Trainee Tip #4: Great Expectations

There is a lot of information in the Twittersphere/blogging world on mindsets and expectations. I urge you to search it. Today’s blog is triggered by a great one by @learningspy (psst… There are some theories in his… Great starting point for your essays!). However, this blog will hopefully just be a reassuring foundation to help you on your way.

When I first started the year, I was shocked at how weak the students in my classes were. Their expected progress targets seemed ridiculous compared to what they were producing in their books. I remember speaking to colleagues and asking how getting them to reach their targets was possible and I was met by shrugged shoulders and “We’ve all got to do it” with an empathetic smile. As an unqualified, inexperienced, teacher, I felt I had only a few options:
A) See how it goes. Maybe it’s normal for kids in disadvantaged areas to have unobtainable targets so it’s not an issue if they don’t succeed.
B) Play the “I’m only a trainee” card and whack out every excuse possible (he misbehaves, she’s EAL, he’s statemented so, as a newbie, it’s too much).
C) Run. The mountain is impassable. Bye.

The truth is, none of these options seemed fair to the kids. It is not their fault that they’ve been given the trainee teacher. It is not their fault that for whatever reason they did not reach their target last year. I have a duty to help them succeed. Moreover, before entering the classroom and seeing these targets, I had envisioned that ALL of my kids would succeed so why should I change that just because it won’t be easy? I shouldn’t lower my expectations because the kids are weak, I just need to work out how to help them scale the “impassable” mountain.

If you want kids to do well, make it happen.
It is very easy to put student failures down to extenuating circumstances. Maybe Jimmy broke his arm so couldn’t write…maybe he is too chatty… Maybe he is a total beginner at speaking English….maybe he has special needs. In your first few weeks of teaching, this may be too much to cope with. However, once you get past that view, step back and re-jig your strategy, you can find that you are one of only a few teachers who doesn’t write off Bobby because he doesn’t speak English or Jimmy because he can be a “nightmare”.

I have classes with a high number of weak EAL students. In a region where EAL students are only now beginning to increase, my school is playing catchup. However, if I don’t adapt my teaching for the EAL students in my class, I don’t have a lesson. Also, think about how they feel, trapped in lessons where they can barely keep up with what is being said, let alone produce anything on paper. It is not the EAL coordinator’s problem, they are not even a problem, they are another child in your class and they can do well…if you believe they can.

The hypothetical “Jimmy” has featured a lot in my blogs and he is an accumulation of a number of poorly behaved students. Do I expect less of him because he can be a nightmare? No. It is my job to apply every behaviour technique, reward technique and forward thinking piece of pedagogy to make him succeed. The Jimmys of your school can do well… If you believe they can.

I could go on… I could list various other factors that challenge teachers but the ending will be the same. If you believe they can do well and take the time to read a blog of two on techniques to help, pick up that education book to guide you or take the time to go and talk to the “experts” in your school, your children will succeed.

But they don’t want to try…
If you kept getting low grades and everyone told you that you were underachieving, would that motivate you? Probably not. However, the moment a teacher takes the time to break it all down into a step by step process, lathers on the praise and you find that you actually get a half decent grade/enjoy a piece of work… Ding… We’re in business.

I swear by a teaching cycle* based on Genre Theory (praised by @LearningSpy in his literacy book and most recently developed/adapted by @PieCorbett in “Talk for Writing”). Breaking a task down into a cycle of: show them what I want them to produce, work out its key ingredients, chat about it to create new ideas, plan with a writing frame and then write independently has meant that nearly all of my students (inc SEND, EAL, behaviour) are currently at or above (some hugely above) their expected progress for the year with 1 assessment to go. This is not due to me doing anything magical… it is just because I refused to write off the kids and took the time to research the best ways to help each kid.

Mix some good pedagogy with a load of praise (see my behaviour blog series for what I do) and an expectation that students act on my feedback and engage fully in peer assessment and the students actually start questioning whether I underestimated them by setting their targets so low (this is incorrect as they are computer calculated targets based on their SATs etc… But still… They know they can do well… They believe they can do well).

