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September Hits and Misses

Tips for a new term

Mists are coming creeping and mellow fruitfulness is in the air. It’s time to go back to school. Whether you’ve already got a jittery tummy or can’t wait for the starter’s gun, here are a few tips for a successful September.

Let’s begin with testing. Er, maybe not. Some advise – it may even be written into the shared planning – that the best way to find out about a new class(es) is to test them. Indeed, in the light of the mess we currently call assessment, many schools are deciding that their own tests are the best way to cut through the mire and find a relevant baseline. Special sympathy must go to Year 7 teachers, trying to interpret the first year of data under the new primary assessment framework. Nevertheless, early testing is risky. If you go ahead, don’t do it in the first few days when learners may be anxious and overly focused on finding their way – they’ll be likely to underperform, meaning that subsequent planning will lack challenge and pupils will be bored from the get-go. Of course, if decent cross-school or transitional moderation is in place, then you’ll be able to trust the judgement of the teacher who went before, so do so, and get pupils doing something more interesting than a test. Likewise, you’ll need to buck the trend if you find yourself in a school where the autobiographical task or “my summer holiday” remains popular as a fail-safe way to start the new term. But I’ve blogged (ranted?) about that before…

What about the rules? Last September, a student of my close acquaintance spent his first week at secondary school writing out the “rules” of each subject. In maths, he did it twice, because the class were shared and the teachers couldn’t agree on their rules. Needless to say, he soon lost his new-school sparkle, and it wasn’t rekindled with “cover your book” homework activities. My heart sinks at these lost opportunities. First lessons are about igniting a passion, communicating key topics, introducing new ideas and establishing the relevance of your subject to the world. None of this has ever been achieved by copying out requirements for safety goggles or how to underline the title. If there are pre-requisite behaviours or procedures in your subject, get the necessary guidelines stuck in exercise books before they are given out, and then set a drama activity for pupils to enact a scenario where things go wrong. Everyone will have much more fun, and learn well along the way.

First lessons are also for creating the learning climate you crave. Assuming you’re not interested in serried rows and silence (the type of classroom where you’ll work harder than any of your pupils), don’t avoid group work, as I was once advised, until you know the class. Instead, fill the first few lessons with skills and activities that demand engagement, and establish the kind of lively learning environment everyone can buy into - group presentations, paired discussion, hot-seating, talk circles. Naturally, these should be purposeful and structured with high expectations. Don’t forget other types of challenge that are also going to be part of the daily diet in your classroom: sustained writing, collaboration, independence, self-help, high-level thinking. Featuring these high on the agenda in September will help learning seem important for its own sake, and they are a lot easier to embed as regular lesson elements if you do them from the start.

Another thing about climate: the ambient temperature of your classroom is worth considering – for your own well-being if not for optimising learning. Obviously there are rules and regulations (refer to your union) that mean you shouldn’t have to teach in a room that’s too hot or cold, but it’s easy to get caught up in a busy day and only realise when you try to take a breath at 3 o’clock that the air is less than sanitary. Don’t be the teacher I met on one classroom visit, who determinedly shut all the windows I had just opened to expunge the prevailing ‘parfum de l'adolescence’, saying that fresh air woke the students up too much! Interestingly, studies backing up the common sense position that fresh air is beneficial also suggest that other factors in your direct control help improve the classroom learning cocktail. The amount of natural light, for example. So be careful how often the blind is pulled down in order to make the whiteboard more visible.

Finally, what about the old myth: don’t smile until Christmas? Well, there’s a grain of truth there, of course. Everyone knows your job is not to be a best friend or a surrogate mum. On the other hand, the most important thing you will do in September – and I mean more important than watching Strictly or taking succour from the last days of sunshine – is to build relationships. And a smile is essential for that. Whenever it’s possible, whatever the age of your learners, be at your classroom door when they arrive. Smile. Say hello and expect a return greeting. Deal with any entry-point misdemeanours and cut off the corridor histrionics. Find something they care about and ask about it – “How did the match go?” “Did you watch Bake Off?” “What a lovely hair-band!” Hold out the bin for gum. This transactional talk establishes the tone of your relationships for the year, and from there it’s a smooth path to a brisk beginning for learning.

Have a wonderful September.