girl, William, Sanjay and Renee (Group 2)

•&&Owen (who is sitting alone at a table to the side of the classroom)

•&&Danny (a member of Group 3)

•&&Matthew and Andrew (Group 4)

•&&Marie (working on her own)

•&&three girls at a table near the back, including Jolene (Group 5)

Setting the scene

It is 9.30 a.m. on Monday morning. The setting is a large, open-plan, mixed Year 5-6 classroom in a medium-size urban primary school. A maths class has been taking place for 20 minutes. The teacher, Mrs Carter, is sitting at her desk at the front of the room facing the class. There are 30 children in the room, spread throughout the classroom (two opened up rooms). Most are sitting in groups of three to five at worktables. A group of three girls (Group 1) is sitting at a table close to the teacher’s desk. Their maths books are open. They are talking and giggling. A bit further away, two boys and a girl (Group 2) are “hiding” under a table.

The teacher turns her attention to a group of girls, Group 1, who are giggling and whispering. She smiles weakly and implores the girls to use their better judgement.

Mrs Carter: “Girls, just be sensible!”

(They smile back at the teacher but continue what they are doing.)

Mrs Carter: “Anna, you can be sensible, can’t you?”

Anna: “Yes, miss.” (She replies sweetly as she looks to her friends with a complicit smile.)

Mrs Carter (with an unconvincing attempt at firmness to the children under the table – Group 2): “Boys, come out from under the table, right away!”

(There is a shuffling noise from under the table, but no response. It is hard for Mrs Carter to see who is under the table, but by craning her neck and bending over she is able to identify one boy. She calls him over.)

Mrs Carter: “William, you come here. Right away!”

(William emerges from under the table with a smirk on his face and is about to go over to Mrs Carter’s desk. But talking has erupted in several of the groups. The teacher seems to forget about William when her attention is drawn to a smallish boy, Owen, who has got out of his chair (where he was previously placed due to his disruptive behaviour) and is moving around the room annoying various groups of girls. William sees that Mrs Carter has been distracted and wanders back towards his friends.)

Mrs Carter (in an exasperated tone): “Owen, you sit where I told you!” (Then turning back to the other children under the table and demanding that another child comes out): “Come out now! Sanjay, you come out!”

(Anna, who is in the group of giggling girls, is surprised when she notices that one of her friends, a girl, is also under the table.)

Anna (laughing): “Renee’s there too!”

(In one of the outlying groups (Group 3), Danny has stood up and started to wander around the room, studiously ignoring Mrs Carter.)

Mrs Carter (angrily): “Danny, sit down where I can see you!”

(The giggly girls have forgotten that Renee is under the table and are pre-occupied with what they are doing. Not seeming to notice the teacher either, they are still giggling and getting progressively louder.)

(At another table, Matthew and Andrew (Group 4), two usually studious boys, are talking quietly to each other, and then they laugh and look sideways at the teacher. She notices this and they look away. Andrew stands up and drifts over to the other side of the classroom to look at some books. Mrs Carter calls Matthew over and challenges him about what they were talking about.)

Mrs Carter (to Matthew, in an agitated fashion): “Tell me what you two were doing!”

Matthew (very innocently): “Nothing, miss. We were just working.”

(While the teacher is talking to Matthew, Sanjay has come out from under the table and is walking across the room with a big smile on his face, playing the fool and trying to get the attention of various children. The giggling girls all look at him and break out in laughter.)

(Marie, who has been working quietly by herself at one of the faraway tables, has walked over to Mrs Carter with her book open to ask a question about the maths lesson. She notices that Mrs Carter seems to be flushed and is reprimanding Matthew. She sighs in exasperation and returns to her desk, where she finds that Jolene, one of the girls from the neighbouring group, has taken her pencil case.)

Marie: “Give that back!”

(Jolene throws the pencil case to William. As Marie chases William, he throws it to Renee. Things are getting out of hand, as the other children start shouting encouragement to William and Renee and fuelling the melee.)

Mrs Carter (to the whole class, in a tense but not angry voice): “Right! I’d like everybody to put their books away and come and sit on the mat.”

(The children move slowly with groans of complaint towards the mat to the right of the teacher’s desk. On the way Sanjay grabs Andrew around the waist and tries to wrestle him to the floor. The children again become noisy and egg on the two boys.)

Mrs Carter (angrily this time): “That’s enough!”

