This is Part 3 of three quick posts for trainee teachers, about keeping the main thing the main thing, in the midst of all the complexity of learning to teach.
You’re going to get masses of, occasionally conflicting, advice on each of these themes, so I’m not going to say much – just a few observations from seeing a lot of trainee teachers at work.
This one is about Behaviour.
If you’re typical of someone starting a career in teaching, behaviour is your biggest concern. I’m not sure whether it’s unnerving or reassuring to know that you may well be overestimating your subject knowledge for teaching, and underestimating the challenge of planning, in comparison to the obvious problem of children just not co-operating with you. You’re certainly right that if you don’t get on top of behaviour, teaching will eventually become an unproductive experience.
The good news is that, whilst a few people have instant presence in the classroom when they start teaching, it’s rare. These are the people that calmly but assertively complain in restaurants – who does that? Most of us find confrontation stressful, negotiate around it in normal life, and tend to default to acquiesence or anger when it’s unavoidable. You have to change a lifetime’s habits here, and that can be hard.
The solution is routines and rehearsal. If you are trying to make up responses on the spot, you’ll go into default mode. You’ll maybe give warnings… and then more warnings… when you need to follow through. You’ll escalate into (real or fake) anger. You’ll start saying the things you learned from when you were at school “It’s your time you’re wasting, not mine!”
I think the most useful thing a trainee teacher can do is to write down all the common things that children will do that you need to address. Children are both highly inventive, and creatures of predictable routine: deal with the routine things. Write down your standard response – script it – discuss with your mentor and other colleagues: refine. Practise and learn. Flashcards are good. Do it out loud as much as you can.
You also need to be crystal clear, and very consistent, about how you cut through (hopefully purposeful) activity and establish silence so you can talk to the class. In secondary, countdowns are very common but what are the children used to? What are other teachers doing (teachers like you – no point trying to copy the one with the booming voice if you can’t boom)? Primary are often awesome at this – clapping sequences are so cool but are still very rare in secondary. Whatever you’re doing, do it right from the start, explain what you’re doing, and make lots of easy opportunities for the class to practise getting it right early on, rather than only using it when things are more marginal.
Don’t talk over children talking. What you permit, you promote! Practise self-interrupting (can you do it as well as this?) and/or use your position in the room and/or hand gestures to show you’ve noticed and won’t accept it. If you have to stop your communication with everyone else, to communicate about behaviour with one or two, then so-be-it but it’s much better if you don’t have to.
If you’re having difficulty spotting misdemeanours (trying to identify talkers whilst you’re buried in the register is a classic problem), phone a friend. Get the class teacher (if you’re supernumerary) to give you the names and then you can easily keep them back after the lesson.
And yes, you may find you have a class where establishing and holding silent attention is like Whack-a-Mole and you can’t actually teach anything if you spend the whole lesson waiting. You’re a trainee and these classes are hard anyway, and particularly because they know you’re new. Get support from the presence of the class teacher (if you’re supernumerary). Talk tactics with your mentor. Perhaps you have to compromise for a while but never let them think you’ve lowered your expectations. There is usually a moment after the starter when you can get them all. Maybe some other points in the lesson. Try to build from there. Narrate the positives, and sanction the poor behaviour, even if that’s a bit hit and miss. Keep going! You’re the grown-up. Your will is stronger than theirs.
Here are some other things to do straight away:
Have a routine for classroom entry. Do it the same, every time. Usually you’ll want to stand with one foot in the corridor and one in the classroom. Don’t let anyone in who is not calm. Always have something quiet and busy for them to do immediately. Make sure this has a very low bar for entry so no-one gets stuck, and has an open-end so they don’t quickly finish before you are ready (science example here).
Have a routine for finishing the lesson. Start this early – if they are ready quickly, do some swift oral questions to plug the gap. If you have to cut an activity, so be it; they’ll cope with that. This is so much better than having to rush and then letting them escape without properly tidying up; they’ll remember that! Dismiss gradually to avoid a scrum at the door, and only when they have done exactly what you want.
Where else are the easy wins? Keeping safety glasses on for science practicals is a gift for science teachers, for example. Make the first practical simple so the children don’t need lots of help, and then be Judge Dread on the glasses thing. This works because there is no ambiguity, it’s easy to monitor, and easy to ‘win’. Can you see that this is about planning for behaviour? What else is like this for your phase or subject? Silent working, perhaps? Trying to manage behaviour, or even just spot low-level disruption, whilst fully extended with teaching is hard; give yourself some chances .
So that’s some suggestions for my three big ticket items for teaching: planning, subject knowledge, and behaviour. It takes time but when you get these right then you’ll be in fine shape. The children will learn stuff; teaching will be enjoyable. Good luck!