Sunday, 2 September 2012

A reply to a letter to an NQT

Dear Xris32,

Thank you ever so much for your email. Very helpful stuff indeed. I will certainly listen to your advice. However, this is a bit cheeky, but could you actually give me some tips on teaching in the classroom. Now don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the email, but I think it would really help me if I had some help on being in the classroom, as, after all, that is where my concerns lie at the moment.

P.S. Have I gone bald in the future? 

Dear Chris,

It is good to see that my email has worked its way to you in the past. I might try to find a way to exploit that in the future. Right, you want some tips on the classroom stuff. Well, I can only give advice with the phrase “in my opinion” added all the time. There is no rule book. There are lots of guide books, but there is no definitive answer to a lot of things in the classroom. It isn’t an exact science. Hence, why we are still having problems assessing learning to this day. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. Anyway, back to the advice stuff. Well, here goes:
Do one thing really well
I have been observed hundreds of times and about 70% of those observations I made the same mistake. I tried to do too much in such a short period of time.

Often, I’d spend lessons hoping to teach several different objectives in one lesson. I’d teach students what the poem was about. I’d teach them about how the form varies in poetry. I’d teach them the context of the poem. I’d teach them a range of techniques in the poem. In truth, I did too much. "There's enough work here for a whole SOW," whispered one observer. I thought if I threw tons of things at the students, some of it might stick. Some did, but not all of it. It often lead to garbled essays and me having to reteach things again explicitly.

Teach one thing really well in a lesson. One of my best lessons observed was one where I explored the use of repetition in ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. As an NQT, I’d think that my lesson wasn’t sexy enough, so I’d pile loads of great ideas and whizzy activities in my planning.  In fact, the lesson on repetition was simple. Highlight repetition. Match up reasons for use of repetition. Write about a different poem and its use of repetition.  By the end of it, they could successfully explain why repetition was used and relate it to another text.  Focus on teaching one thing and look at different ways to teach that in a lesson.

Behaviour first, learning second
This might cause arguments, but I think crowd control comes before learning. I can’t learn something if someone is messing about and shouting out next to me. Learning is paramount, but you need to have the class following rules and expectations and listening first. I have worked really hard sorting out fun, interesting and dynamic lessons, but they have been a disaster because the behaviour wasn’t there to start off with.

I have heard people say that they work really hard making a lesson really interesting, but the class doesn’t seem to behave.  Work on improving their behaviour first, then you will have much better lessons. Oh, and this takes time. I still don’t have it right all the time and I am several years down the line.  Marrying these two together, for me, makes for better lessons. I have two rules I tend to apply to most lessons:

[1] Only one person speaks at a time

[2] If students behave and work really hard, I will make sure they get even better lessons.

I make this clear to them throughout lessons. If you behave this lesson, we can do some drama next week. It is ‘carrot on a stick’ teaching, but I find it works for me, as students realise the benefits of working. If they don’t behave, I will give them a lesson where they do some pretty routine stuff and show them how lessons could be.

You are in control of your lessons. Not them. You lay down the rules. If they work, you do fun and interesting stuff. If they don’t, then they will not get the lessons they want to do. Stick to your guns. I have waited and waited and waited and ………………..waited for silence. Sometimes, you have to wait for the behaviour. If you haven’t got the behaviour you want or expect, wait until it happens. Do not start until it has been achieved. 

Avoid conflict
Your first year could be full of lots of different conflicts as students test the waters. They will try to see how you will react to different things in the classroom.  Some of my first mistakes in the classroom were reacting too much and too quickly to things in a lesson.  It has taken me a few years to deal with problems quickly and efficiently in a lesson.
You are in control of your classroom and things have to happen on your terms and not a student’s. If a student in arguing with you, send them outside the class. Or, tell them that you will have the discussion at the end of the lesson. I used to work in a call centre and I learnt that when someone is spoiling for an argument there is nothing going to stop them from saying what they want to say when they are angry.  Take yourself out of the argument. Talk to them when they have a calmed down.  They will be more amiable and more likely to listen. It’s amazing how quickly things can be resolved when the ‘red mist’ has lifted.

