Warm – strict  

I have written previously about Teach Like a Champion, a book I feel to be the most important contribution to pedagogy advice I have read. Although it is nearly impossible to pick which of the important techniques are the most vital, ‘warm strict’ is definitely up there: in fact, it may even be the foundation of a successful education.

The thinking behind ‘warm strict’ is that you should not be either the warm, friendly, kind teacher or the strict teacher: you need to be both. And not one after the other – it’s not Jekyll and Hyde – but both, at the precise same time.

So ‘warm’ and ‘strict’ are not mutually exclusive. In fact, at Michaela, we have found that the more strict we want to be, the more warm we have to be.

Anyone who has visited Michaela is immediately struck by the behaviour of the pupils. It is unusual, they say, to find classroom after classroom where 100% of pupils are focused for 100% of the time. Row upon row of eyes are fixed on their teacher, or on their exercise books. There is no staring out the window, no fiddling with a pen, no hanging back on their chairs.

But this does not happen by magic. Watch any Michaela lesson, and teachers are constantly issuing corrections to pupils. These can take the form of reminders or demerits, and are swift and public. ‘Kevon, remember to keep those eyes glued to your page,’ might be issued to a year 7 who is still in terrible habits from primary school, who desperately wants to focus on his work but just isn’t quite in the habit of it. ‘Shyma, that’s a demerit: if you focus 100% on your paragraph you know it will be the best you can do,’ might address a year 9 who is knowingly letting their eyes wander because they are seeking to distract others or themselves. It’s a judgement call, and one we don’t all always get right, but in general Michaela teachers are incredibly consistent in the messages they give the children. (We achieve that consistency through frequent observations – the topic of a future post.)

In my previous schools, I was also issuing constant corrections; the difference was my stress level. With a tough class, counting up those three warnings before issuing a sanction would lead to me delivering corrections with an emotional tone, conveying the stress I was feeling. Because the bar for behaviour is set so ludicrously high at Michaela, and pupils are never doing anything worse in lessons than turning around, whispering or fiddling with a pen, we can all take the time to explain every correction we give throughout the lesson. And we give corrections, reminders, demerits and even detentions with care and love: ‘that’s your second demerit, which is a detention – this will help you to remember to keep your focus so you will achieve your full potential.’

Not only within lessons, but also between lessons, Michaela teachers are seeking out opportunities for warm interactions with pupils. At break time, tutors circulate the hall their year group is based in, shaking hands, chatting about their weekend or their interests; we even have footage of pupils teaching their tutors how to dance. At lunchtime, we eat with our pupils; teachers will seek out kids they have had to sanction or have a difficult conversation with, and use that friendly interaction to reset the relationship in a more positive tone.

Because we are so strict, it is vital that every teacher greets every child with a smile and happy ‘good morning!’ prior to each lesson. Because we are so strict, we must smile and chat with the pupils on the playground, in the lunch hall, and even at the bus stop. Because we are so strict, we need to let our love show.

All truly excellent teachers love their pupils – that seems obvious to me. But if you want to be really, really strict you need to show them that love in every smiling interaction.

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New year’s resolutions: 2015-2016

I’ve mentioned previously that I like to start the new school year with my resolutions. This year is not only a new year for me, but a new school and a new role as well. I’m extremely excited to be moving back to Southwark, the borough where I first trained, and to an academy and mixed school for the first time. I remember all too keenly the trials of starting afresh: the students don’t know you, so you must build up trust and predictability of follow-through; teachers don’t know you and don’t know how committed you will turn out to be; not to mentioned the umpteen-thousand-million names to learn.

So, this year, I need to simplify my aims and keep it simple. My two resolutions for this year focus on behaviour and curriculum.

Behaviour

Good behaviour underpins a school’s every success. Without excellent behaviour, even the very best teaching is significantly diminished in its impact. Beginning a new school as a more seasoned teacher and with responsibility, I will still prioritise ensuring the behaviour in my own classroom is exemplary. I’ll be re-visiting Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion chapter on the least invasive intervention, and constantly explaining why I’m enforcing the rules, bringing everything back to the students’ learning.

I’ve made several visits to my new school, and have been very impressed with behaviour on the corridors. But I know this is the result of tireless efforts from the teachers to constantly enforce their expectations, always with a smile, ensuring a calm environment. I need to be vigilant to ensure I am a part of that team of continual reinforcement. There can be no priority more fundamental than 100% of students complying with 100% of the instructions of 100% of staff 100% of the time.

