Flummoxed, Bennett drew on the only method he’d been equipped with to handle the situation at hand: kindness and politeness.  

“I said to the young man, ‘could you please stop selling drugs at the back of my classroom?’ – because they didn’t cover this in my training.

“And he told me to F off,” he recalls.

The majority of his charges had already climbed onto their desks and were busy chatting. The lesson had derailed entirely. Bennett was at a complete loss.

“I walked in with high ambitions, and good intentions and love, and was dashed against the cliffs of their utter indifference,” he says.

“My mentor walked out after five minutes; his justification was that this would be ‘a good experience for me – thrown in the deep end’.”

Having spent years battling it out in classrooms marred by poor behaviour, Bennett, now chief behaviour advisor to the UK’s Department for Education, knows too well the experience that often awaits those teachers failed by their ITE training.

Speaking in a series of three lectures run by West Australian Catholic institution, the University of Notre Dame, Bennett tells his audience he has no intention of ‘bashing’ the teacher training sector.

Nonetheless, he suggests his own experience of being woefully unprepared in the practicalities of classroom management is by no means an isolated case.

“There are so many astonishingly good practitioners, often sometimes despite their training, rather than because of it – it’s not the fault of the teacher or the fault of the leader, it’s a systematic error, but one we can correct,” he says.

Despite completing his postgraduate teacher training at one of the most prestigious faculties in the UK, Bennett says he spent a lot of time wondering when he was going to learn how to actually teach.

“It entitled me to be a teacher, but I’m not sure it taught me to be a teacher… I wouldn’t say I was good at it by the end of it,” he says of his course.

“What I found in the UK was that there were enormous deficiencies within the sector. It was uncommon to get what I would call a highly practical, useful initiative into the career.”

He recalls one three-hour session which required students to sit in a circle and “say nice things about each other”.

“... [it was like] a circle of empathy or something. I mean it was very nice, it was very pleasant, but what it taught us about teaching I don’t know,” Bennett says.

“…And there was often this impulse for people to say, ‘oh you’ll pick this up when you go to schools’.

“Which isn’t untrue, but I would also find that once I was in schools, I would watch teachers teach and think ‘when is someone going to tell me how to do this?’

“What they were doing was beyond my competence to understand. Let alone analyse. Let alone imitate. And yet we were expected to do so, as observers.”

According to Bennett, the common ‘throw them in the deep end’ approach to teacher training is woeful.

“Let’s not train airline pilots like that. Let’s not train heart surgeons like this….

“No, we wouldn’t, because the cost of failure is too high. And the competence required to succeed is too high. We wouldn’t dream of it.

“Thrown in the deep end is one of the worst educational paradigms I could imagine.

“I don’t even know why it’s a metaphor for learning and training. What happens if you throw people in the deep end? … they drown,” he says.

Indeed for his first few years on the job, Bennett indicates he did feel like he was drowning.

“Like many of my comrades, we entered bristling with enthusiasm, and good intentions and often little else, and they are not enough – the Beatles lied, love is not all you need.

“One must care in order to do a good job, but it’s not enough.”

With his students largely indifferent to his requests and instruction, Bennett tried harder and harder to get good behaviour to flourish.

His efforts were not rewarded, he says.

“I thought ‘this is really hard’.

“I just thought if I asked people nicely they would behave. I just thought if I came in with the right attitude they would behave. I just thought if I came in with the intention of building great relationships they would, eventually, just behave.

“Ladies and gentlemen, they did not behave for a great deal of my career.”

"My mental health was affected, especially for that first year but well into the second and third," Bennet says of his early teaching days. 

Bennett pulled out all the ‘tricks and traps’ to get some traction with students.

“I tried humour, I tried kindness, I tried placating them, I tried to make lessons easy. I tried to think – ‘what do kids like?’

“I made games ... I did all the tricks and traps you’re often told to do to build a great relationship with kids – none of it really worked.”

He also sought much advice from other educators, but the answers he received “were not helpful”.

“They would say things like, ‘maybe your lesson is not engaging enough’, which is just the worst advice in the world – what does that even mean?

“It’s like telling a comedian to be funnier. Or like saying to someone ‘fly a helicopter’. I know what the words mean, but I don’t know how to do it.”

These kinds of offerings are rife within the field of behaviour management, Bennett says.

“It sounds like you’ve given me meaningful advice … (but) the things that we often say, the aphorisms, the platitudes we often lean back on are just that – aphorisms and platitudes.”

Bennett’s mental health began to decline. He was often told ‘you just need to teach them for a few years and they’ll get used to you’. It was yet another entirely unhelpful piece of advice, he says.

“It felt like I was on trial, and I just had to wait out the chaos and eventually it would start to make sense.

“It is impossible to be in a situation like that and be unaffected. My mental health was affected, especially for that first year, but well into the second and third.

“Feelings of despair and anxiety and self-doubt and worthlessness perpetually characterised my every waking moments, I would weep man tears into my pillow at the end of the evening.

“Obviously these are special, very macho tears. But tears they were,” he says.

Looking back with the clarity and wisdom of hindsight (honed through years spent mining the expertise of skilled practicioners), Bennett can now see he had internalised his inability to create a calm and safe classroom environment.

“I would go home every night consumed by feelings of stress and worthlessness and failure, blaming myself. Thinking ‘what am I doing wrong here?’.

“I didn’t realise at that point, that perhaps the people that I had trusted to give me what I need to know and do had perhaps not done so.”

One of the big problems that’s blighted the behaviour manangement field, according to Bennett, is that those credited as being ‘experts’ are completely removed from the reality of the classroom environment.

True behaviour expertise resides in the people that can do it well, he says. 

“I went to one of the most prestigious places in the UK to learn how to teach not particularly well, and one of the reasons for this is what I call ‘domain elites’ and ‘domain experts’,” he explains. 

“I often find in education the very people who are tasked to discuss and set policy and train behaviour are themselves sometimes quite disclocated from the classroom environment … (but) this not a rule, it’s simply an observation.”

Keen to upskill in his craft, Bennett began to visit more and more schools across London. He soon discovered that he was not alone in the behaviour battle. 

Demographics matter, he says. The socio-economic circumstances of students do alter the profile of behaviour one can expect in a given school – but there are commonalities across all children. 

“I realised it wasn’t just me – every school I went to … teachers were massively struggling with behaviour.

“I suddenly realised this wasn’t a local problem, this was a national problem,” he says. 

All over, Bennett saw teachers ‘shooting from the hip’ in a seemingly universal attempt to stamp out bad behaviour in classrooms. 

He suggests that teachers being left to rely on trial and error to develop the basics of behaviour management is not a particularly effective strategy. 

“There are things that we know tend to work more than other things … human beings are united by the commonality of our psychology….

“Probability is a very useful thing for us to understand when it comes to working with large groups of children,” he says. 

Stay tuned for our upcoming article which reveals Bennett's evidence-informed take on what works when it comes to establishing safe, calm and dignified learning environments.