This is why I teach. To see the students succeed. Not just in terms of grades but in terms of their own self confidence…Attacking tasks they would have shied away from and said “it’s too hard!” to previously… This is what it’s all for. Instilling self belief and self improvement can transform a student’s school journey… Therefore, don’t look at your class lists and say “it’s too hard!”… Give them a shot.

Please drop me a comment below or follow me on Twitter @miss_trainee 🙂

*Whole blog on this coming up soon!

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Inclusion vs Exclusion: Between a rock and a hard place

Before the Twitterarti pounce:
A) I am in my first year of teaching so this blog is essentially just from my view and my limited conversations with colleagues about this topic. It naturally will not reflect the complexities of the challenges schools face daily with students who present really poor behaviour. Equally, it will not reflect the wealth of literature on the topic.
B) I welcome all views and suggestions. If I had an answer to this debate which was more “useful” than “it depends on the student’s needs”, I wouldn’t be writing this blog.

This is a blog about the daily struggles I have faced with the small minority of students who struggle to maintain positive behaviour in the classroom.* To what extent should the school withdraw the student or allow them to remain in with their peers?

Picture this:
Jimmy has had a turbulent time through school. He is the type of student that is known to all staff as trouble, is constantly on report to SLT, has been temporarily excluded from school multiple times, has been on unsuccessful trials to other schools and is currently sitting in “last chance saloon” before facing permanent exclusion.

The students who fit the Jimmy mould are often lovely kids when calm. Many are genuinely funny, relatively intelligent and can help others in the class both directly through assisting them with work and simply by sharing ideas. However, at the flick of a metaphorical button, Jimmy can completely shut down. “He” will call out, argue back, challenge even basic rules, swear violently, deface property and completely destroy the climate for learning in a lesson by refusing to be sent out (for example) because he seemingly cannot be bothered to work or a peer or member of staff has annoyed him.

At what point does the school write off students like Jimmy in favour of the long term impact on his class? How can a class teacher help Jimmy to keep going? How can one tell when the constant in-out-in-out of inclusion has had more of a detrimental impact on Jimmy’s learning than withdrawing him from the mainstream setting?

Jimmy is an amalgamation of a couple of students I teach and encounter at school. I am aware of the intricate rules surrounding permanent exclusion, the severely negative impact exclusion can have on a student’s life chances and I am equally aware that Jimmy (in all of his individual forms) has an almost unimaginable home life. However, the merits of utilitarian teaching (get Jimmy out as much as possible to benefit the majority) vs Jimmy receiving unlimited second chances is not a debate I can comfortably sit either side of. Here’s why:

One of the students behind “Jimmy” used to be top of his (admittedly low ability) class. He could produce brilliant work. However, a huge challenge I face with all “Jimmys” is the vicious cycle of:
– Jimmy disrupts
– He is sent out but refuses to go because of his bad mood and disrespect for rules
– He does not engage with pastoral intervention
– He is consequently isolated or excluded… Meaning he misses even more learning
– He eventually returns to school but he realises he’s behind
– Seeing as he is disillusioned with school, he turns to negative behaviour and refuses extra support to catch him up
– He is consequently sent out but refuses to go and so on.

On the one hand, Jimmy is repeatedly severely disrupting the learning of others. He is unresponsive to the school’s behaviour policy and extra, individualised, pastoral intervention is seemingly not helping. Therefore, he is choosing to give up his learning. As a classroom teacher, I need to teach all students and not be tied up “playing” Jimmy’s game. Therefore, maybe Jimmy should be fast tracked out of the classroom when he is not on form and/or withdrawn from lessons.