And of course, that goes for the classrooms of others. As a senior leader, I pledge to be visible and supportive in ensuring behaviour is excellent. I won’t be taking children back to teachers who have sent them out. I won’t be walking past a chaotic classroom with a struggling supply teacher because a meeting or pile of work awaits me. And, most vitally, I won’t be blaming the supply teacher, NQT or any teacher for the behaviour of their students.

Curriculum

My role at will be to oversee Curriculum Design, so I’ll be drawing on my ideas from E.D. Hirsch, as well as other school examples, for guidance on what makes an excellent curriculum.

My aim for the curriculum is two-fold. Firstly, I would like to see a coherent curriculum, where students’ learning is systematically sequenced, and then revisited. I’d like to see a curriculum where all students are studying high-quality subjects in a clear and coherent way, and intervention for the lowest attainers on entry still ensures students are receiving a coherent curriculum that will enable them to have choices in later life.

Secondly, I would like to see a rigorous curriculum, where every subject is teaching high-quality content in an academic manner. This will also encompass rigorous testing of the curriculum, to ensure students are remembering what they have learned.

It may sound like an immense challenge, but I’ve been privileged to meet heads of faculty and senior leaders at the school who have already worked hard to put many of the structures in place that will ensure the above is a reasonable expectation. The principal has assembled a team of highly committed, impressive individuals and I will have to work hard to prove my worth and live up to their proven excellence.

Finally, I’d like to maintain a healthy work-life balance. I absolutely love what I do, and the temptation is always to plough into work and forget everything else. I’d like to work sensible hours, see friends and family, and read plenty of books.

These kids

There are some students who storm into your teaching life, and you know immediately: they’re going to be fine. They will have issues and problems and troubles, of course; they will have tantrums and bad days and choice words used at the wrong time, of course; they will miss detentions and not read enough and worry about you calling home, of course. But they will be fine.

By “fine”, of course, I mean, they won’t have any problems reaching the C-grade we teach them to dream of. They’ll almost certainly achieve B grades. You’ll spend your teaching time trying to stretch them towards the A grades; reminding them that you can’t give them the answers, trying to make them become independent thinkers. I’m not saying those students are easy. But they will be fine, in the sense that there is no scenario in which they won’t be picking up a string of B to A grades at GCSE with the odd C (bad day?), and dancing on to sixth form, followed by university.

And then there are these kids. I’m not sure why they’re so behind, because we’ve had them in our year 7, 8 and 9 classes and done a bit of huffing and sighing because they don’t seem to be anywhere near a level 5 for three years of trying; in fact, for three years of trying they seem to be stuck on the same level they came to us on. And while we know that’s not good enough, what did we do? With the best of intentions, we “tried our best”, which means we did more when we could, and when we couldn’t, we felt guilty, because we teach six classes English four times a week, and there are only so many hours in the day, and we’re teachers so we work all of them. No-one was filing their nails when they could have been helping these kids.

So, we’re not sure what happened, but here they are: in some crucial year group, languishing at the very bottom of the scale. Except they’re often not here; so often are they excluded or kept out of lessons or bunking in the toilets or bunking at home or genuinely sick but sick so much of the time you’re not sure they even have an immune system.

What can we do?

I once sat at a parents evening waiting for these kids. It seemed as if every “fine” child in the year group had turned up, while “these kids” hadn’t. Where were they? Would I ever know? And I would call the next day, and not get any answer, or leave a message that wouldn’t be returned, or hear an incorrect number tone.

And you know, there aren’t many of these kids. In fact, they’re an incredibly tiny number, and an infinitesimally small proportion of what will be our A-C achievement that will judge us as a school.

So what can we do? And if we do nothing, will anyone notice?

After that parents evening, I came home devastated. I couldn’t get through to “these kids”, I couldn’t get through to their parents, I couldn’t get anyone else to care as caring too much with “these kids” will only end in hopelessness. These kids are doomed. They turn up in year 7 with nothing; they leave in year 11 with nothing.

The next day, I went to visit the new teacher. It was Friday, period 6, and I’d just spent the previous lesson with some of these kids. Not too many; two were sick, one was AWOL, one excluded, and another suspiciously in school for all the other lessons that day. During the lesson, we’d practised listening to others without speaking, we’d learned that board markers shouldn’t be used on school property, and we’d been reminded that we definitely don’t throw our property across the room, and definitely definitely not at another student.

And then, in the new teacher’s classroom, there was calm, focused endeavour. Those children were all on the right path, hurtling ahead, doing the right thing without question. Because the new teacher had set up her classroom to ensure that all would achieve, and she was reinforcing those expectations, and she was firmly challenging them to do better, and they were internalizing her messages, her belief, her expertise.

