As a trainee teacher, It was always my goal to achieve big things. I wanted to unlock potential in every individual I taught, making each lesson a smorgasbord of magical moments. My students were going to be the most passionate, the most brave and the most inspired bunch of individuals imaginable. And I was going to guide them. My English lessons would be awash with creativity, filled with self expression, with every single student being challenged to break free of the shackles of their untapped imaginations. My goal was greatness, and to achieve that, I was going to to focus on big things. We needed to leave behind the constrictive nature of all their previous uninspiring English lessons. The unnecessary focus with school uniform, the overbearing requirement to always work neatly, the obsession with capital letters – all must be cast aside. After all, how could we possibly waste time on these infinitesimal details when we had bigger things to achieve?
Since my PGCSE year, where these grandiose ideas were first formed, I’ve completed two years as a full time teacher. By my calculations, I’ve taught nearly 2000 lessons to over 300 different students in about 15 different classes. I’ve read a few educational books, many fantastic blogs, and learned a lot from some excellent teachers at my school. In short, my perspective has changed. I’m still teaching English, still trying to get my students to write imaginatively, still have big ideas, but I know that the best way to achieve this might just be focusing on the small things first.
Now, basking in the glow of half term, I imagine being able to talk to my former self, and giving him a few choice pieces of advice. What small things have I been doing recently, which might have made his life a little bit easier?
1. Get all your students to write the date in full, and underline it.
Yes, seriously Dave, I really think you should try this. I mean, whilst I thoroughly enjoyed your lesson on writing from the point of view of an oppressed rhinoceros, (though I’m not sure the sound effects were necessary) I couldn’t help but noticing that your students didn’t really use capital letters. Yet, when I asked them about this, not one of them seemed incapable of correcting these capital letters when prompted. Could your students be entrenched in the habit of not valuing capital letters? Sure, one or two of the class seem to have this particular aspect of literacy sorted, but what about the rest? How are you going to reverse this habit without placing a bit more emphasis on higher standards of written communication? Furthermore, Dave, have you thought about what some education bloggers call ‘The Matthew Effect’ and how you might be further perpetuating the low standards of basic literacy in some of your students, or even making the situation worse? I would even suggest that if you stuck by this principle, you could share this expectation with your colleagues as a way which could boost Whole School Literacy, which seems to be happening in other schools.
Now I know you think that focusing on neatness gets in the way of your big ideas, but I think a little bit of underlining would go a long way. Some of the writing your students are doing is terrific, really terrific, but do they need quite so many pictures of male genitalia in their exercise books? If your expectation was that students underlined dates, titles and subheadings, you could start demanding that all students take pride in their presentation. Who knows, as well as neatness, this could improve the quality of their writing too and eradicate some of the questionable ‘artwork’.
I know this might be a shock to your students, but it’s really not that hard to administer. I’m not ashamed to tell you that after banning writing the date in numbers in my class, one year 8 student had to be sent out after calling me stupid. But don’t worry, it was nothing that a long discussion and a set of unswerving expectations couldn’t fix – now he’s the one handing out the rulers.
2. Have an exit and entry routine.
Dave, are you listening? Look, can you stop picking up those crisp packets for a minute so we can talk about your exit routine? I’m sure if we thought a little more carefully about your routines there wouldn’t be such an apocalyptic feel to your classroom 20 minutes into your lunch break. Do you always let the students run out of your class as soon as the bell goes? What if they weren’t going to a lunch but to a Maths lesson? How do you think their Maths teachers would feel about 30 rampaging adolescents hurdling out of your lesson and down the corridor? Next lesson, try getting every student to line up behind their chairs before the bell goes. Then, they could clear up all the rubbish for you before they go. This might even calm them down and provide a valuable moment of silent contemplation before the next lesson. I know which routine I’d like from whoever taught my students in their previous lesson.
I’d also use this moment to get their uniform sorted. Shirts tucked in, blazers on, sleeves rolled down etc. In fact Dave, I was a bit disappointed you allowed the students into your room in such a state. Have you thought about correcting all uniform issues before before students enter? I know, I know, you don’t really believe in schools having uniforms. But for your own sake, try being a little more zealous about this small rule, then you might find your students a little less inclined to break other slightly larger rules – you know the ones. You’d be surprised at how much your students will raise their game if only you raised yours.
Really Dave, as other teachers will tell you better than me, if you focus on these good routines, it’ll help you in the long run.
3. Make your homework deadline a real deadline.
Another one of your bug bears Dave I know. And to some extent, I have sympathy for you. I have often wondered whether homework has any real positive effect on my students’ learning. Maybe you could read more about research into homework’s effectiveness here, rather than spending quite so much of your time on that lesson you’ve already been planning for three hours.
That being said, it is part of your school’s policy to give homework, so you might as well think about how you could get your students to complete some meaningful work, practising what you’ve been trying to teach them this term. The key thing is though, if you set a deadline, make it real. An immediate sanction if the deadline is missed would work. In most circumstances, you might even ring home or set a detention, or preferably, both. Besides, most parents want their kids to get homework, so a phone call from you might even prompt the parent to check homework more regularly. It can be difficult balancing these detentions and phone calls, but you could always make sure the due date for the homework is when you are a little less busy, so it can be followed up. I promise after a one or two phone calls most students will be much better with homework, and the you’ll gain back a lot of time in the long run. Like I said earlier, if you set these high expectations, students are more likely to reach them.
Really mate, I hope this doesn’t sound too negative. You can still be creative, you can still take risks, you’re still going help your students achieve big things. Just have a think about the small things first, and the rest will be a hell of a lot easier.