A RHYMING INDEX
1 MASTER YOUR POKER FACE
2 ASSIGN A PRE-PLANNED PLACE
3 CONTENT COUNTS
4 NOT KNOWLEDGE FOUNTS
5 COME CARER, COME BEDOUIN
6 BE TOTALLY GENUINE
7 THE BOUNDARY GIVER
8 WARN CONSEQUENCE… THEN DELIVER
9 ACCEPT RE-DIRECTION
10 VALUE REFLECTION
1. MASTER YOUR POKER FACE: “Don’t smile until Christmas.”
To be fair, someone did tell me this … though not until Easter, by which point it was much too late. It’s a ridiculous comment out of context but a helpful reminder when you’re starting out that you’re not being paid to be anyone’s best friend. Err on the side of caution initially – it is far better to go in tough and ease up with a class than go in easy and then have to toughen up.
2. ASSIGN A PRE-PLANNED PLACE: Do not underestimate seating plans
On paper, seating plans look like nothing. They are, essentially, the list of class names taken from your register and slotted into the desk positions that match your room(s!). In reality, they are so much more than that. This is one of those tips that will become more helpful as you get to know the students more but there is plenty of data and inside knowledge of colleagues you can draw upon to use this as a helpful behaviour management/ SEN support tool.
Consider: a) student needs, b) ability levels, c) possibility of progress, d) group dynamics
In my opinion, these are working documents – have one ready to go but be prepared to amend as necessary!
3. CONTENT COUNTS: Know your stuff
I’m stating the obvious here, but it needs to be mentioned. You’re there as an educator – it makes sense that you’d be expected to turn up with some level of expertise in your subject. From experience, behaviour of a class is far more within your control when you’re confident with the topic you’re teaching. I started my career teaching Primary and there was a clear correlation between my uncertainty around teaching a particular area of knowledge and poor pupil behaviour. Expected to deliver a Year 6 series of gym lessons on ‘The Haka’ or imparting my wisdom on refining football skills in Games, I was very much out of my depth. At least three of the boys in my class had rightfully earned places on county teams and there I was, teaching them how to dribble.
It’s okay to be more uncertain about an area of learning than others. We are humans. However, if there’s an area I have to teach that I can’t get my head around as easily, I’ll work hard to fill the gaps of knowledge. I would meet for a quick catch-up with my parallel Year 6 colleague each Wednesday afternoon before my physics lesson on a Thursday morning for a whole term, just to be at the ready.
4. NOT KNOWLEDGE FOUNTS: Model a ‘forever-learner’ attitude
In partnership with the point above, while a solid understanding of what you are teaching is important, you are not expected to know EVERYTHING. In my opinion, it is an incredibly valuable lesson for students to witness that we are not supernatural magical beings, brimming with limitless knowledge that seeps from every pore, created only to impart our incredible wisdom to the world.
As IF they think that anyway.
My point is, simply, there are times where you will need to say ‘Do you know what? I’m not sure…’ and then model to students the process of how to go about finding out, in order to fill the gaps of knowledge in question. This is a Growth Mindset all over, right?
5. COME CARER, COME BEDOUIN: Background context is important
Students are humans. We tend to forget this when we turn around from the board to find a troublesome student utterly disengaged with the work and giggling uncontrollably with her partner, having just successfully aimed a paper aeroplane at the nape of your neck*. Don’t panic – this is a worst-case scenario(ish). *Wait for point 10
Consider this. Sophie is one of three children at home. Her older sister has been kicked out over the weekend after a string of late nights out; her mum not knowing where she’s been. Her younger brother has significant special needs and she has to care for him every evening until 7.30pm when her mum arrives home from work. Sophie misses out on the dance club she really wants to go to but can’t because she is looking after her brother. She comes into school tired, miserable and behind with her homework as a result of her home-life, impacting her friendships too.
I don’t condone teacher-targeted paper aeroplanes OR laziness at all, but there is a difference between an idle student and the scenario given above. I think it is helpful to remember that context matters.
6. BE TOTALLY GENUINE: Transparency wins
Students know when you’re being ‘real’. They have a 6th sense for it. Much like a working relationship with a colleague, the best professional relationship you can have with a class is one that is based on trust. This doesn’t mean you need to spend the first three timetabled sessions you have telling them your life story. It just means that, once you are comfortable in your own skin standing in front of a class, you can explore ways to introduce elements of your own personality a bit more, finding a balance that would hopefully make the learning environment a more ‘cushioned’ place rather than ‘cold’.