(All the children are aware of her anger. They stop what they are doing and look towards her. There is a moment’s silence as the children wait to see what will happen. Mrs Carter stares silently and with a stern expression at the children. But she does not say or do anything more, and as the children slowly continue towards the mat the noise gradually starts to build to a crescendo.)


Accessing teachers’ common sense and experience

After reading this episode with the focus questions in mind, most teachers would be able to provide a reasonable explanation of what was going on, by drawing on their insights and experiences of how children’s peer groups work. Here is a summary of how they might answer the focus questions.3

1. What is this episode about?

Teachers can rapidly identify that Angela Carter is a relieving teacher. In fact, she is a trained teacher in her late 20s, with eight years’ experience. She left teaching 18 months earlier to have a baby. This is her first experience of relief teaching. The class teacher for this group of children is in her early 50s, and has a reputation for being fair but “tough”. The class is considered basically good, and although there are some children prepared to push the limits, they are not considered to be disruptive. The class teacher had established her authority when she first met the class at the beginning of the school year. She was initially very strict in order to assert her authority and indicate where her boundaries for acceptable behaviour lay. As the year progressed and the class worked well, she gradually loosened up. This episode is about the struggle between Andrea Carter and the class for authority and control, or disruption and chaos. 4

2. What do the events tell us about the relationships among the children in this class?

Clearly, the children as a whole are able to prevent a constructive maths lesson from occurring. Before the events described, the class was relatively quiet. Things seemed to get out of hand slowly and build up.

The class is comprised of groupings of friends, reflected by who is sitting with whom. For instance, the giggly girls are a group that spends much time together, both in school and outside it. Although Renee joined William’s group under the table, she is in fact a member of the giggly girls’ group. Although there are other such interactions between individuals from different groups, they are gender-specific, that is, there are boy groups and girl groups.

The main disrupters are William and Renee. They seem to set the tone for the class – the others watch to see what they do. So they can be described as “class leaders”. The roles and status of Marie and Owen are ambiguous. Owen’s behaviour is disruptive and contributes to the chaos, but it is unclear where he fits into the scheme of things. Although other children do not contribute to the direction being set by William and Renee, they passively take part in the action in an opportunistic way. Marie seems to be the only one who wants to work.

3. What strategies does the teacher use to establish her authority and control over the class?

In trying to take control of the situation, the teacher uses several strategies. These are:

i.&&&Reason. She tries to appeal to the better nature of the children, e.g. when she implores Group 1 to be reasonable.

ii.&&Charm. Mrs Carter is young and pretty, but her attempts to charm the children and to make them her friends do not work.

iii.&Confronting individual children to show them who is the boss. When she realises that William (who has been disruptive all morning) is one of the students hiding under the table, she demands that he come out so that she can deal with him. She similarly confronts Sanjay, Owen and Matthew.

iv.&Anger. “That’s enough!”, she proclaims in an angry voice, towards the end of the scenario. This has the effect of causing momentary quietness in the classroom. Earlier, she had angrily told Danny to sit down.

v.&&Diversion. In order to divert the momentum of chaos, the teacher gets the children to stop what they are doing and directs them to go to the mat (where the children sit for morning news, afternoon stories, etc.)

vi.&Silence. When she has quietened the class by yelling, “That’s enough!”, she uses a stern expression and silence to let them know she is feeling angry.

4. What strategies do the children adopt to challenge and disrupt the teacher’s authority and control?

A number of individual challenges are mounted, but the children also work in concert and move in the same direction. Generally, there is a difference between the challenges of the boys and the girls. For instance, William and his friends have hidden under the table. They have their books there, and if the opportunity had arisen, they would argue that they are working there. Their challenge is direct and obvious. Similarly, Owen and Sanjay walk around the room and rather than making constructive contact, knock against books, make faces and are complicitly disruptive. If challenged, they would answer that their usual teacher allows them to wander around to discuss their work.

When the teacher tries to appeal to better judgement, e.g. to get the girls in Group 1 to stop their noise by suggesting they be sensible, they give the teacher a mixed message back. They are outwardly agreeable and nice, but their action contradicts this, because they continue what they are doing. This challenge to the teacher’s authority is more subtle and seems to confuse the teacher, because she does nothing further to stop them from giggling and talking noisily.

The ability of the various groups and of Owen successfully to mount their challenges encourages Danny, from an outlying group, to get up and walk around the room with an apparent maths-related purpose (which everyone knows is not the case). Individuals further aid and abet the growing sense of chaos when Anna from this group loudly exclaims that Renee is under the table with the boys. Everyone (with the exception of Marie) contributes to the growing noise level.