On the other hand, it does not take an expert to spot that part of Jimmy’s problem is the constant dark cloud following him around. As my previous blogs show, I am a big fan of rewards and positive reinforcement. However, when Jimmy’s switch is flicked in the unfavourable position, he is lost for that lesson. Therefore, one could argue that what he needs is an overhaul of his support in school so he is included more and teachers continually bend over backwards to make him thrive instead of going on his reputation. He is known as trouble so an element of this could be a self-fulfilling proficy. Maybe by transforming our approach to him, he will transform his to us.

The second approach is the approach I favour as he will always have a clean slate with me at the start of each lesson. However, he often does not use this and he does need to know the consequences of his actions and this often means being sent out of my lessons and/or being isolated/excluded for his conduct across the school. Therefore, because of the frequency of his withdrawal due to behaviour and its detrimental impact on his understanding (and -thus- his behaviour), would 1-1 learning be more beneficial as the needs of the many would not be a factor? Or would that do him more harm because he would be likely to be taught by a non-specialist? Moreover, many 1-1 interventions are temporary and he will be back feeling behind the class when he is reintegrated.

The bottom line is that I do not want to write off any poorly behaved student and I do not want to waste their talents. However, I can’t help feeling that I am stuck between a rock and a hard place:
Rock – Kick them out of the classroom and reinforce their rejection and the negative impact on their learning.
Hard place – Keep them in and watch the rest of my classes suffer.

Despite reflecting on this point for the majority of this academic year, I am no closer to the magic cure. This is the unfortunate truth of teaching in a disadvantaged school… Behaviour is an issue and it is likely to always be one.

If you have the cure, let me know!


Please drop me a comment below or follow me on Twitter @miss_trainee 🙂

*Note: This blog -as far as is possible- is discussing students who do not have any SEND needs. It is understood that they may have undiagnosed needs but, equally, we all know poorly behaved students who do not have a clear medical/psychological condition behind their actions.

Trainee Tip #3: Skilful Summative Assessment

Teachers’ Standards: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6

My last blog was on a range of day-to-day, formative, marking techniques I use. However, as it is nearing the end of the half-term, my mind is in assessment mode and I have marking coming out of my ears.

How is summative different to formative?
Summative is all about giving a formal grade. Therefore, my students have spent the half term learning about their topic and I have given them formative feedback along the way to help them progress. Now it is the end of the half term, it is time for me to assess them formally. Thus, I have helped them plan, they have sat and written and now I have to keep up my side of the bargain and accurately mark every book.

When summatively assessing, I aim to give an accurate grade, two WWW/EBI and a range of mini tasks to build on their exam skill.

How do I do this?
Colour coding
My department’s marking policy involves formative, live marking by highlighting aspect of students’ work in different colours during the lesson. Thus, for continuity and ease of understanding, I have extended this to summative assessment too. Whilst not done live, I use the colours they’re used to.
– Green = particularly good words, sentences, paragraphs.
– Yellow = Spelling mistakes
– Red = Other mistakes (everything from punctuation, to grammar, to simply getting it wrong)
– Orange = I write a short task or question to build on their knowledge in the margin and highlight in orange. Example: “Redraft this paragraph in red pen and include how the quote would make the reader feel and why”.

At a glance, students can see how well they have done. They do not have as much of my handwriting to struggle with and the logic of “get more green” is a very easy motivator.

The benefits of taking the time to do this (I usually give around 5-10 orange tasks) is that students have a good chunk of the next lesson individually planned and differentiated for them. They have a red pen and have to answer each question and show their understanding/progress. Moreover, they must correct every spelling mistake. This is hugely beneficial as Jimmy can be ploughing through his spellings whilst super-speller Suzie can be redrafting a paragraph with more sentence variety. Students tend to relatively enjoy this as the tasks are more consolidating their knowledge than making them push really hard. Therefore, I usually put on some music and call it a “chill lesson”… Little do they know that they are all doing tasks designed to push them up a sub-level or two… !