So I have to do better by these kids. I have to transform my classroom. They have to want to be there, and their parents have to want to take my call, because what I will say will be meaningful. I have to learn from the new teacher, who gives me great hope that what happens in the classroom can make all the difference for these kids. I have to hope my classroom can start to be enough.

What makes great teaching?

Before the summer, I asked on Twitter for advice on making a department handbook. The overwhelming response? Don’t. No-one will read it, it’s oppressive and not useful, it’s a bureaucratic tick-box exercise.

Much as I sympathised with such views, having new teachers join the department, and tending to spend much of my time (literally) running around the corridors of the school, I felt these teachers needed something to refer to when I (or a seasoned teacher) could not be found.

Brimming with hubris, I decided to open the handbook with “Teaching and Learning”, and proceeded to randomly write down ideas I had for what I think makes great teaching. It’s by no means an exhaustive, or even logical, list, but I’d be interested in the thoughts of others. I have pasted below exactly from the handbook, word for word.

Relationships

  • Like your students and tell them
  • Value what they say in class – ensure everyone is listening and taking note when anyone is speaking
  • Call home positively for as many students as you can. Do this early on and save yourself many negative calls later
  • Be there for your students emotionally, but remember you’re their teacher – refer on any pastoral issues promptly
  • Ask students to reflect on their learning and be honest with you about what they need more of. Be responsive to their needs

Mindset

  • Believe in the unlimited potential of all your students to succeed. Share this belief with them
  • Challenge your students to do better, even when they have “achieved” their “target” grade
  • Remind students who aren’t there that they aren’t there yet – further effort will not be in vain

Goals

  • Set clear goals for each lesson, each week, each term and unit of work. Share these goals with students

Feedback

  • Ensure written feedback is timely
  • Allow students time to ask you questions about your feedback
  • Give students time to respond and correct errors

Questioning

  • Challenge student answers – get them to develop their ideas further
  • Never accept “I don’t know” – always ask another student to help out so they can repeat the answer
  • At the same time, ensure all your students know “I don’t know” is fine to admit, as long as they show themselves ready to learn after saying this
  • Bounce questions to other students to answer
  • Practice hands down questioning regularly so all students are listening and ready
  • Aim to speak to each student at least once in each class

Pratice

  • Independent practice using key skills should be built into every lesson
  • Students should be supported by teachers during independent practice (e.g. circulating and making verbal corrections/suggestions for improvement as students write)
  • Bear in mind you might need to explicitly teach skills you take for granted – e.g. taking notes, the right place for a comma, what a verb is

Behaviour management

  • Expect 100% compliance with 100% of your instructions 100% of the time
  • Phrase instructions positively
  •  Talk about choices
  • Never allow students to “earn off” a sanction
  • Have a no excuses culture – one high standard for all
  • Have high expectations of behaviour – silence means silence; group discussion of the task means no off-task chat
  • Have clear and unchanging policies for all misdemeanours, no matter how minor, that you apply equally to all students (remember that it is not the severity of the sanction that is important but the certainty of the sanction)
  • Give specific praise – verbally and written
  • Narrate positive behaviour you wish to see in all your students
  • Avoid singling out students for chastising publicly, at least the first time you note off-task behaviour

Share and celebrate success

  • In class, verbally and frequently
  • Copy great work and share with the class
  •  Ensure students buy into learning as a desirable success to aim for
  •  Share success stories (students who have made incredible progress through hard work)

Knowledge

  • Have deep knowledge of the material you are teaching which goes beyond what students “need to know”
  • Use material throughout the curriculum to challenge students and empower them to find their place in any walk of life they choose

Discussion

  • Engage students in debate/discussion – allow them to reason through answers and ideas themselves. Challenge them to uphold their thinking. Ensure it is ok to change your mind with new evidence
  • Encourage structured and purposeful student talk

Differentiation

  • Know where your students are, using recent data, marking and assessment for learning in lessons
  • Plan the next step your students need
  • Teach to the top, support at the bottom
  • Tell your Teaching Assistant (if you have one) what they can do to most help your students

CPD

  • Be aware of your strengths and areas for development as a teacher
  • Share good practice (e.g. during department meetings)
  •  Go and see teachers who do something you’d like to do
  •  Raise development needs with your line manager so the department CPD can be appropriate

Assessment

  • Mark student books regularly (at least every 2 weeks)
  • Level or grade student work once a half term. Remember that levels/grades are not as important as developmental feedback, but these levels/grades will help you to complete Assessment Point 1, 2 and 3
  •  After assessments, spend time exploring what students need to do next time to improve

