Dealing with pupil apathy

Inspiring pupils can be a challenge, as Alistair Justice discovered.

Music Teacher, East Lothian

"That's crap." And so began the first lesson with my S3 Standard Grade music class.

The piece I had played them was one that I have loved since I was their age “ The Great Gate of Kiev from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition “ and as it was loud and raucous I was hoping at least a few of them might feel the same way.

Now I knew differently . . .

Battling the apathy

Since the beginning of this academic year I have quickly learnt that taking over a class half way through an examination course can be a nightmare.

This is not only because this particular class seem uninterested in the concepts they need to learn, but also because this slightly academic Mancunian replaced cool, fun, bubbly Ms X ("She never did that") who was into the latest chart songs ("Have you actually heard of The View, Sir?").

All of this has meant that dealing with this class can be a major issue. They are constantly moaning unless they are doing what they want (which only seems to involve playing their instruments or chatting in a practice room).

Some of the pupils concentration spans are incredibly short; they quickly become off-task and begin messing around, usually with the loudest instrument to hand (why do schools need drum kits?).

For me this seems to have created a situation which can sometimes feel like an epic battle of wills; I am trying to get them to realise that their futures are at stake, and them thinking that Sir is being boring for the hell of it.

Calming the storm

After a few weeks crashing from one disastrous lesson to another, we have now begun to make progress. This I feel is down to several reasons, including:

  • spending time during break and lunch providing extra help to pupils who have asked for assistance with their work
  • finding out about what the pupils enjoy outside of school - it is amazing how far a shared interest in something can help!
  • reviewing my notes from last years placements to see what I did in similar situations
  • revisiting the two books on behaviour I bought last year (Michael Marland's The Craft of The Classroom and Sue Cowley's Getting the Buggers to Behave)

Back to the future

Pupils will challenge us, fact. If we cannot accept this, we should give up now and go back to whatever we did before. But this challenge is also part of the fun of the job, and the reason I personally left the comfort zone of my previous career in administration.

Through the following (admittedly obvious) steps I am learning to manage the class far more effectively:


Self-reflection helps me to see where I can improve my teaching (what did I do right/wrong?). 

Talking to pupils

Remembering that it is not a weakness to talk to some of the pupils about the issues. What are they thinking? Do they understand what I am trying to do with them and why?

Talking to colleagues

Talking to other teachers about the issues I am having. I recently discussed some of my problems at an open discussion with 40 other probationary teachers; this led to many suggestions, which I am now working through

'Chunking' the lessons

By squeezing in 20 minutes listening at the beginning of a practical lesson, hopefully the class will start to pick up on re-occurring themes. And it saves the boring hour-long sessions done in a block later on which would really annoy the class

Thinking laterally

Sometimes issues need to be approached from a different angle. My analogy for this is the scene in the Full Monty where a difficult dance routine comes together perfectly when one of the characters realises it is similar to a off-side trap in football

Positive and genuine praise

By showing the pupils that I think that they are doing well and I appreciate their efforts, they will start to believe in themselves and their abilities and, hopefully start to work.

Staying positive

Last, but by no means least, staying positive, which can be hard, especially on a wet Wednesday afternoon. But I believe that as soon as I start to feel that I should give up on this class, things will only get worse because the pupils will start to feed off the vibes I am giving out

Now all I need to do is get them to enjoy listening to Pictures at an Exhibition . . .