Feedback Sticker
The whole school marking policy features half termly stickers which are basically a WWW/EBI A8 size sticker. It has room for their Expected Progress grade (independently computer generated target for the end of the year), the projected grade (what I think they’ll get by the end of the year) and their current grade (what they got in this particular assessment). Therefore, they can very quickly see how well they are doing in relation to expectations and can see a summary of their main strengths and areas for improvement. Thus, whilst I have already given them masses of feedback on their work, this helps them focus on the main points for next time. Furthermore, at the start of their next assessment, I will get them to write out their EBI from this assessment so they know what to focus on!

That sounds like a lot of work…
Arguably so. It may just be because I’m a newbie who has not yet been worn down by the realities of the teaching world that I am able to do this for all 120+ students I teach. However, I wouldn’t do it if I genuinely thought I was doing it for the sake of book scrutiny or OFSTED. Whilst it does look very impressive for both of those stakeholders (especially after they have acted on their feedback), the students enjoy the lesson where they can improve. I could never hope to have the time to give each students 10 pieces of verbal, individualised, feedback on their assessments and expect them to remember it all and act on it. Moreover, I could never expect to give each student the detailed feedback provided here on a basic WWW/EBI model. Therefore, seeing as I have done variants of this since I started in September and around 83% of students are currently at or above their expected progress (with around 30% being a grade above their EP), I am not about to change my attack because I could “get away with” less marking and “still pass book scrutiny”. In fact, I want to do it more to bump up the remaining 17%!

Overall, whilst I am an energetic trainee, I mark for the students. I mark for the level of quality, individual, feedback I can give to students. I mark for the level of progress they show when I ask them to act on the feedback. I mark to help students. If it didn’t help them, my marking strategy would change. Any praise from scrutiny or OFSTED is just a bonus.

Whilst you never want to mark in a way that contradicts what is considered good marking by scrutiny or OFSTED, you should never do something just to impress such stakeholders either. Your students are there to learn and effective marking is a powerful way to do this. Take the time to do it well! 🙂

Please drop me a comment below or follow me on Twitter @miss_trainee 🙂

Trainee Tip #2: Marking the masses

Teachers’ standards: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6.

As a newbie, I remember knowing that I would have to mark but not having a clue on how to mark. What is good? What isn’t? How much feedback do I give?

Marking varies a lot depending on the subject but this post aims to give some generic ideas to apply to your teaching and your situation.

What types of marking are there?

Marking is generally closely linked to assessment with “Assessment for Learning” being something that should be a huge consideration in everything you do: how am I going to know if my students make progress during this lesson and how I can I adapt my teaching to ensure progress occurs?

Assessment falls into two categories:

– Summative assessment: basically giving formal, final grades to kids.

– Formative assessment: giving feedback in the run up to a summative assessment with the aim of improving before “showtime”.

Formative assessment will generally cover all day-to-day marking you do and will be the focus of this piece.

What do I mark?

Personally, I mark nearly everything. If we spend 2 lessons planning on a sheet and there is only just a mind map starter in their books, for example, I will usually leave that. However, in my mind, I don’t want them to think “ah she only marks our books once every 2 weeks anyway so there’s no point doing a lot today”. Therefore, I aim for nearly every piece to be marked by me live, me after the lesson or through peer/self-assessment. Typically, if they have peer/self-assessed, I will not then double mark it. I will just skim it to ensure it is correct and then may add a few SPaG marks that may have been missed.

When do I mark?

Marking will be a huge stress to your already chaotic life if you do not keep on top of it. Therefore, I aim to mark a set a day during my free periods and after school. This is even if they have only done something really small. The moment you let it build up, you will find that it grows bigger as you try and find an extended period to sit down and do it.

How I mark day-to-day work:*

WWW & EBI:

WWW and EBI stand for what when well and even better if. With this model, you give students 2 good comments and 1 thing to work on for next time. Usually, I do this for bigger pieces of work as it can be quite time consuming. It ensures that students are praised (and therefore motivated by the fact that their work is not complete rubbish) but know how to improve.