Homework

  • Set students homework which builds on their learning in class
  • Homework should be reasonable
  • Be aware that computer access is an issue for some students
  • Be aware that some students will thrive on “homework extensions”
  • Build in spelling and grammar to your homework routine
  • Set homework on the same day/s every week
  • Ensure students write homework in their planners 

Communication with parents

  •  This can form the key to excellent student progress
  • Try to ensure your first contact with parents is positive
  •  Don’t be afraid to call a meeting with a parent; ask your line manager to attend as well if there are pressing issues you need to discuss in person prior to parents’ evening

New teachers

Teaching is absolutely the best job in the world, but it doesn’t always feel like that. The first year of teaching was, for me, the hardest. Yet in a way it is almost the best: in no other time of your career will you go so far so fast. By the end of the year, you will seem to be decades ahead of where you began. Here are some of my tips for new teachers.

Fake it til you make it

No-one needs to know you’re a new teacher, and it can be helpful to forget this fact yourself. Cling to all your past experience, whether that be in your placement school for your PGCE, or your Summer Institute teaching practice with Teach First, or your TEFL experience, or even tutoring your sisters/brothers. It all counts in the big performance of not carrying your new teacher baggage with you. Pretend, pretend, pretend.

Learn their names and use them

With every new class, I have a clipboard with the seating plan. Within a week, the clipboard can go away. Consult it for every question asked, for every hand up, for every cold call. Use the students’ names as often as you can – it means a lot to a child that you have learned their name, and you will be surprised at how offended they will be if you mispronounce it, even by a syllable.

Call home to say nice things

My mentor used to make three positive calls on a Friday before going home – no matter how bad your week, this will make you feel better and pave the way for a more positive Monday. On my darkest days even now I will call home to five or six students to say “well done.” It is great for the student, but also reminds you: you have done a good job. Indeed, parents will often be magnanimous in assigning you as the cause of their child’s wonders – on a tough day, take the credit.

Praise three before sanctioning one

Your students come into the room, and inevitably the first thing you will notice is the one (two, five, seven) doing something wrong. The temptation is to immediately call out these students. In the early days, however, a wall of misbehaviour can feel overwhelming: if you call out one/two/five/seven and not the other one/two/five/seven (“it wasn’t only me!”) you can redouble your problems. Try praising three before calling out any. Lee Canter talks about “behaviour narration”: “I can see X is standing behind her chair”, “has taken his coat off,” “is ready to learn,” “is doing the right thing,” for three students will usually ensure you have far fewer to sanction as more and more fall into line, wanting you to say their name positively. Most students just want some attention. If they know you will give it for positive things first, they may well switch their behaviour.

Don’t back down

That said, you will need to sanction students. In the heat of the moment, I know I often ran to the wrong sanction; usually one too harsh for the crime committed. No matter – stick to your guns. You threatened a one-hour detention? They sit a one-hour detention. You know you were wrong and you probably won’t do it again, but if you back down or negotiate with students who have done something wrong they will not learn to respect you. That said, do use that hour to reassure the student that you know they can succeed. And remember: it’s not the severity of the sanction but the certainty. Three minutes of their lunch hour will hurt just as much (and you can get on with your life).

Mark books

At the start of the year, look at your free periods and when you see your classes and set out a marking schedule for yourself. If possible, give yourself at least a day – don’t try to turn around a set of books from Wednesday to Thursday, for example. Think about how big (or how demanding) your classes are and make a rota; so all things being equal I would mark year 7, 9 and 10 one week and then year 8 and 11, as year 11 will want your most brilliant marking prowess. (This is, of course, assuming you are an English teacher with a normal amount of classes.) When you take in books, ask students to turn to the page you last marked: this way, you can have the last target you set in the back of your mind, as well as saving valuable seconds (they really do add up) by not having to find the right page to start on.

Be yourself

When attempting to “fake it til you make it,” it can be tempting to emulate your mentor, or your own favourite teacher from school, or the scary teacher you wish you were (I have tried and failed at all of these). Students see through it. You have to be yourself. I find it really hard to not smile and have a laugh with students; in the early days I suppressed this and found myself called out as a classroom ogre. It didn’t feel right. You will find your own classroom personality, and it might not fit any of the preconceived ideas you have about what being a teacher is. No matter. No-one will be you.

Good luck!

Behaviour

I was in a workshop during my teacher training where we were role playing behaviour management with our peers. (Doesn’t that sound horrific? Since my first year of university when I unexpectedly contracted “the fear” and walked out of a read-through I’ve had a problem with anything acting-related. This workshop was therefore more nightmarish that you can even imagine.) Yet having observed a thousand teachers and read a million books, you would think I could handle this. Hardly. I clammed up; I was speechless. I had no comeback at all for my partner.