The normally quiet boys, Matthew and Andrew, also challenge the teacher by talking and laughing while looking sideways at her (suggesting that they are talking about her), but when confronted, Matthew denies this: “Tell me what you two were doing!” “Nothing Miss. We were just working.”

The class is clearly winning the battle for control. In the process they censure one of their own who is not going along with the chaos creation. Marie seems to be the only one still actually applying herself to the maths questions the class has been set. She tries to get the teacher’s help, but as the teacher has been diverted, Marie is unable to attract her attention, and she walks away feeling frustrated. She wishes to work despite what is going on. It seems that, at least partially, because she goes against the tenor of what the class is doing, they set out to discipline her, by throwing her pencil case around the room.

5. What is likely to occur if things continue as in the scenario?

The scene as described is poised on the edge of disaster. The children have successfully challenged the teacher’s authority and she is at the end of her tether. Things can only get worse.

What can research and scholarship tell us about this episode?

Before answering the final question, “If you were the teacher, what would you do and why?”, let us examine what our three perspectives can tell us. To see what is going on under the surface, we will focus on the symbolic nature of establishing oneself in the classroom, and on what sociometry tells us about how peer group relations work in classroom situations. To suggest more effective ways to handle the situation, we will focus on pedagogical strategies for fully engaging the students.

Perspective 1: The symbolic nature of establishing oneself in the classroom

Although Andrea Carter is experienced, she has been out of the classroom for 18 months. She acts similarly to inexperienced teachers who want to be friends with all the children, and makes the mistake of thinking that if she is kind and friendly, the children will reciprocate. Hargreaves (1975) suggests that in order to survive in the classroom, the teacher must act quickly and decisively:

… most experienced teachers insist that teachers must, if they are to survive, define the situation in their own terms at once. Basically, this definition is not so much a statement of the rules that will govern the class, but rather a clear indication that the teacher is completely in charge and not to be treated lightly. (p. 205)

Symbolic interactionists5 would argue that the process of establishing oneself in the classroom is a symbolic act, because one’s response to the challenges indicates what one will be like as a teacher, what will and will not be accepted, and what the rules and boundaries will be. It is a sort of a test of a teacher’s skills and abilities. Seeing the exchanges between the pupils and the teacher as a symbolic interaction should allow the teacher to step back and handle things as if one step removed, that is, objectively, without personal anger and hurt becoming part of the equation.

Ball (1980) provides a rich and useful example of how symbolic interactionism can increase understanding of the process of establishing oneself in the classroom. He describes the initial encounter between teacher and pupils as “an exploratory interaction process…through which a more or less permanent, repeated and highly predictable pattern of relationships and interactions emerges” (p. 144).

In the initial encounter, pupils and teacher will have some knowledge of what is likely to occur. They have both had previous classroom experiences, and may have specific information about each other from other sources. A great deal can be learned from this first face-to-face contact, including:

1.&&the level of noise the teacher will tolerate

2.&&the method pupils are allowed to use to address or get the teacher’s attention

3.&&the amount of work demanded of them and the level of risk involved in ignoring this

4.&&the acceptable form of presentation of work, and other features of the teacher’s organisation of the classroom (see Ball, 1980, pp. 145-147).

Ball states that both teacher and pupil recognise the initial stages as formative and important for later contacts. From the pupil’s perspective, the initial encounters entail testing out the new teacher. He suggests two stages of testing: the honeymoon period, which involves observing what the teacher is like; and the “elementary escalation period” (Wadd, 1972, cited in Ball, 1980), where challenges are initiated in an escalating fashion.


Ball suggests that as soon as the teacher enters the classroom, the pupils start picking up subtle but useful cues, such as way of speaking, accent, tone of voice, gestures and facial expressions, whether the teacher sits at the desk or walks about, and so on. This is all taken in by the pupils and used to gauge how to respond. After the first day, new teachers can think ‘That was not so bad after all”. But beware! Hargreaves (1975) refers to this as the “Disciplinary Illusion”. Ball (1980) quotes a student as saying “As a general statement the rowdiest forms are quiet in the first lesson” (p. 147). Here is a dialogue Ball had with some students:

SB: What happens usually when you have a new teacher?

1st student: We’re nice to him the first day then real horrible, you have to get used to him first.

