Sir is strickt, but mint! - advice from our NQT blogger Adam.
These were the words (and spelt as such!) that a student from one of my Year 7 classes brought to me from the printer while they were composing a guide to our school for the new Year 7 students starting in September. At the time, I remember laughing it off and asking the girl to get outside so I could have my lunch in peace, but afterwards, it dawned on me that finally, after a year of teacher training and an NQT year in my current school, I am gaining a reputation.
For me, a reputation isn’t just something that the children go around saying about how good (or not!) they perceive your teaching to be; it’s about the culture you have managed to generate in your classroom – something that I believe is an enormous contributor to a lesson being graded up there in the good/outstanding categories.
My NQT timetable sees me teach a mixture of classes: an upper and lower ability year 7 group; 2 mid ability year 8 groups; 1 mid and 1 lower ability year 9 group; 2 GCSE Spanish classes whose targets range from E-A* in the same classes and Year 12. Needless to say, creating the culture I want with each group has been tricky. Here’s some techniques I have deployed to get the atmosphere and the culture I my classroom the way I want it to be.
1) Get your routines nailed from the word go.
Each class I teach knows that when they walk through the door into room 122, they will have a task assigned to them to get the lesson off to a prompt start and get all paraphernalia dished out on desks. Furthermore, they know that planners are to be open on desks. A lot of schools use a merits system in planners for rewards, and it makes it a lot quicker to dish out praise and rewards in your classroom; but also stops students from saying, “I don’t have my planner” if you need to reprimand them. Such routines stops waiting time between activity transitions, and after a few pens taken from students on the QT, the students will be accustomed to having materials out on their desks in front of them. Make yourself a set of bullet points and stick them to your desk for your first few lessons to help yourself get into the routine!
2) Be assertive – ensure they know who is leader.
On the first lesson I have with each class, I ensure they are lined up outside my classroom, armed with planners open and pens in hands. I wait for them in silence, and use an assertive, but calm, manner with them to set out my expectations of how they will go into my classroom.
My low ability year 7s often have the odd squabble. I personally deal with it by laying down the law, again, being assertive and calm, and ensuring they realise that I do not have the time, or patience, for them to bicker in my lessons.
As much as I go in hard, when I know I have the students where I want them to be (behaving in a respectful manner) it’s important to show you are a personable and friendly human being. Take the time to get to know the students, learn how to have the occasional laugh with them (lack of capital letter use is a good one!) and know how to get them settled again, be it period 1, last lesson or just after lunch.
3) Encourage (useful) interruptions.
My Year 10 Spanish group are definitely the class with the biggest ability gap. I have a student targeted an A* for next year, and I have students targeted Ds and Es. One thing I have done from the start with this group is to encourage them to listen to each other’s responses and get them to troubleshoot on my behalf. It is surprising what each student picks upon, and I often have the weaker students sorting out adjectival agreements for my A/A* pupils. It is a treat to experience, and they are all extremely constructive and professional when giving feedback.
The constructive nature of feedback, I feel, is one of the most important features when providing critique. No one in that class is afraid to have a go at volunteering an answer (not that I let them volunteer!) and they all really appreciate the feedback more coming from their peers rather than me.
Some teachers might pick issue with children interrupting and providing corrections before they can, however, myself, I don’t consider this a behaviour issue. It is a culture of correction and peer assessment that I have created, in which students are listening acutely to one another in order to provide feedback. I raised this issue with my mentor and Head of Department, who affirmed this and said it was marvellous to watch the enthusiasm in the students. This culture started to develop from October with this group, and has spread to some of my Year 7 and 8 classes, and I feel, is something impressive to experience, showing their engagement in the activity and attention to detail.
Some classes, however, don’t take as well to this, particularly top sets. I personally, still, don’t feel I have my higher ability Year 7 class where I want them to be; they don’t finish off routine phrases for me in French like my low ability class do, they are very quiet, and still don’t like making mistakes. Perhaps it’s because they are a shared class and I haven’t had the time to get them feeding from the palm of my hand… Maybe my next task, should I have them next year, is addressing their perfectionist qualities and making them realise that being perfect isn’t always the best, especially when coming to learning.
4) Get the students out of their seats.
I remember leading a session on differentiation last year and talking about a ‘rip and run’ exercise with differentiated texts, where students rip a question from outside of my classroom, ‘walk very quickly’ back to their seats, answer it, then bring their mini whiteboards up to me to check. The shock/horror/wonder that came from the other department upon realising just how much we let the children out of their seats was a bit strange.
Some say it leads to organised chaos, that the students gravitate to their friendship groups and chat - which, it can do! However, after a few targeted interventions and the law of room 122 being laid down again, I have found it to be quite the contrary.
Sometimes, especially MFL, speaking tasks can fall flat if students are sat paired to practice a dialogue countless times. As soon as I see this happening, I set a time limit, get the students out of their seats, and force them to speak to as many people as possible. It is a great way to reinvigorate the sometimes extremely artificial conversations they participate in.
During a possible HMI observation, I decided to let the children wander around my room to find new vocabulary. It was a bit of a risk being after lunch and with a very weak Year 7 class, who were probably hyper from some form of isotonic drink. Surprise, surprise, the HMI inspector, along with another member of the leadership team, walked in as the children were starting the activity. I found the children did not bat an eyelid at the ‘intruders’ to their classroom, knew exactly what they were doing, and were totally engrossed and engaged in their learning. This was noted in the feedback given to us at the end of the day that he could see the engagement and participation in their learning through the students being actively involved in the lesson.
Both of these activities are activities that the students have done a few times before, so knew how to react to it. If students are accustomed, somewhat, to how you operate, the expectations of conduct you have, the routines you enforce in your classroom, and how you are going to react, you can somewhat control how your students will react to your instructions/activities.
Various times during my training years, people told me that Ofsted look for routines and that children never lie. If ‘strickt but mint’ is what the children see in me, then I feel that I have definitely managed to set out my expectations in order for them to learn well