Example:
WWW:
-Great use of embedded clauses in your first paragraph!
-Brilliant metaphor about the sun at the end.
EBI:
-Don’t forget to use a dictionary as you write. In red pen, correct all of the spelling mistakes I have highlighted.

Peer and Self-Assessment:
I am a big fan of peer and self assessment. I have already written a full blog entitled “Behaviour Tip #6: Better the devil they know” on how useful it is but to summarise:
Peer and Self- Assessment forces students to digest your success criteria when scaffolded properly. Therefore, I make sure that I give my students a checklist of things to tick off if their partner has done them and then I make them give two WWW and one EBI based on their ticks. This ensures that generic, useless, feedback such as “write more” is avoided and -when combined with making them check each other’s work for spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG)- it means that my marking load is significantly reduced.

Live Marking:

For this, wander around your classroom and highlight good things you see in green (e.g. Things from your success criteria or good vocab) , errors (e.g. Spelling) in red and even write some little tasks in the margin and highlight them in orange.

Very quickly, students will get used to the colours and it will means that your marking load is significantly reduced as you have already done a decent chunk of it during the day. Equally, you could combine it with the WWW and EBI above so that even when it is not live, colours are used to make a child’s successes or areas for improvement really visible.

Most importantly –> Acting on feedback:

This is a really important element that every teacher should engage with. What is the point in your spending hours marking books if the students do not listen to it? Therefore, train them to act on it. I like to call it “red pen time” as I will always mark in green pen and they will always mark in red. However, different schools advocate different things such as purple pens.

This works well with all of the techniques listed above:

Www/EBI: Your EBI comment could be written as a task. E.g. Rewrite the sentence I have picked out so it includes a metaphor and three good words.
Peer and Self Assessment: Very simply, if they have not got all ticks in their checklist, they must keep writing and add them in or re-draft 2 paragraphs and add them. This should be an expected part of the peer and self-assessment routine.
Live marking: It makes perfect sense that if you highlight a spelling mistake in red, they must correct it, for example.

Aside from the fact it looks good in their books if there is evidence of learning during the lesson and then further learning from acting on feedback, it -again- forces students to engage with the success criteria. I remember that one boy I teach used to be really bad at spelling and I would forever be writing “sp” next to his mistakes to the point that I may as well have been colouring in his page. However, he would still make the same mistakes and still was not motivated to use a dictionary as he wrote. When acting on feedback became routine and he knew that his time would be filled with endless spelling corrections, he quickly learnt that he should cut out the middle man and use the dictionary at the start.

This is the same for a lot of students. Many mistakes are made due to laziness, carelessness or simply focusing on the wrong thing. Therefore, if acting on feedback is a regular thing, they will soon learn what is/is not good.

What to avoid:

– Great work!
– Keep trying!
– Just a tick
– Try harder
– Check your work

The reason these are bad (even though they may be how you were marked when at school) is that the student has no idea what is good and what is not. There is no guidance on how to improve. Therefore, when marking, you must try to be specific. Even if you just want to put a quick note next to a mind map that wouldn’t really need long feedback, say “Great use of adjectives such as ginormous!” so they know what they need to continue doing. Also, try and always say something about how to improve, even if it is just to make sure they show X skill in the assessment.

Bottom line:You will have marking coming out of your ears and it will -most of the time- be mind numbingly boring. Therefore, don’t let it build up and make it meaningful with the above techniques. Not only will your marking be high quality (www/ebi), there will be less of it (peer/self-assessment & live marking) and it will mean something to the students (acting on feedback).

On top of mountains on planning, behaviour battles and getting your head around the curriculum, you do not want the weight on your shoulders of masses of marking as it will only stress you out and make your first few years of teaching that bit harder.

Please drop me a comment below or follow me on Twitter @miss_trainee 🙂

* Note: I did not create these techniques. They are ideas I have pinched from my Teach First summer training and from colleagues. Credit to the original creators!

Trainee Tip #1: Plan, Plan, Plan.

Teachers’ Standards: 2, 4, 6, 8.