2nd student: The boys muck about to see if they can get away with being stupid (p. 146).

Ball also shows us two teachers’ perspectives:

English teacher: They’re scared, they don’t know who you are, then they find out you’re not a Harry Jones (teacher renowned for being very strict with pupils) or you haven’t got the charisma of David Lortimer (teacher renowned for having excellent relations with pupils).

Maths teacher: It’s depressing to know that whenever you have a new class, that for the first few lessons you’re going to have fun and games until you show them who’s boss (p.146).

Elementary escalation

This is when the students attempt to see if the teacher is willing to defend the authority he or she is trying to establish. In the classroom episode, the first and second stages occurred at a very rapid pace. This was probably due to the fact that the children’s peer relationships were well established, but Mrs Carter’s authority was not. She was in a very vulnerable position. There was an imbalance, whereas at the beginning of a school year, both the teacher and the children are negotiating unknown territory. In the half-hour preceding the episode, the class was initially attentive and quiet; but they very rapidly moved on to elementary escalation, then to a third stage, which could be described as “no holds barred”. This final stage extends the escalation and seems intended fully to undermine the teacher’s authority and control.

Doyle (1979, cited by Ball, 1980) argues that in this setting, the students do not take what the teacher says at face value, but are prepared to challenge what she is saying. He also suggests that it is just a few who will try things on. These “pioneers” clear a path for the less adventurous to follow. This is what happened in the episode described. William’s group under the table was pushing the boundaries out; although less direct in manner, the giggly girls were following William’s lead and challenging the teacher’s authority. Similarly, the two usually studious boys (who were low in the class pecking order) became sufficiently confident to challenge the teacher by talking about her and laughing, then pretending that nothing had happened.

Ball suggests that the information gathering and testing out may have two purposes:

1.&&to find out what boundaries of control the teacher is trying to establish

2.&&to find out if the teacher has the tactical and managerial skills to defend these boundaries of control (pp. 149 -150).

Ball describes a scene he observed in a way which makes sense in terms of the episode above:

From my own observations it was evident that taking no action at all, or getting angry and losing self-control, or showing signs of confusion on the teacher’s part, all typical of the inexperienced teacher, demonstrated the kind of lack of tactical skill that would be taken advantage of even by pupils in the most pro-school orientated classes (p. 150).

If Mrs Carter had envisaged beforehand what might occur in the class, she might have drawn on her previous teaching experiences and prepared herself better. If she had framed her behaviour as part of a symbolic interchange, rather than as a response to a personal attack, she would have been on firmer ground.

Perspective 2: What sociometry tells us about how peer group relations work in classroom situations

In classroom research, sociometry has focused on asking children questions to determine who their friends are (and are not), in order to get a sense of the social relationships and groupings in a particular class. Hargreaves (1967) identifies the formation of “cliques” – small, relatively stable social groupings within any particular class. He examines the rules and expectations that emerge as a result of such formations. Furlong (1984) argues that social groups are more fluid than Hargreaves’ cliques; he calls his groupings, which change from situation to situation, “interaction sets”.

Generally, boys and girls are part of single-sex peer cliques, but there is a lot of (usually friendly) interaction between cliques. In some situations, such as the playground, interactions are usually more fluid and looser groupings are formed. These are determined more by the activity taking place than by the personalities of the individuals involved.

In Mrs Carter’s class, the established cliques are mostly made up of three or four students. Andrew and Matthew are an exception. They are very close friends and could be considered a two-member clique. Although this is usually a well-behaved class, there are some pupils who will push the established “boundaries” if they get the opportunity. William and Renee are two such students. They are both able and are the class leaders, the “stars”. Sanjay is also willing to push the boundaries if he gets the chance, but he generally follows the lead taken by William.

Owen, on the other hand, is a bit unpredictable, a “loose cannon”. Although the children often laugh at Owen’s exploits, they keep him at a distance and he is not a member of a clique. Marie has been rejected by the girls and is not a member of a clique either. She is considered a bit odd. In sociometric terms,6 Owen and Marie would be classified as isolates.

Such information can help a teacher get a sense of the internal workings of her class. With just a basic understanding of sociometry, Mrs Carter could have quickly identified the “stars”, in this case William and Renee. Acting on this knowledge could have helped her to establish authority and maintain control. She could have similarly anticipated where second lines of attack were likely to come from (the giggly girls), and who would have been watching (the third line of attack) to challenge her if she had not dealt effectively with these initial skirmishes (Matthew and Andrew would be in this group).

