January and February. The void. The dark months. Together they stand at the start of the year dividing the good times with the bad – or at least that is how it feels. It’s dark in the mornings, dark in the evenings, relentlessly busy and that ‘still refreshed from the last holiday’ booster effect has long since gone. Sometimes, as a result of the way students and teachers are feeling at this time, classroom climate in January and February can have a little less sparkle than it typically has the rest of the year and when visiting lessons we sometimes pick up a sense of teachers and students grinding their way through their day and through specification content on the way towards the next assessment, or with the summer exams in mind.
No bad thing necessarily, but it’s not the way in every classroom. In our learning walks and observations recently we have walked into a number of classrooms where the climate in the room was striking. Environments of palpable enthusiasm, curiosity, passion for learning and, well, joy.
In this collection of mini-blogs from the teaching and learning team we share our golden nuggets with you for keeping the winter blues out of the classroom – these are the tactics, strategies and teacher behaviours we have overtly used ourselves and have seen others use to infectiously lift the climate in the classroom, even when the focus has shifted to drill and practice.
The joy and love of your subject – Jamie Thom
At times the reason why we started teaching can be lost in a maze of accountability, marking and pressure. Fundamentally most of us enter teaching because of a passion for two things: working with young people and our subject. Reconnecting with this most basic of motivations can have a real impact in how we feel about our work on a daily basis. The classroom is our empire to translate to others this palpable joy and enthusiasm for the content of our lessons. Where else do we have the privilege of selfishly indulging in waxing lyrically about the wonders of our subjects? We all know and recognise the glazed adult expression that appears if we try (perhaps that is just me and poetry)! Here are some tips that might help in ensuring that our students understand the value we have for our subject:
- Set the tone at the start of lessons, explain to the students how you are going to be covering some fascinating things today, share your passion with them for what they are going to be exploring for seventy five minutes. This is your moment to capture them!
- Have one thing in every lesson that you are going to get very excited about. It might be a student’s answer, it might be a particularly troublesome formula, it might be an experiment. It has to be a light bulb moment that gets you hugely excited, convey it in your language. Lose all inhibitions for that moment, show how you can be moved by the content of your lesson.
- Be armed with a dizzying array of words that translate your passion: fantastic, outstanding, amazing, brilliant, wonderful, superb, and splendid. Vary these each lesson to keep your students guessing.
- Show off the depth and detail of your subject knowledge; students love that they are in the hands of a confident expert. Build a sense of mystery about your knowledge, hold back from revealing everything. When they see that you are a master of your subject they will be hanging on every word, desperate to hear your knowledge nugget for today’s lesson.
- Use hand gestures and movement around the classroom to illustrate your excitement and enthusiasm.
Leaving Baggage at the Door – Zoe Taylor
We often expect our students to leave their ‘baggage’ at the door when entering our room. If they had a poor test result in another subject, if they are behind target on their behaviour report, if they had an argument with a friend, we often find ourselves saying things like ‘OK, let’s leave that to one side and focus on what we’re doing now’. We expect this rapid ‘switch’ in attitude from teenagers, but in reality we know how hard it is- even as adults- to leave the baggage of our day at the door and deliver an engaging lesson. I struggle with this constantly, especially in the crucial first 20 minutes of a lesson. If something happened over lunch time, I would find myself trying to log Behaviour Trackers in amongst starting my Period 4 lesson. If my lesson for Period 2 didn’t go as planned, the first twenty minutes of Period 3 would be a terrible ‘hangover’ from the previous lesson, where I would churn over what went wrong- all whilst trying to teach a different lesson. This just isn’t possible. The students pick up on it; it stunts what should be an engaging lesson opener and ultimately affects progress. Here’s what’s starting to work for me:
- Visualise dropping off your ‘baggage’ at the door. This is a new lesson, a blank slate, a fresh start.
- Focus on the students- engage with them immediately. Their enthusiasm is often the best way to adjust mind-set
- Be strict with yourself- don’t input behaviour trackers or respond to emails (unless urgent).
- Finally, be kind to yourself. Everyone makes mistakes; we don’t need to spend the rest of our day punishing ourselves- and students- for them.
Sustaining a positive learning environment – David Gray
Why does the arrival of a classroom climate survey stir a range of emotions? Did you think “this is easy, my year 9 class are awesome, and so this won’t take too long”? Or did the idea of having to formalise the difficulties you have with a challenging group fill you with dread? Perhaps you are slightly Machiavellian about the prospect of being able to name and shame certain individuals whose secondary behaviours continue to infuriate you. Consider how different the classroom climate document would make you feel if you had to focus in on the positives in your classroom, the students who actively participate, and the individuals who have overcome difficulties in your subjects.
Ask yourself the following questions; How much ownership of the classroom space do students have? Are classroom displays merely wallpaper, or are the classroom teacher and students regularly interacting with the wall space? Are you more focused on the use of sanctions in lessons or do you spend more time highlighting positive learner behaviours? Remember rewards????
Try one of the following next week and see if it makes a difference to your lessons:
- Use the class blog to post celebrations of exemplar work and classroom success.
- Search for the best qualities in every student. Look for opportunities to recognise and value their qualities (remember to thank them for their contributions)
- Use inclusive language to build a positive community. ‘Together’, ‘support’ and ‘team’ set a positive tone.
- Good learners never run out of questions. They are never satisfied with how much they know about anything. They are pulled around by questions—the ones they still can’t answer, or can only answer part way, or the ones without very good answers. Make use of your question wall to co-construct future learning. This will foster a sense of curiosity and interest in your subject.
- Treat the end of a lesson like an EastEnders cliff-hanger (cue theme tune). Provide closure with every lesson, e.g. “Next time we will…..”, “Please read….”, “Share one new thing you learned today…” or “Find a video clip that shows….” This is a great way to build anticipation and a reason for students to be excited about coming to your next class!
I would like to pass my thanks to Jamie, Zoe and David for their reflecting on and sharing what they explicitly do to lift the climate in their classroom. In terms of my own practice I always have a couple of phrases going around in my head, picked up from people I have admired over the years. The first is from Alistair Smith, who often starts his training days by saying ‘If you are having a good time, make sure you let your face know about it’. I have been trying to make this a virtue these last few months when teaching my two bottom set classes. I love teaching them (they are not always easy) but there are so many students in there who just fundamentally want to be liked by their teacher. They are highly attuned to our teacher behaviours and so I make a conscious effort to communicate to them that ‘I like you, and I like being here with you’ which I do by smiling with my face and eyes. I always really make sure I mean it too because they see right through it when the face is smiling but the eyes aren’t.
The second line that goes through my head is from the fabulous Spence Rogers. A few years ago I was lucky enough to listen to him at a conference, talking about unlocking intrinsic motivation in students. On one slide he simply had the words on the screen ‘Say thank you, every chance you get’. I was reminded lately on the importance of this when reading a blog by Doug Lemov (Mr Teach Like a Champion) in which he emphasises the importance of building the self-esteem of their free school meal students and of modelling the behaviours you want more of in the classroom. At the Uncommon Schools they explicitly emphasise in their CPD the importance of thanking the students for not only being helpful, but also for asking or answering questions in class. At our teaching and learning conference in October, we also heard from Darrell about the importance of ending our classroom management exchanges with ‘thank you’. Two powerful words. I have learned that the more I say them in class the more likely students are to reciprocate, and even if they don’t, at the very least I find it nourishes my own soul that wee bit and it all helps to communicate to our students that being a teacher in the classroom with them is a fine way to spend your time.
Thank you for reading this!