During my first year of teaching, I got it into my head that I needed to take a harsh, stern approach to lessons. Every lesson would start with me bellowing for the class to lineup outside the room in silence. I'd then bark at them as they walked into the room. It took a mentor to highlight that all of this was unnecessary. She said, "just let them come into the classroom and don't speak to them". They did it perfectly, without me uttering a single syllable. I had wasted my time doing this and I had set a conflicting tone at the start of the lesson. I was arguing with the class when they hadn't even done something wrong. I was a teaching in the style of an army drill-sergeant. I was starting at my most angriest and I had nowwhere to go after that.

Also, you might want to react in an unpredictable way. Students are experts on behaviour. They like to test your reactions. I remember from my school days when students used to wind up a French teacher. There was a whole lesson stopped because a cocktail sausage was on the floor. The teacher was waiting for someone to own up to placing it there. Students often know what catalyst produces a certain reaction that allows the lesson to be reduced to chatting and messing about. Don’t react in the same way all the time. I often, after telling a student off, crack a joke or make a witty remark. It shows that I haven’t been affected by the student’s behaviour or that I am extremely angry.

Once, unfortunately, a student threw a water bomb at me in a classroom. It was a hot day and this student decided to have a laugh. My classroom door was open and I had my back to it, lecturing on the joys of Wilfred Owen's poetry. The bomb hit my back and soaked three of my loveliest students. They were shocked;I was livid and wet. Then, one student pipes up and says, "Err, sir, you sure that isn't pee?". I raised my soaking tie and smelt it.

"Smells like good pee if it is. Refreshing pee. Mmmmmmm."

At this stage, it might be helpful for you to think about how you will react in a situation. Obviously, your school will have a behaviour policy, but what will be your reaction. Will you act nonchalantly? Will you react like vengeful god? Or, will you use humour, like above, to defuse a situation?

How will I react when a student accidentally swears?

How will I react when a student interrupts me?

How will I react when a student refuses to follow instructions?

How will I react when a student storms out of the class?

How will I react when a students is rude towards me?

How will I react when a student insults another student?

Think about your reactions to these situations. Is there a way for you to react that doesn’t escalate a problem and cause even more conflict? Most of the times humour can dissolve a situation, but is not for every situation.  

Take a break
It is only in teaching that I have heard the phrase ‘a personality clash’. What's to clash when I have very little personality? It is said again and again when two people don’t get on in teaching. Student and student. Student and teacher. Even teacher and teacher. There may be a period where you don’t get along with a student, but I think this is more to do with human interaction rather than personality. If a family goes on holiday, it is quite common for them to fall out at some point. We have all been there. I once spent a whole week in Scotland locked in a cabin reading books because I was too embarrassed by my parents. Families. They like each other, but being together for a long space of time creates tensions. That principle, applied in the classroom. You like them, but they drive you mad.  Sometimes, you need a break from a student.

It is not a technique I use all the time, but it is one that I think you need to consider if you are at breaking-point. Ask your HOD or another colleague if that particular student can sit in their class for a lesson. It gives you a break. It gives the student a break from you telling them off. Plus, it gives the class a break from the disruption.  It also gives you a chance to get the class back on your side.

Routine and Variety
Decide some set routines in your classroom pretty quickly. Think about:

  • How will students enter the room;
  • How will they prepare for the lesson;
  • How will they leave the room;
  • How will they act when you are talking;
  • How will they produce work;
  • How will they pack away;
  • How will they work on their own.

 There are lots more, but I think having a good set of routines is the key to establishing yourself. When you have got these clear, then the real learning and fun can begin. Everybody knows how to act.