If she had used this information to gain control, she would then have been able to handle (or even deter) unsupported challenges from pupils such as Owen. She would then have been free to attend to the needs of hard-working Marie (and by her actions, would probably have prevented the victimisation Marie experienced). The other children (those who followed rather than initiated – the fourth line of attack) would have been watching to see how Mrs Carter responded to the variety of challenges that came her way. If she had handled them successfully, they would have quietly got on with things.

These sets of interactions were symbolic, in that what the teacher did and did not allow was being monitored very closely by the students (even if they did not appear to be engaged with what was going on). They were important, because they determined how the class would respond both during the rest of this classroom episode, and on future occasions.6

Perspective 3: Pedagogical strategies for fully engaging the students

Understanding that a new teacher will probably receive symbolic challenges to their authority and control, and that any group of children will have reasonably predictable peer relations and strategies, helps teachers to prepare for effectively dealing with classes they have not yet met. However, this is only half the job. The other half is taking control of teaching the class in a structured and stimulating way. Laslett and Smith (1996) suggest four basic rules for effective classroom management:

1.&&Get them in

2.&&Get them out

3.&&Get on with it

4.&&Get on with them.7

1.&&Get them in: This covers greeting and seating, being clear about and in control of the classroom environment, and establishing clear, strong relationships with children. Teacher behaviour, such as greeting each child, should run in parallel and not in conflict with peer relationships, and provide the basis for an authoritative teacher role. The goals should be having everyone starting at the same time and working independently, but with purpose, within a framework that builds up and reinforces itself.

2.&&Get them out: Laslett and Smith argue that control of a class is most often lost at the beginning and at the end of a lesson. In order to maintain control and coherence, the end of the lesson should be planned. They make suggestions for effectively concluding the class, such as tying up loose ends, collecting materials, and allowing students to finish their work properly without the chaos of a 30-second rush. Dismissing the class needs to be done in an orderly way which could include some sort of ritual, such as making sure that the rows are tidy and that all rubbish is collected.

3.&&Get on with it: This rule is about getting on with the lesson, so that a momentum is maintained to keep the students on-task through generating interest and ensuring that the task is done. It includes having a variety of approaches to maintain interest, but not so many that the students become confused. The emphasis is also on creating a positive classroom atmosphere where constructive feedback is encouraged. It requires spreading task involvement throughout the class, and organising work so that progress is made by the class as a whole, but individual needs (of an often diverse group) are also catered for.

4.&&Get on with them: Useful strategies for building relationships with pupils include learning who the children are and getting a sense of who’s who (not only knowing those who, through their extrovert behaviour, clamour for attention); being aware of classroom dynamics, so that the class is attended to as a whole, even when dealing with individual pupils and learning to spot the signs of trouble brewing; and having daily chats to maintain the relationships created (Laslett and Smith, 1996).

6. If you were the teacher, what would you do and why?

Mrs Carter’s strategies were clearly not working. While potentially of some use, they were not part of an overall game plan. In other words, Mrs Carter did not have a foundation on which to build and successfully enact her strategies. She did not reinforce her initiatives or act consistently. Her strategic attempts were isolated, rather than a force to be reckoned with. As a consequence of never dealing fully with any incident (and letting herself be treated with disrespect), she was responding to but not dealing with little chaotic outbreaks all over the class. Every time she moved off to deal with one situation, another would start up, or a situation recently (and only partially) dealt with would break out again.

This build-up of anti-social acts meant that children who were not normally disruptive became so. For example, Anna was normally quiet and well-behaved. The teacher talked to her, apparently to establish some rapport with the “good” children in the class and to remind herself that she still could achieve this. But when she spoke with Anna, there was a contradiction between Anna’s body language and her verbal response. The teacher’s failure to establish a rapport with Anna was apparent to everyone. In terms of the class hierarchy, this relatively low status member was able to challenge the teacher successfully. This was compounded by the fact that Mrs Carter’s lack of confidence was given away by her body language – her shoulders hunched slightly inwards, the tight smile on the face, but no smile in her eyes. This symbolic encounter had the effect of opening up a series of further challenges, which ended with the teacher feeling personally defeated. Although each of the children was pleasant as an individual, in this situation, where the teacher had demonstrated weaknesses, they reacted as members of a group. Chaos and defiance became attractive, and the children were able to set the rules.