I remember that evening, in despair, calling my “leadership development officer” (basically our mum for 6 weeks), in tears, telling her I didn’t think I could do it. Amy was amazing. After giving me the phone equivalent of a massive hug, she told me something along the lines of “you will. When there is a child in front of you, you just will.” “What if I cry?” I asked. “You just won’t.”

I was, and still am, a crier, so I’m not sure I believed her, but I stuck with Teach First. And she was right. I have never ever cried from managing a tricky child, or a tricky class. Not even nearly. More than this triumph, I never clammed up. I always had something to say.

Obviously, it wasn’t always the right thing to say, but you live and learn.

Now, no book on behaviour management will fully prepare you to teach. Even after several years of teaching students will do and say things you can’t even imagine. Some of my personal favourites are so inappropriate I simply can’t write them here. I think reading these books during your first placement, or first term of teaching, is actually more helpful than reading them pre-term time.

So, onto some of my favourite books on behaviour management.

Classroom Behaviour by Bill Rogers

This was definitely the most useful book for me prior to teaching. It is replete with phrases you can practise saying, and above all in the early days you need some stock phrases to fall back on. Rogers espouses a gently gently approach, always aiming to avoid confrontation and focus on the positive. There are some real gems here; rather than “take off that fluorescent orange balaclava” saying “what’s the school rule about scarves?”; adding a “thanks” to the end of an instruction rather than a “please” (I have never done this, because I am a stubbornly traditional user of English sentence structure, but I hear it works well) and advice on when, who and how to tactically ignore.

Assertive Discipline by Lee Canter

This is an example of a book I read and all but dismissed during training and only came to appreciate when I entered the classroom.

“Assertive Discipline” is an ideal solution for the problem of praise: feel like a bit of an idiot praising the one person with their book and pen out? Canter instead advocates “behaviour narration” rather than judgement. Rather than a “well done for doing the absolute minimum I expect of you” you narrate it: “Chanelle has her pen out and is ready to start learning”. This then draws attention to the positive behaviour and nudges others towards following it. To non-teachers this might sound crazy, but it works supremely well, at least in my experience. (There are other tips, but this one is my favourite.)

Why are you shouting at us? by Phil Beadle and John Murray

I began teaching in the halcyon days of Teachers’ TV, and was a bit of a fan girl for Phil Beadle, one of their vanguards. His charisma and creativity was everything I wasn’t, and I loved reading his book “How to Teach” (though his insistence on the efficacy of marking as a sure-fire way to change achievement even when your classroom is a bit chaotic led to me neglecting planning in favour of an unimaginable amount of written feedback, with disastrous consequences. By my second year I marked less and planned more and found it worked. This is almost certainly my error of interpretation, not his writing.)

I know not all teachers are Beadle fans, but I think he is great. Driven by a strong moral purpose and with all the skills you would expect of an AST, this co-written book is a superb round up of effective behaviour management. At 130 small pages the text is lighthearted enough to be read speedily and joyously. It is also fairly honest about what kids can do and how you can combat it.

Less useful are the charisma based methods – I’m not sure I have ever managed to calm a truly angry child with a joke, though I wholly endorse the anti-shouting pages (quiet seething is far better for your health, if less immediately effective).

Reluctant Disciplinarian by Gary Rubinstein

Rubinstein was trained by Teach for America, and this book is the better for the honesty with which he reveals his classroom mistakes; an honesty which comes partly from his subsequent successes in the classroom. I related to this book as Rubinstein, like me, is a self-confessed “softy”.

Acknowledging that behaviour management can never be adequately taught (not least, I would argue, through role play), this book takes you to the possible pitfalls of your initial months in the classroom and shows you the light at the end of that tunnel.

There are some traditional methods explored here in a clear way, for example meaning what you say – something I found surprisingly hard in my initial term of teaching. This is possibly because I wasn’t sure what I wanted, or if what I was doing was right; therefore I really didn’t mean what I said all that often. I will always remember a fellow teacher telling me that it was during her bout of laryngitis that she had become a better teacher; she had so little voice that she needed to mean everything she said.
Of course, the best “behaviour management” comes from familiarity: you with the kids, and the kids with you. It can’t happen straight away or overnight; merely sticking it out, turning up and following through with every consequence you say (at first even if you immediately regret it; only later with a conversation and apology if you were wrong) will work. It will work. It will.

Eventually.