Additionally, variety is another thing to think about when planning. I remember lessons in my youth where I would work every lesson from a textbook. Lesson one = chapter 1. Lesson two = chapter 2. Sometimes, the variety in lessons is what makes your subject interesting. It isn’t always the content or delivery of the lesson. Take English, for example. One lesson you could be analysing a poem. Another you could be acting a scene linked to the poem. This variety of lesson makes things interesting too and don’t underestimate it. I pride myself on the fact that sometimes students cannot predict what the lesson will be about or how I will deliver it.  It is so easy and comfortable to stand before a board and lecture. Put the focus on their learning and not your teaching. Make it varied and interesting. Doing something different or unpredictable can be interesting in itself.  

Phone a friend
This might be a lot of common sense, but talk to the student whose opinion you value. If ever I am teaching something I am not sure about or worry that I haven’t explained clearly, I will ask a student in the class their opinion. Ask them quietly at the end of a lesson or during some down time: “Do you think I explained that clearly?”. Picking the right student is vital. Most students will be honest on a one-to-one basis. Avoid sycophantic students. It gives me another way to judge success or failure. Often, we, the teachers, are the ones to judge the success of a lesson and that isn’t always an objective process. You tend to be negative with the class you struggle with. Or, overly positive with the class you have had no problems with.

Seating Plans
I feel that a lot of problems can be fixed or prevented through a simple seating plan. The combination of two students sat together can be dynamite or the opposite, which is ummm….I don’t know.

There are lots of ideas of which students are the best combinations together.  What would it be like if I placed the Artful Dodger next to Hermione Granger? Pure magic or a hanging offence.

I find that I create a setting plan at the start of the year and I move people about throughout the year until I am happy. Like chess or a Rubik's cube, you move your pieces about until you get the winning combination. I’m often thinking about moving someone in lesson because they are not preforming well. Will they be better next to Gethin? Or, will they be better next to Blodwin? Be flexible and you will find a successful combination.

Experiment with combinations. Think about personality, ability, levels and progress. Serendipity is the key word here. Until you put two things together, you never know if they work.

See the value
“But, sir, why do I need to learn about poetry? Me dad’s a mechanic and I am going to work for ‘im.”

I admit that I am a sulky teenager in my approach to some things. If I can’t see the value or the bigger picture of something, then I tend to switch off. Motivating students can be a case of making them see the real value of something.  Obviously, grounding a lesson with something students can relate to is a great idea, but then this can be wasted if you don’t address the bigger picture. Why am I doing this? What will I get out of this? Why do I need this?

Giving students the motivation to learn about a difficult concept is part of our daily life as teachers, but we must keep working at it. However, we must answer these questions about the why. And, sadly, just saying because the Government want you to is not motivation enough. Find the reasons and then you have your motivational tool.  

The End
Finally, becoming a good teacher takes time and a lot of trial and error. You will find this over the next year or so. Teachers are not born teachers. They are cultured and grown. Yes, some might have a natural talent for it, but for most of us it took us time and hard work to get where we are now. It goes wrong from time to time. However, it also goes right as well.

I have the philosophy that everybody has a ‘ bad day’ now and again. Try not to let those day govern your thoughts and feelings. Every student and every teacher has a bad day where things go wrong and the lesson fails. It is not the day to day that is ultimately important; it is the whole experience. If I told a student off one day, then the next day I’d forget about it and move on. We all have bad days and we have to accept it.

Take care, keep smiling and worry more about your expanding waistline than your hair.


P.S. Oh, when someone says they are going to be sick, don’t question them about it. Let them get the hell out of there. It is hard to recover from a pile of sick in your room and 45 minutes of students moaning about the smell. I know. It happened to me – twice.

Oh, and never get on a school coach with a lot of Year 7s eating lots of sweets. More sick this time. Sloshing down the aisles.

Thanks to @Gwenelope for help, support and typo spotting. Please check her fabulous blog at:

1 comment:

  1. A great post. Lots of things that are useful to remember just before the start of term! I like your points about the beginnings of lessons and keeping the element of surprise. The surprise thing is why having to write LOs on the board annoys me. It destroys it. (Unless I write them in shorthand, which I have been known to do ..)


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