Doing it differently

Any new teacher can expect to be challenged. Framing such behaviour as symbolic rather than personal can help teachers prepare for this.

1.&&Prior to going into the classroom for the first time, teachers can do some “emotional” planning. For instance, they can use their experience and knowledge to strategise and plan responses to possible symbolic challenges from the class leaders. They can anticipate peer group permutations and think of ways of using these to support their teaching strategies (and head off cumulative undermining).

2.&&Teachers can choose to adopt a symbolic role and to establish their authority first of all (objectively and one step removed), knowing that they can loosen up later on.

3.&&Teachers can make plans for effective use of the resources offered by the classroom setting. In a large open plan area, they can consider how to organise the day and the space so that it provides alternative areas for the students to work in, while ensuring that the teacher retains control of the class.

4.&&Teachers can plan lessons which are intrinsically interesting. This means they can quickly move the class away from pursuing a disruptive course.


1.&&From a research point of view, these initial encounters can be very rich, because they provide information about how individuals (teachers and pupils) and peer groups function, and how rules and regulations are negotiated. (This information can become submerged later, after a sense of order and stability has been established in a classroom.)

2.&&See Schon, 1983; Parker, 1997; Pollard, 1997; Pollard (ed.), 1996; and Pollard and Filer, 1996, for a range of excellent ideas about and examples of reflective practice. Although some of the older findings have provided the foundations for more refined analyses, others are as useful today as when first written. Pollard (ed.), 1996, provides a valuable collection of both contemporary and established work.

3.&&I have used this episode for several years with my third year classroom studies students, usually a mixed group of teacher trainees, fulltime teachers completing a degree and majoring in Education, and others taking the course out of interest or as a filler. I get the students to act out the episode, then we discuss the focus questions. The answers provided here are a distillation of those responses, for which I thank the many participants.

4.&&Ball (1980) argues that it is difficult to obtain useful information about how relationships form between teachers and students, because teachers are not usually willing to allow observers into their classrooms when they are vulnerable. I went to observe this particular class, expecting the regular teacher to be there. Instead I was able to observe a situation of first contact, warts and all.

5.&&Symbolic interactionism is a term coined by Herbert Mead to describe a theoretical perspective that has been widely used in recent years for better understanding of what goes on in the classroom. The Collins Dictionary of Sociology (1991, p.645) defines it as “a theoretical approach in US sociology which seeks to explain action and interaction as the outcome of the meanings which actors attach to things and to social action”.

6.&&Doyle (1996) provides a useful discussion of how to conceptualise complex interaction situations so that they are broken down into their components and become manageable.

7.&&Another useful way of framing a successful classroom experience (Kounin, 1996) is withinness, overlapping, transition smoothness and maintaining group focus.


Ball, S. J. (1980). Initial encounters in the classroom and the process of establishment. In P. Woods (ed.), Pupil strategies. London: Croom Helm, pp.143-61.

Doyle, W. (1979). Student management of class structure in the classroom. Paper presented at the Conference on Teacher and Pupils Strategies, St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

Furlong, V. J. (1984). Black resistance in the liberal comprehensive. In S.Delamont (ed.), Readings in classroom interaction. London: Methuen, pp.212-36.

Hargreaves, D. H. (1975). Interpersonal relationships and education. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Hargreaves, D. (1967). Social relations in a secondary school. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Jary, D. and Jary, J. (1991). Collins Dictionary of Sociology. London: Harper Collins.

Kounin, J. (1996). Discipline and group management in classrooms. In A. Pollard (ed.), Readings for reflective practice in the primary school. London and New York: Cassell, pp.221-5.

Laslett, R. and Smith, C. (1996). Four rules of class management. In A. Pollard (ed.), Readings for reflective practice in the primary school. London and New York: Cassell, pp.217-20.

Parker, S. (1997). Reflective teaching in the postmodern world: a manifesto for education in postmodernity. Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Pollard, A. (1997). Reflective teaching in the primary school: a handbook for the classroom. London and New York: Cassell.

Pollard, A. (ed.) (1996). Readings for reflective practice in the primary school. London and New York: Cassell.

Pollard, A. and Filer, A. (1996). The social world of children’s learning: case studies of pupils from four to seven. London and New York: Cassell.

Schon, D.A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. London: Maurice Temple Smith.

Wadd, K. (1972). Classroom power. Education for Teaching, 89, Autumn.

KEITH SULLIVAN is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Victoria University of Wellington.