Tip #15: Understand the power pupils.

CC - Tip #15- Understand the power pupils..png

“When I went to school I knew two things would happen: I’d play footie and see my mates. Anything else was a bonus.” Kevin McCabe.

Social relationships between pupils can make or break your positive class climate. Discover your class’ power pupils and what makes them tick through a little detective work.

Outsider in your own class

In my first class, I was an outsider. The pupils were aggressive towards each other but their social bonds were tight enough to repel my attempts to build relationships. Basically, many of them thought I was an idiot and wouldn’t entertain letting me into their world.

Contrast this to my last class. It was in year 2 and had more characters than a Marvel comic. Their interpersonal relationships were similarly feisty but they allowed into their world. They loved me. They may have thought I was an idiot, but I was their idiot.

Knowledge is power (especially if it’s about power)

What’s the difference between the scenarios? In my NQT year, I had no idea of the social structure or who pulled the strings. In my year 2 class, I knew exactly who to sit on, who to lean on and who to leave alone. Gathering this knowledge led to a successful learning environment and it can help you too.

Social power structures have long been known to influence pupil learning. In his excellent book, ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’, Graham Nuthall (2007) beautifully illustrates how, like an iceberg, you can only see a tiny fraction of what actually in your class. Any conscientious educator believes that they directly control their learning environments and pupils’ learning, but invisible peer interactions are far more dominant. Through painstakingly observing pupil interactions, Nuthall discovered that pupils’ social power structures deeply influence how much they learn.

Overriding, understanding and influencing

So what can you do? Nuthall recommends two courses of action. First, you could override the prevailing class culture by installing your own values and systems. Indeed, that is the purpose for the Classroom Climatology blog. Nuthall’s second recommendation is to understand the social dynamics in your class so you can influence pupil interactions.

As social structures are almost invisible to outsiders, you need to gather intelligence from pupils, parents, and teachers. In the next couple of weeks, most UK primary school teachers will be introduced to their new class, the perfect opportunity for you to discover who’s who.

Friendship maps for helpful directions

CC - Tip #15- Friendship Map

Ask pupils to fill in the fact file here (or as a Publisher file here). It surveys their friends and enemies as well as likes and dislikes so you can draw a friendship map like the one above. Green arrows show the likes and red arrows show the disliked. You’ll instantly discover the power pupils (lots of green arrows pointing their way and maybe a few red) whose influence on other children you could decide to utilize or diminish (through, for example, carefully positioning them in the classroom). The pupils with no arrows pointing their way are probably socially excluded and are likely to require your support.

This intelligence can be cross-referenced by talking to your parents. Asking about their weekend or their plans for the week will offer further clues on the power structures in your class. For example, repeated sleepovers will highlight cliques and regular childcare arrangements could hint at the kind of gossip that will be spread.

Finally, armed with your friendship map, ask previous teachers what they’ve noticed. A word of warning though: most teachers carry unconscious biases, so treat this information with care.

Once you have these pieces of the jigsaw, you’ll begin to understand your class’s social relationships. Being able to make informed decisions may make the difference between your class accepting you or pushing you away.

If you’ve ever been in a similar situation to my first year of teaching, have experience in dealing with tough social power structures or have any feedback, please comment below!


Nuthall, G. (2007). The hidden lives of learners. Wellington: Nzcer Press.

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