Routines: Rituals for Learning

Routines as rituals for learning

NQTs bring enthusiasm, optimism and new ideas but sometimes struggle to manage the behaviour of some challenging classes. The reasons are not always obvious, and I’ve been trying to work out why.

Good NQTs arrive with strong subject knowledge, well clued up on educational research and equipped with comprehensive ‘toolkits’ of imaginative and engaging learning activities. On the face of it they and all their classes should thrive, but too often, they struggle to apply the full extent of what they know. It’s a little like seeing a car in first gear screaming at twenty miles an hour but seemingly unable to shift up; the result is slow progress with too much noise and stress for everyone.

I’ve been thinking about what it is that experienced teachers do those inexperienced ones don’t, in the hope that the whole adjustment process can be quicker and less painful for all involved.

When I ask NQTs how they plan their lessons, they talk confidently about the ability of the group, learning outcomes and the activities they will use to meet them. I often leave with ideas I use in my own lessons. So planning can’t be the main problem. This is enormously frustrating for NQTs who must be bemused when observing me; “everything is the same; he’s even using one of my ideas, so why aren’t the children behaving in the same way? Why are they so boisterous? Why don’t they do what they’re told? Why do they argue back so much?”

I think there are helpful answers in the small, seemingly mundane stuff. How will the class enter the room? Where will you be when they do? What will you say to them? Who will hand out the books and other paraphernalia? What do the students write down first? When do you take the register? What do you do if Ali doesn’t have a pen?   I think inexperienced teachers tend to deal with these in a reactive fashion; the issue presents itself and is dealt with instinctively and often inconsistently from one lesson to the next. The result might look something like this.

“Come in and sit down. In the seating plan, same as the last lesson except I’ve moved you, Danny, because you squabble with Dawid. If you can’t remember it, then I’ve got it on this slide. Hang on, I’ll just get it up. Sophie, you are in the wrong seat; please move. Put homework on my desk. Tell me later why you haven’t got it if you haven’t. I’ll hand out the books now. Yes, Jason, you can help. No, Eva, I’ve said Jason can do it. OK, if Jason doesn’t mind, then you can help too. Write down the date and title, everyone. Sophie, please move seats quickly! I’ll put up the date and title slide now. Is everyone in the right seat now? No, you aren’t! Sophie, that’s not the right seat! I don’t care if you aren’t the only one in the wrong place, move! I know I’ve got to take the register! Ali, it’s your job to have a pen, not mine, to give you one! I think I’ve got one but you’ll get detention for lack of equipment. Oh, I suppose if Marshall lends you one, then you won’t. Marshall, have you got one or not? Lend it quickly and go back to your seat. No, don’t sit next to him! You shouldn’t have lent him a pen if you thought he might steal it. Sophie, why haven’t you moved! That’s it; I’ve had enough. Everyone outside and line up! We’ll have to start all over again!”

This might have taken less than five minutes, but the effect on learning is catastrophic. The teacher is frustrated and so is the class. Some students already feel, rightly or wrongly, that they’ve been wronged. Easily distracted students have switched off. Everyone is cross and thinking about behaviour. Getting students interested in anything else feels impossible to everyone in the room. The teacher is stressed, and their ability to clearly communicate has been compromised. Further disruption is inevitable. If this pattern recurs a lot, then the class will begin arriving in a defensive and pugnacious frame of mind. Eventually, the class won’t expect to learn and everything falls apart; low-level disruption quickly escalates and the room no longer feels safe.

When this happens, good NQTs are proactive, often seeking to observe more experienced staff with the same group. This seems a good idea and is often recommended by their well-meaning mentors, but it comes loaded with more problems. Disruptive students see their less experienced teacher observing a more experienced one and come to the conclusion this is because their new teacher isn’t teaching effectively, which further erodes their already fragile credibility. The children can be conniving little schemers too. When I’ve been observed by struggling NQTs, I’ve noticed students behave better than they usually do to deliberately undermine the classroom management skills of their other teacher. In the observation, the focus is too often on the wrong things, with copious notes taken on learning tasks and not basic classroom routines, which are typically over and done within two minutes. Even observing a range of other experienced colleagues with other challenging classes can be just as unhelpful as each has different routines, with this apparent inconsistency further reinforcing the impression that they are unimportant compared to the “real” business of teaching and learning. If the NQT does consider routines, the conclusion they quite understandably reach is that they need to change their own, which results in further inconsistency and disruption with their own classes.

So there’s the problem. What’s the solution?

I have an old Delia Smith cookery book, and in one of the first chapters, she discusses a range of methods to boil an egg. Delia is clear that not one of the methods is better or worse than the others and doesn’t recommend that anyone bothers to achieve mastery of them all. The point is to learn the one that you like best, stick to it and then never worry about how to boil an egg ever again for the rest of your life.

Classroom routines can be just the same. Prioritise them and get them right. See them for what they are, powerful rituals that prepare everyone for learning. Find routines that work and stick to them. Ultimately the actual routines don’t matter as much as consistency in applying them. Learn from what others do, but don’t copy something just because it worked well for someone else. Ask to observe just the first five or so minutes of a range of classes, ideally targeting teachers’ who seem to have a similar personality and synthesise what you like into your own strategy. Have a decent reason for everything you do. Once you’re happy with what you’ve got, don’t change unless you have a compelling reason to do so. If something unexpected happens (Joshua enters your room after PE singing with his blazer and shirt on backwards) decide on how you will deal with that problem if it recurs in a quieter, calmer moment after the lesson and incorporate this into your routine. The impression this creates is one of experience and competence, and it will seem to kids that you’ve been teaching for years. This increases your own confidence and that of the class in you. Soon you’ll run through it instinctively and won’t even think about it.

Before finishing, it might be encouraging for those new to teaching to realise that this issue is not one experienced by only inexperienced staff. Moving school presents experienced staff with similar challenges, and I have certainly made the mistake of changing routines in response to disruptive classes who were failing to respond positively to them. Although, at the time, this seemed rational to me (“I’m in a new environment, and what worked there doesn’t work here”), behaviour did not improve and probably got a whole lot worse. It’d have been better if I’d persevered, and I think this is a lesson I’ve now learned. Now I’m settled in a school, my routines are back to what how they’ve been for most of my career, and everyone’s happier. For me, here’s how it goes.

Seating plans are made early and are always boy/girl. I write the date, enquiry question and learning objectives on the board before the class arrives. I check uniform as the class enters, and the first three students in the door hand out the books. Everyone writes down the full date, and enquiry question in silence, and those that finish do the work on the board. I take the register, taking time to say good morning or afternoon to each student. I ask, “Everyone ready?” and organisational problems get sorted then. For this first part of the lesson, nobody speaks except me.

And then we begin.

Although I rarely think about my routines now I’m happy with them and they haven’t changed in years.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Ben Newmark and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here. Read more posts by clicking here.


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The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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