I apologise in advance for the shifts in person throughout. I jump from addressing my class to telling anecdotes and giving my views, as a blog, in the first person.
I currently have the pleasure of teaching 11ea2, as they stumble, dawdle, charge and swarm towards their GCSE English Lang and Lit exams (the approach depends on the individual, previous lesson, day of the week, weather and of course the time).
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Natalie Scott and published with kind permission.
The original post can be found here.
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I roll my smiling sparkling eyes at them most lessons, let the corners of my mouth curl defiantly upwards, holding back my smile because I do not always approve of their humour, however the skin around my eyes creases and I still feel proud as I remind them not to be smutty or quite so daft on a (in my opinion, far too) regular basis. They are teenagers. They are cheeky but never to the point of rude, they get distracted but never to the point of conflict, they stalk me on twitter but never to the point of mentioning me. They often mutter ‘teacher bants’ during our lessons which I respond to with an increasingly knowing grin, a firm look and usually a non verbal gesture; a hand on their desk, a hand softly lifted to them while I continue to speak to one of their peers, a downwardly pointed finger, an emu style movement to show the need to close a conversation, a flick of my eyes, or wide eyed power stare, what ever is needed to focus them on their work.
The art of non verbal behaviour management strategies is absolutely essential with this class. It is an art that I see missing from many lessons I have observed over the years, an important skill. With this class (in fact with all my classes, for as long as I can remember, I never sit down) I wander, prowl, mooch and sway, prey, creep around the room (again depending on how they arrive and settle to the task) keeping them on board, monitoring, prompting or answering questions if they really need me to. I circulate. Sometimes I stand at the back and teach from there. I can tell the lad at the back doesn’t like it when I do. But when it comes to behaviour management, I’m all over them. And yet, I don’t think that they have ever heard me raise my voice. I am pretty loud, but I rarely shout. Hmm, maybe I did back in the early days. I can’t be sure.
We haven’t always had this level of mutual respect, this positive, lightheardedly professional relationship and they haven’t always associated me as a teacher with ‘bants’. Far from it.
I am their GCSE English teacher number 5 (depending on their previous sets I could be their 6th in the last 2 years) but they’ve been mine completely since September. They ARE mine. They drive me nuts but they (some at least) thank me, and mean it, after every lesson. They work hard, but need to work harder and will over the coming weeks. They know I will bake a cake, or sausage roll, for anyone who gets that A grade or higher- their parents know this too. Yes it is sort of, kind of, a bit like bribery but the offer of a home baked Victoria Sponge should never be underestimated.
But let’s go back to the first day that we met:
Year 11 vs Miss Scott, let’s call it Round 1.
Day 1, teaching in the Isle of Wight. They came in and judged their new teacher. And got it a little wrong. Some of the boys, lads, didn’t think I was going to be a permanent teacher so normal rules didn’t need apply. (Why do teenagers not think that cover teachers deserve the same respect as their class teacher? It was the same when I was a kid. Where does that message come from? Other teachers? Parents? Experience?)
Anyhow, first impressions were they didn’t really like working hard, don’t get me wrong- their behaviour has never been poor but they (some, the majority, but not all) were cheeky and/or passive- not a good combination. They got through my starter (excrutiatingly slowly) and thought it was enough work for the day. They didn’t underline titles, write dates or glue in sheets. They didn’t really like seating plans. Or work at all really. Some tried their luck a little, attempting to charm. This always amuses me as to be honest I am ‘old school’ now, on the downhill slant, skidding desperately towards 40 and with nearly 20 years of educating teenagers under my belt. I’m older than some of their mums and dads, have taught far livelier groups and ‘won’, but I wear high heeled shoes and make up, highlight my hair and don’t usually look too shabby and besides teenagers have hormones. I smiled. But they were tough work. Not in a naughty way but because, on the whole, they had no clear desire to learn, no spark or drive. No ambition or dreams. They couldn’t be bothered with work. They had decided they didn’t like English. Which was a problem for me.
On my second lesson with the class, when they were still split between me and another colleague for English lessons (knowing maybe 4 or 5 names and after spending approximately 51 minutes with them in total) I was subject to an unannounced formal observation. The 2 teachers who watched it told me it wasn’t what they thought a good lesson should be and ripped me apart. When I pushed for targets, partly out of anger (it was the best lesson I could have hoped for, I am proud of how it went, still, and always feel a strong sense of injustice when I think back to it) one part of their feedback really did strike a chord. It wasn’t a target and I didn’t take it quite as I think that they meant it, but it was a fair comment for them to make.
“It just felt like you were dragging them along, forcing them to work hard”
To which I replied quite slowly, clearly and very stubbornly
“Of course I am dragging them along, and I will continue to do so until they work at the rate, and produce the quality, I would expect of any students in set 2!”