The importance of planning was one of the first lessons taught in my training. It was an assumption throughout all seminars that everything taught would be great to plan into your lessons. However, the fundamental question of how to plan a basic lesson was only briefly spoken about. I imagine that this is because there is not magic recipe and subjects, teachers and classes differ. Nonetheless, here is how I started to plan (and still do when I have to provide lesson plans for observations). Even if my formula will not work for you directly, it may be a handy foundation.

Note: The lesson plan format described below is a long version that I use for my PGCE observations. It is VERY detailed and would waste a lot of time if used daily (especially after the initial panic phase of a true Newbie at the start of the academic year).

My basic recipe for all lessons:
1) Personally, I have a “do now” (I think I may have pinched this from Lemov?) task on the board for when students enter the room. They enter the room, copy the date and LO* and then do a “Do Now”. This is essentially a fancy way of saying “a simple starter”. The aim is that it is straightforward enough for them to get on with it with minimal help from me so that I can be taking the register and sorting out Jimmy who has come in late and not got a pen, for example. I always ensure that my “Do now” task is relevant to the lesson and I usually allocate 7-15mins for the whole process of: in, sit down, do now, register and feedback from do now.

Some example “Do Now” tasks:
– Read this paragraph from a student’s essay. Write down two “What went well” and one “Even better if” comments
– Match up the key words to their definitions.
– Draft 3 sentences with subordinate clauses.

2) Next, I talk through levelled success criteria and explain how today’s lesson will help us meet them. I entitle this the “What and Why” section. I struggled to get my head around this at the start because I was not confident in what exactly constituted a level 4, 5 & 6 or a c, b & a. However, once I had written it up once for that module, I was able to recycle the PowerPoint slide and edit it as appropriate. Therefore, it is worth learning the differences between the grades as students tend to perform a lot better when they know where they’re going and how to get there (see “Better the devil they know” blog). This process usually takes 3mins max.

3) After the success criteria, it is time for the main bulk of the lesson. When I started teaching, PowerPoints were a crutch and I could not fathom how I would teach a lesson without one. Nowadays, I only use them for the ease of having instructions displayed in note form for the few students who cannot remember instructions. It can get very frustrating when students say “I’M FINISHED!” when they’ve done one out of the three part main task. Being able to say “So you’ve done all three tasks on the board…?” and hear them say “oh…” is much easier than repeating instructions 20 times.

I usually allocate half an hour for a main task or tasks. On top of this, we usually have a feedback session and discussion.

4) Finally, I like to get the class together for a bit of peer/self-assessment or reflection on what we have learnt. Usually, this is just for a few minutes at the end and it helps them actually appreciate what this lesson was focusing on.

The lesson plan:

In the beginning, you may be forced to write up a lesson plan for every lesson or you may even feel that you just personally need to in order to know what you are doing. With Teach First chucking you straight into a (fairly) hefty timetable, there was no time for detailed plans unless it was for an observation. Therefore, the PowerPoints I made doubled up as a lesson plan for me because they had my sequence on. However, when observation time came, I would need to create a lesson plan. Therefore, here is a break down of my lesson plan. My observers have praised the detail of my planning. However, I’m not sure if this is code for “it’s good but you don’t actually need so much detail…”. Either way, it has never been slated so it may be a good starting point for you.

1) At the top of my page, I have a brief table of information the observer may like to know. Things included are: the numbers of boys, girls, more able, less able, EAL and SEND; one sentence on the context of this lesson (e.g. What the module is on); LO; Success criteria and differentiation strategies in place.