7. THE BOUNDARY GIVER: Tough love
The naughtiest student in my very first class (Year 4) wrote something on a survey that, shamefully, reduced me to tears. I knew Tom’s home life was incredibly difficult – his Dad was in and out of prison and was banned from the school premises, and he lived with his Mum and his grandparents. Like with many students that we perceive to be difficult, on a 1:1 basis Tom was gentle, engaged and keen to learn. Within a classroom setting, however, he was disruptive, a crafty bully and completely inconsiderate of his peers’ education.
Around Easter time when I was nearly two terms down of my NQT year, students had to complete an annual questionnaire, designed by the school leadership team. It asked a range of questions related to learning and enjoyment of school. The class I had were incredibly difficult as a group of 31. It was the kind of class I was warned about in advance, from a number of different colleagues. They were well-known for not getting on with each other and were always at war in the playground. By Christmas I had almost managed to ban the phrase ‘Miss, at playtime…’ and encouraged them to approach whichever staff member was out on duty to resolve the issue there and then.
Back to Tom and his survey. Here’s what set me off:
Q: What do you think your teacher could do better?
A: Have stronger boundaries.
Here was the naughtiest student in my class telling me, as clear as day, that he wanted greater restrictions. I was caught up in a mixture of surprise, realisation and disappointment that I hadn’t provided what he needed. I suppose when we think to David Beckham, one of the world’s greatest footballers, he doesn’t despise his sport just because of the rules. In fact, the game wouldn’t exist without them. We need to know where we stand as humans, so if a teacher is always promising to carry out sanctions but not sticking rigidly to them, where is our safety?
8. WARN CONSEQUENCE… THEN DELIVER: Just do it!
Plan ahead. Setting clear boundaries at the start of the year with any new class is essential. Know what you’re prepared to accept and not accept (often dictated by whole-school behaviour policies already in place) and share these with every class of students at the start of the academic year. In Secondary, these can sometimes be department-specific but it is important you know the process for behaviours and their consequences. Never assume that students have remembered these from the year before and, if nothing else, by outlining these each time you encounter a new group of students, you have a reference point to refer back to, should any issues arise.
Connected to Point 7, this is simple. If you prescribe it, give it. I’d be very disappointed if I’d gone to my GP for a medical prescription that I needed and they gave me the signed, green slip but not the actual medicine. Likewise, if I’d won a competition and was promised a prize but it never appeared, I’d have something to say about it. I’d assert that young people feel safest when adults follow through with what they say they will do, so just do it. It’s worth sacrificing a chunk of your lunchtime every day for the first three weeks to prove you’re serious about this behaviour stuff than dishing it out and losing their respect for not going ahead with the sanctions promised.
9. ACCEPT RE-DIRECTION: Diversions are okay
“Never work with animals or children.” (W.C. Fields)
Be prepared, be clear and be strong – but know that plans will need to change. One of the greatest skills a teacher can have is the willingness to adapt. Keep your goals firmly in mind – be that related to behaviour or another area of teaching – but redirect your route as necessary.
10. VALUE REFLECTION: It’s your oxygen
“A teacher that does not value reflection is one that will not grow.” (J. Mingay)
I remember being at uni and yawning as soon as I heard those two vomit-inducing words: ‘Reflective Practice’. It was a perfect case of Classical Conditioning. Just as the dogs in Pavlov’s experiment (late 1800s) would salivate every time someone entered the room, I would automatically yawn on hearing even a whisper of these words. They were the two biggest buzz words around at the time and we were undeniably overfed on the phrase. However, in this profession you quickly realise that reflective practice is far less a cumbersome burden and more a lifeline.
To teach but not care to reflect on your practice is almost impossible and, wholly undesirable. I can’t think of any genius, friend or family member, colleague or famous authority at the top of their game who hasn’t taken the time to look back and consider their own strengths and weaknesses. To be able to objectively review your practice is critical to surviving in the world of education and, at times, this will sometimes require you to ask for other people’s opinions. Be open to constructive critique.
At the end of the first day / week / month / half term / term / year, stop everything, reflect and make necessary changes. Do this and then repeat. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. (etc…)
Follow me on Twitter… @JAMingay