Impact and Time

As we close the year, enjoy a well earned break and begin to prepare for the Spring term, you may want to ask yourself this question: what classroom methods produce maximal impact with low time investment?

As a teacher, you want to aim for the most impact using strategies that take as little time as possible. Perhaps this is the holy grail of pedagogy. This takes some trial and error. Some exploration. You have to experiment, get things wrong and then eventually get them right. Enjoy the journey and learn. Life is busy enough and no teacher wants to waste time with long and laborious methods that don’t produce the impact for their students or themselves. This approach is indicated with the blue scribble.

The trick is to aim for the red scribble in this picture. That’s the sweet spot. Once you hit that, aim to stay there! If not for ever, at least as much as possible.

What has been your most impactful teaching strategies this year, especially during remote and blended learning?

Behaviour Cultivation Pt 1

This blog series will be in three parts. If you are not yet a subscriber, you may wish to subscribe now so that you can get the two articles that will follow this one. Reading all three will ensure maximum benefit. This first article follows on from an earlier piece I wrote which you can find here, where I argue that good behaviour is the foundation upon which all else is built. I’ve been in schools where leadership and teachers have struggled to manage student behaviour. I’ve felt the pang of failure as well intentioned efforts to improve pedagogy quickly unravel as chaos ensues in classrooms. I’ve since concluded that good teaching and good learning cannot occur without outstanding behaviour for learning.

The first in the series.

In hopes of making this blog super practical, I’ve considered the techniques and approaches teachers can deploy to successfully cultivate good behaviour. I’ve called it behaviour cultivation instead of management. Management has certain connotations, which we often perceive as being very corporate and clinical. For example, we might consider feelings of coldness or being detached. Think clipboards, spreadsheets and meaningless bureaucracy. Essentially control and autocracy. Cultivation, perhaps catches the essence of what it means to develop the whole person.

The techniques in this blog include things teachers can implement tomorrow. I have broken down the techniques into three phases that undergird the foundation for achieving good behaviour: 1) before incidents occur; 2) as incidents occur; 3) after incidents occur. Reason being that behaviour management is not solely a reactive endeavour. Too much of a reactive approach only leads teachers to become demotivated and burnt out. This is bad for individual schools and the profession as a whole. Behaviour cultivation should predominantly be preemptive, strategic and planned. Consider the 80/20. 80% of efforts should be cultivating positive behaviour before infractions occur and 20% dealing with negative incidents as they arise.

As a trainee, and new teacher, I struggled with managing poor behaviour. I remember days of feeling dejected when I failed to establish order and calm in a lesson. Feelings of failure, inadequacy and defeat were the order of the day. I had acquired some tips on managing behaviour, but like any strategy, the user needs to imbibe the strategies. When you first try them out it’s like wearing your older brother’s hand-me-downs; it doesn’t fit in any of the right places and everyone laughs at you. The biggest thing for me was conviction in employing the methods. One really needs to have faith that the methods will work. This comes from practise, and trial and error. Like rolling dice in a game of Monopoly, you occasionally get the right numbers and land on Park Lane or Mayfair and success begins from there! Sadly though, poor behaviour is not just the reserve of new or fledgling teachers. Even those with many years of experience can struggle with poor pupil behaviour on a daily basis. A report from a leading education think tank claims that 28% and 31% of lessons in primary and secondary respectively were negatively impacted by poor behaviour.

For this blog, I’m going to start from the top with what I feel is the most important phase of the behaviour cultivation pathway.

Before incidents occur:

● Set the tone and make expectations clear. You can do this by establishing what good behaviour looks like and coming to a mutual understanding. For student-teacher relationships to be successful there must be a clear understanding between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. As the teacher, you’ll have to skillfully guide your pupils through this process. As you pose questions such as ‘what do you think makes good behaviour?’, you have to tread the fine line between being democratic yet avoiding the anything goes culture all whilst having the social sensitivity and empathy to allow pupils to feel safe enough to share their perspectives without feeling like they’ll be ridiculed or scoffed at. This may seem obvious, but management psychologists, coining this as a psychological safety, have revealed this is in fact very hard to achieve.
● Use strong body language. With most of our communication being non-verbal, your posture, countenance and demeanor say a lot about you. Stand straight, but relaxed. Make eye contact and insist that students do the same. This immediately establishes a connection between you and your students. Avoid sitting down for the entire lesson. Walk the room and circulate the space. One of my old colleagues, a formidable Aussie woman, dubbed this ‘the tour to be sure’.
● At a whole school level, make clear what constitutes poor behaviour as well as positive behaviour and the consequences for both. This is the job of school leaders in all positions. The EEF guidance report argues “there’s a clear need for school[s] to have consistent and clear behaviour policies”. This makes expectations explicit thus reducing ambiguity.
● Ensure you are aware of the school’s behaviour policy. This will be your go to document for dealing with incidents. It also ensures consistency of approach.
● Arrange your seating strategically to avoid pairings or groups that don’t work well together. If you have a new group, try asking other members of the team what their experience was like teaching those pupils. They may give you valuable intel to ensure you start on a good foot. One caveat, try not to prejudge pupils; allow them to have a fresh start.
● Praise the behaviour you want to see more than correcting poor behaviour. Most students want to impress their teachers. By praising good behaviour, you are inadvertently reducing the potential for poor behaviour to occur. By no means ignore poor behaviour- it has to be dealt with. However, by focusing on positive behaviours this creates a clear model for others and works towards developing a positive learning culture.

The next part in this series will be released after Christmas.

Relationship Matters

A picture taken of participants in a summer school I created.

This is a slightly longer form article than my usual posts, so make yourself comfortable with a cup of your favourite hot beverage.