2) Beneath this is a six column table which forms the main bulk of the plan. The columns are:
Timings/sections of the lesson (e.g. Starter, main activity 1-2-3, plenary, homework),
What the students will be doing/learning (brief line on whether they’ll be listening to me, completing a sheet or group work etc),
What I will be doing (scribing on the board, questioning, circulating in the room etc),
– What resources are needed (Mini whiteboards, work sheets, YouTube clips etc),
Assessment for learning (How will I know they are learning? Circulating the room, questions, live marking their books etc?)
– What the TA (if any) will be doing (Any particular kids? Are they to help with content or just motivation? Etc)**

Benefits of this:
– The feedback from observers has been very positive because it is clear what should be happening at every point. Therefore, if they’re unclear on why you are doing something, it is all explained on the lesson plan.
– If a student decides to misbehave to the point of needing to be removed from the lesson, the observer can a) see how things should have been and b) see how well you can adapt to the realities of classroom life.
– If you cannot justify what everyone will be doing during an activity and you cannot clearly state how you will know they are learning during it, it is likely that you are just doing an activity for the sake of it. Therefore, planning in this way (even without writing it up like this… Just thinking about it…) has made me streamline my lessons down to their core ingredients.

Bottom line:
I now do not really thinking about planning unless I need to provide an observation pack. However, in order to get into the routine and be able to churn out effective lessons day after day, there is a need to formulaically plan for a while so that AfL etc become intuitive.

There are some fantastic shorter versions of lesson plans available online (namely @TeacherToolkit’s 5 minute lesson plan). I found I needed to train myself by creating detailed plans at the start of my year, then move on to the 5 minute note version and now I can plan a lesson worthy of scrutiny by the head teacher/academy chain/Ofsted without writing a single thing down.

Planning is personal to your style, your classes and your subjects. However, hopefully this will be a consideration to start with/apply to observation packs.

Please drop me a comment below or follow me on Twitter @miss_trainee 🙂

*The Twitterati have strong opinions on whether this is a worthwhile use of time. In my opinion, it helps my students settle as every lesson starts with this process: Date, LO, they silently do the “Do now” and I take the register. Therefore, even if they are not digesting the LO, it is a solid routine. As I gain more experience, I will evaluate the benefits of this further. However, from a behavioural perspective, routine is key.

**In my experience, TAs can be a godsend or can just blend into the background and not really make any difference. However, if you give a TA some guidance on what would help the students and they choose to ignore it then it cannot come back on you if someone questions how you deploy support staff (Teachers’ Standard 8).

Hug a Teach Firster

A balanced view on Teach First from the perspective of an outsider.

Teachsense

There’s been a bit of negativity about Teach First this week. I’m not a Teach Firster and I know they’re capable of sticking up for themselves, but let me offer my perspective on where some of this aggression stems from.

Not just in teaching
Teach Firsters, you may feel under attack, but I hope you find it reassuring to hear that this happens (to a lesser extent) to your non-teacher friends too. When I started on a graduate training scheme in banking, there were 25 graduates on my intake. In the first few months we all used to sit together in the canteen at lunch and excitedly share our experiences and chat about all our ideas. Unbeknownst to us, in doing so we were pissing a lot of people off. I once overheard an experienced and well-respected colleague say ‘those graduates think they’re something special’. What had we done wrong?…

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Behaviour Tip #9: Rows, groups, horseshoes and more…Which seating plan is best?

As a newbie, you will have been told that you MUST use a seating plan and many people will have told you the different combinations that you could choose from. Equally, you may have been told that you need to choose something and then stick to it so that the students have consistency. I remember that, at the start of my journey, I was torn over how to organise my classroom in order to give myself the easiest life. Therefore, here are some of the things I would’ve liked clarified for me.

1. Have a seating plan at all times.
At the start, having a seating plan will help you learn their names and work out how well students interact with each other. Moreover, it is one of the ways to show them that you are in control.

Furthermore, you may be tempted, later down the line, to allow them to change places and sit where they like or work in groups of their own choosing. It is likely that you will consider this as a plausible option because they have been working well so far. However, why do you think they worked well? It is most likely to be because the seating plan combination you had before worked well. They were calm and worked hard because Jimmy and Freddy were on opposite sides of the classroom. Therefore, why become the bad guy by letting them taste freedom and then see you rip it away when they’ve pushed too far?