You see I had joined a school in special measures where expectations were low. In those early days I dragged. I dragged so hard, I pushed them, shoved them, nagged them. I smiled whilst doing it although I did give detentions too, for the first time in years. And they were so reluctant. And I smiled and chunked. And they yawned. I kept my pace up, smiling. They grumbled. And I used VAK and tried to make it funny at times. And they moaned and sighed at my rubbish teacher jokes*. I marked. They ignored it. I marked less, smiling more than before, and showed them how to act on their now reduced targets. I used criterias and mark schemes, modelled, made them self regulate and peer mark and slowly they budged a little. Homework was needed for the next lesson so it was better just to do it, for themselves not for me- I smiled either way whilst putting notes in the planners of those who let themselves down. This was going to be a 2 way process and they would, even if it took me the whole of their final year, take responsibility. And I continued to hope they would eventually smile back.
Slowly, gradually, they saw it. I cared and although I do not claim to be perfect, to be able to differentiate to the specific needs of every child in the room I still started each lesson ready to try to. They saw I was not going to give up. They saw their work improve. They saw their grades go up. Some actually started to like the texts we studied and enjoy lessons. Most importantly they saw their own potential and ability. We started to talk about hopes and aspirations, Uni and sixth form, nature vs nurture, psychology and historical contexts. And there was the moment. They decided I was actually ‘alright when you get to know her’ and told people that my lessons were ‘ok actually’, they talked about what we were doing in class in their other lessons, corridors and at home and the grapevine brought it back to me, via staff and students and parents. And from there we started to chuckle together.
I always try to smile in the first few minutes of meeting a class because whoever it was who warned the inexperienced, overly enthused, totally petrified ‘Dead Poet’ and ‘Carpe Diem’ inspired PGCE me not to smile at all at any students until Christmas had ABSOLUTELY no idea about building effective relationships with their students, about mutual respect or how to interact and manage the behaviour and learning of young people.
Over my years in classrooms, corridors and playgrounds, I have seen the power of a smile in practice, over and over, not just working miracles with children, but also with colleagues.
Increasingly, I see NQTs who know how to smile, are enthused and who can relate in some way to the teenagers become strong practitioners with high expectations whilst some older colleagues seem to struggle with managing behaviour for learning; silent and submissive and active engagement couldn’t be more different you see. It was always the new teachers who struggled the most with behaviour when I was training, who were told to keep distance as they were still young themselves and were advised to establish rules and craft professional personas, and many still do.
But, to me, now, it seems like more of an arc, a loop has formed, is it just a matter of time before I forget how to smile or talk to the classes in front of me? I hope not. I don’t want to be the teacher who stands on break duty alone, grimacing, arms tightly crossed, reluctant to speak to any of the students nearby. Avoiding eye contact. No siree, not me. I don’t want to teach lessons where learners resent me for my constant glum approach. I will always ask them about their best lessons, favourite teachers and then ask why. I try to then relay that praise back, naturally whilst borrowing great ideas along the way. Teachers rarely get to hear that they have changed a student’s day. It matters.
Now this shift could be, in part, down to the less innocent kids, changes in our society and their rights, different approaches to pedagogy and practice, the dreaded Ofsted and the pressures we have upon our shoulders. Or is it because students now have the power (?) no, let me rephrase that, the confidence to answer back if they feel a teacher lets them down, is not as good as another or doesn’t mark their books. Are their expectations higher too? Is student voice more powerful than parental input these days? Fear of a slipper or cane doesn’t keep young mouths closed as it once did. Or is is because for some teachers it is easier to try, still, to control through fear? Is it because being a person in front of other people can still be daunting and scary? That they don’t know how to interact with these uniform wearing, sandwich eating, pen forgetting young adults? That the generation gap is so emphasised by technological developments and more rapidly expanding than ever before? Who knows. I’m better at asking the questions than answering them.
Sorry I went off on a tangent there.
Back to my year 11s. They are if I’m honest, and they may read this as they stalk me on Twitter, one of the best, yes people, ONE OF THE BEST, groups I’ve ever taught. They are a great mix of conscientious girls, the ones who play ditsy but really care, the diligent, industrious, dedicated, careful, hard-working, persevering, the ones who question but for the right reasons, the ones who forget their books far too frequently, the ones who apply red lippy in food tech and then turn up to my class straight after thinking I will not notice, and the sceptics who sometimes, and only of late, have started to smile. And the boys…. Oh lord, where to begin?
There are the cheeky ones, the dreamers, the eager, the bright, the ones who need to come to more lessons, the ones who email for extra work, the sparky, lively, witty, the polite, the banter filled, the gift giving and the brightly coloured anti-regulation bright sock wearers and then there are the wonderful kind ones, of both genders, who chose to thank me on a video made for and played for staff. I ran the T&L inset when we showed the film, so didn’t think it appropriate that I feature more than other teachers in the thank yous, but your nominations and thank yous were there, are noted, and I have a copy of the film. Your words meant the world to me.