Having a friendly chat about sport without any regard for the physical proximity between you and the speaker; shaking the hand of a student as you greet them at the door; sitting across from each other at the table in the canteen as you eat and chat together. These are things we all took for granted about school life almost a year ago. They seemed routine, an absolute given, untouchable even, but many of us have found ourselves in a situation where these things aren’t even possible. The sharp interruption of COVID-19 has meant that we hold our common conversations with a 1.5-2 metres distance precaution in our minds, somewhat of a psychological barrier as well as a physical one. Its impact has meant that our relationships have had to adjust in order to potentially save a life. We’ve had to innovate on the spot, quite literally. Instead of shaking hands, we’ve bumped elbows, tapped our feet in some kind of synchronised jig or simulated hand shakes in the air resembling an amateur mime artist. 

School life has changed considerably. Naively, I thought the new school year would be like most others, full of energy, as well rested teachers belt out perfectly planned lessons to not so equally well rested students! Finding myself and many others struggling to forge relationships with our students, especially with new classes, or as a new member of staff joining the school, I’ve sat long and hard to think about how we can build meaningful and quality relationships with our pupils during this time.

We are relational creatures by nature. No man is an island. We are wired to seek out bonds and relational ties. It’s a fundamental part of our humanness: to talk, to laugh, to play, argue, and express our curiosity and interest in and with others. It’s no surprise then that strong relationships are the foundation of all good schools. Without strong connections, kids can feel disenfranchised and there is no real sense of community. Even as an adult, if I cannot engage in at least one quality relationship with a colleague, I have little if any attachment to the place of work. As teachers and school leaders, we create good relationships because we want our pupils to feel loved and valued. When they feel this way, they become confident enough to take risks in their learning and this begets good progress. Moreover, they learn to be better human beings, which is far more important than any number or letter attached to a subject as an emblem of achievement or failure. As we show our students that we love them, they in turn can learn to express love in healthy ways to others. Scherto Gill and Garrett Thomson call this idea “co-presence”, where human beings personally develop as a direct result of their interrelatedness. 

So What are the Current Problems?

In my own school context, this current pestilence has meant that our school day has been shortened to reduce contact time as a health measure. As a consequence, registration time has been cut the most severely, a valuable period where form tutors could build bonds with their students. Our advisory lesson (an hour long form class session) has been completely eroded (bar one year group), and with it a substantial amount of time to connect and get to know each other. The canteen now lies closed, a shadow of its once vibrant and bustling atmosphere. The breaking of bread; that metaphoric timeless ritual of bonding through the sharing of food is absent from our school. Playtimes and breaks are now confined to clinical classrooms where students take intermittent bites of sandwiches as they lower their masks to their chins. It’s quite sad as I come to think of it. But alas, no time for lamentation! This is a time for deliberate action!

So how do we adjust?

With any big change, after the grieving period, new life must be embraced. New ways of doing things sought out and that is what we’ve tried to do. As a pastoral team we’ve worked to put the following in place.

  • 1-1s with each child who we’ve identified as needing a bit more care. We’ve prioritised who we’ve seen working from the adage of healthy people not requiring a doctor. The Head of Year arranges a dedicated time to meet with the student and check in with them. This has been a great relationship builder. 
  • Developed a set of questions and conversation prompts/starters for tutors to use in order to find out more about members of their form class. We’ve thought about turning this into a game where the tutor is quizzed by their class and must try to answer correctly.
  • planned a series of interviews with some students in order to hear about their school experience at this time and what we can do to support them
  • in our form time, albeit limited, we’ve shared slides with the whole school to generate discussion around shared themes. This is to try and achieve some sense of community across all years.
  • arranged outdoor seating and work areas for teachers to foster more collaboration whilst adhering to all safety precautions

What lies ahead?

Has the pandemic forced us into considering more deeply just how much good relationships are important? In addressing the significance of relationships, Scherto Gill and Garrett Thomson assert that an “ethical education is one that provides spaces for students to build good relationships with each other.” Ethical Relationships in Secondary Classrooms (June 2020). As I consider how students have had little time to build new relationships, particularly Year 7, having been separated from many of their Y6 friends, I am forced to innovate the ways in which we help students to form new connections and the kinds of spaces that facilitate this. This has been really hard because of the imposed restrictions to keep our children safe: students aren’t allowed out during breaks; they talk to each other from a 1.5 metres distance, which further adds to the breaking of natural conversation proximities, rhythms and intimacies; they struggle to read facial cues as barriers in the form of masks distort the organic flow of good conversation. 70% of communication is nonverbal, making masked conversations extremely tricky in which to fully engage. As I write this, I attempt to think of novel ways to engender a sense of community during this time of separation. Maybe we should talk about resilience and strength. Maybe we should talk about our triumphs and victories over/during COVID! Like the phoenix rising from the ashes; or a butterfly, once a creeping caterpillar, emerging from its cocoon, many human beings have changed this life altering moment into something of a triumph of overcoming; a testament to the power of the human will.

Crises and Alternatives

In a crisis…

…we can tear each other down, blame colleagues for not doing their job, accuse others for shirking responsibility or assign more tasks. This may seem like the only way. But unlike what British ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said in the 80s, there is an alternative*. 

The alternative could look like this: forgiveness; effort; problem solving; streamlining; teamwork and collaboration; and, (insert any other helpful way of overcoming the crisis as a team).

Stop. Consider your crisis. What would you like your alternative to be and what is your role as its Chief Architect?

*Margaret Thatcher famously subscribed to the acronym TINA (There Is No Alternative) during a brutal recession in the UK in the 1980s. I was just a boy then, but my community proved there is always an alternative. If you’re curious, you can read more about the notion of TINA, here.


Three things I’ve learned about leading during a global crisis:

1. Plans will change.
2. Plans will change again.
3. Plans will change some more.