2. Rows or groups?
Personally, I have my students sitting in pairs on stand alone tables. They are roughly organised into rows but there are gaps on all sides of all tables so that I can get to every student and even circle around the outside of the tables so my eyes are always facing inwards on the students. I chose this because I wanted all eyes on me and all eyes on the board at all times. My thought process was that I could always change it to groups later down the line but it will be a lot easier to control talking and turning round if I start with rows.

In hindsight, this was the perfect choice for me because I have the room to have quiet words (behaviour tip #8) with any troublesome students because no student is trapped in a corner or in the middle of a joined up row.

3.Does that mean you’d never let them work in groups?
My standard formation is stand alone tables roughly in rows. However, if I say “in fours around your tables…”, all I have to do is point to which pairs turn round etc and I instantly have groups.

Alternatively, I will show a group seating plan on the board and the students have 2mins to move the tables so they match and be sat down quietly. Then, 2mins from the end, they must put everything back to the original seating plan.

This means that I have the option of groups when the need arises but I do not tempt students to chat when they should be doing independent work. In my eyes, this is the best of both worlds.

How often do you change your seating plan?
There is no set answer to this. I have changed every seating plan in its entirety at least once. Some seating plans have been changed around 3 times. The point is, I will keep editing it until I am happy with it. However, generally, for the classes I have changed the most, it has generally only been the troublesome students that I have moved more than once. Where I see a good pairing of students, I try and keep them where they are.

The point is, it will be better for you and the other students if Jimmy the disruptive student stops disrupting. Therefore, if that means that you have to waste a bit of time re-arranging the room, then do it. With my worst class for constant low level chat etc, I found it a lot easier to apply sanctions to the chronic chatters once I had split up as many students as I could. Whilst it did not solve the issue entirely, it reduced it which meant the beast was much easier to handle.

When faced with multiple tricky students, where should I seat them?
I have this in at least 2-3 of my classes: a number of tricky students who are in the same friendship group and so all like to disrupt together. There are two main approaches and I have ended up using a mix of both.

1.Split them up so they’re in the four corners of the room, as far away from each other as possible. This means that if they want to talk to each other that have to speak very loudly meaning that they make it very easy from you to spot them and apply sanctions. However, if -like me- you have more than 4 tricky students in a class (and don’t have a pentagonal room…), this can create issues.

2.Have them all under your nose at the front of the room. This means that if they are talking, you are right on top of them to nip it in the bud. However, if -like me- you like to wander around the room to help students, you immediately lose proximity to those troublesome kids. This is a big issue because many students will not blatantly disrupt if you are standing right next to them (unless they are deliberately disrupting in protest against the work/you/school). Therefore, you want to keep moving around so that you are signalling that you can see and hear everything. However, if all of the students who need you close for them to behave are at the front and Emily at the back needs your help, they know that this is a prime opportunity to coast.

My version: where possible, I have tricky students spread out because I wander around and I would ideally like them as far away from peers as possible. However, because I have more than four, I have a couple across my front row, sandwiched between “good” students. This means that -as far as possible- they are insulated from any nearby accomplices and are under my nose. To tackle the proximity issue when I move away from the front, I have the alleys around all tables. Most importantly, I have no tables touching walls. This means that I always circle around the outside of all tables so that my back is never turned to any students. This has resulted in Jimmy at the front being caught red handed in a mischievous act because I am watching everything when he thought I wasn’t looking.

Bottom line:
Work out what is best for you. Personally, I would recommend starting with a model like mine and then adapting as you get your behaviour management techniques nailed and you grow in confidence. Your mentors and school should not have any issue with whatever you choose as long as you can justify it. I even go so far as to include 2 sentences on my seating plan outlining my rationale (e.g. EAL students next to native speaking student, more able next to less able and behavioural issues next to well behaved students). Whilst my head teacher has said publicly to all teachers that he doesn’t like rows, I doubt he would be able to argue with my rationale when it does not hinder my ability to have group work when I want it.

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