Sunday, 5 September 2021

The first lesson is the deepest – getting to know you

I read an interesting discussion on Twitter recently. It was exploring how there is a difference in the relationship between student and teacher in primary schools and secondary schools. You can imagine where the discussion went. To be honest, it is far harder to build relationships in secondary schools when you see a student for one or two hours a week. Yes, you can have a personalised individual handshake for when they enter a room for that one hour a day, but you’ll not have much of a connection with the student. It is not impossible, but just very hard. You could spend a whole lesson asking students about they football team, band or pet, but in that time you have not covered a jot of your curriculum. Time is not a commodity that secondary schools have. Relationship building happens in the cracks and in the tiny micro connections in the term, but they are not the thrust of what we do. The relationship builds over time.

The first few lessons of the new academic year are problematic for me. For a start, they never laugh when I crack a joke in the first lesson. It will always be something witty, so the quality of the joke is not the problem, I can assure you. They often don’t laugh, because they don’t know if they can or not. Am I with a teacher who likes to laugh? They are in that strange phase of not knowing what they can and cannot do. Every teacher starting a new school knows this. Let’s just call it Term 1. A heightened state of awareness. Rabbit caught in the headlights. You don’t know what to do for fear of getting it wrong. That’s often the first lesson for students. And, that’s why they don’t laugh at my jokes.

Over the years, I have done and seen numerous approaches to the first few lessons. The trad way: list the rules of a lesson and get students to write the rules in the front of their books so it hangs around their neck like and albatross. The prog way: get the students to decide on what the rules should be and get them to write them down in their book so they can feel they own them. Or, the plain bribery: give all students a chocolate bar or cake. They haven’t worked. And, they often mean you have to placate students with promises of more chocolate or cake.

The default first lesson is always teaching. Teach a lesson and get students to do some work. From that experience you can understand and see what the students are capable of doing and their attitude. Students often feel safer with because it asserting what is normal. This is normal. As soon as we move away from the normal, it is quite scary and stressful for students. I had a delivery from company this year, and ,instead of the usual surly nod and hand-over, I was greeted by a man who had ingested four jars of coffee and three gallons of Monster. The man said he wanted to talk to me about Covid and that he had a choir in the lorry, ready to sing to me. He didn’t; he just needed to deliver a bath.  I felt uncomfortable and didn’t know how to react. Nice man, but clearly in the wrong job.  

For me, the first lesson should be about building and establishing normal routines. How do respond to questions? How to complete work? How to listen when the teacher is explaining something? Covid caused us so many problems with routines that many of us crave normality and routine. That’s why I think now, above all else, we should be working on those routines. We need the patterns. We need to help students adjust to those patterns of behaviour and expectations. First lessons should be about the pattern of lessons.

I’ve seen enough speed-dating to know that a meaningful relationship is not formed in any first meeting. For that reason alone, I think using the first lesson to ‘build relationships’ is dangerous. Relationships take time and they are largely based on your reactions, as a teacher. Your reactions to events, actions and comments all form part of the relationship. Your interaction with the class. You having one lesson to tell students your ‘orrible childhood’ and how you connect to the youth of today because you couldn’t have you ear pierced as child isn’t effective relationship building. There’s a level of narcissism in teaching which I think is very dangerous. Teaching is about the students in your class and not you. You are there to do the best for the students and not the best for you. I do think, as teachers, we have to reign in the narcissism. A class of young people need a responsible adult and not a presenter trying to get audience figures. There’s a distinction that I think we all need to get right.

We all need to be liked, but I think there comes a point when our desire to be liked can be detrimental to the students and their progress. Like all things, there needs to be a balance. There’s nothing wrong giving chocolates to reward, but if there is another motive behind it then there is something wrong.

So, what am I doing in my first lessons to support and build relationships? Well, I am going to give a questionnaire. A questionnaire about what works and what doesn’t work with them. The relationship between student and teacher is one largely based on inferences and trial and error. By the time we get around to parents’ evening, the parents will feel that we know their son / daughter well. This takes a lot of time to see what works and what doesn’t work. It can take terms with some quiet students. Therefore, I am going to engage students with this process from the start. But, also, I have include some questions to make students understand that a relationship is a two-way thing. I will do stuff, but they too have some agency.

A lot of the questions are inferences I will make about a student in the first term. At least, this way I can see if they have a good understanding of how they work in lessons. 

The whole purpose is so that I have a better understanding of the person so when teaching I know how to engage and support them. I get to know them a bit better without having to resort to making a connection over their favourite football team or love of guinea pigs. It is about understanding the person sooner rather than later. A deeper understanding of them. From much earlier, I will know, hopefully, what works and doesn’t work with them.

Thanks for reading,


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