Back to School: Some Advice for NQTS

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After you’ve been teaching a while you easily forget how difficult and nerve-wracking it is for a Newly Qualified Teacher at the beginning of a new term. Tom Bennett offers some sound practical advice on first classroom encounters in this short video for the TES here: http://bit.ly/18SAtAb. For some reason, I thought I’d offer some advice of my own, focusing on how to get through that difficult first term. This is not an exhaustive guide; it’s just some notes on strategies and approaches that have worked for me in the past and continue to work for me in the present. Feel free to take it or leave it.

Names and faces

As I’ve said already, Tom Bennett has pretty much covered the basics for the first time you meet a new class. His advice about being prepared and on time, and how to engage with the students when they arrive, is simple but very effective. To this I would add the benefits of learning names and faces as early as possible. Not only does it show you care and treat the pupils as individuals, it also puts you in a position of considerable authority, whether praising or rebuking.

Seating plans

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Tom’s video also highlights the importance of seating plans and suggested how to implement them in a hassle free way. It always surprises me how, despite all the advice, some teachers do not spend enough time thinking through how to draw up a good plan or how to execute the set up of it to minimise disruption. I always (ratio permitting) sit students boy/girl and try to find out as much as possible about them (attainment, need, etc) before I design my first plan. I do make adjustments as the weeks progress, but aim to be as strategic as possible early on. Always remember: you decide where students sit.

An alternative to Tom’s suggestion to line pupils up at the back of the classroom, is to get them all seated first and then walk around the room informing them where to move to. I find this works better in smaller spaces and is easier to manage than having students in one long line, particularly when half the class arrive late. It also puts students on the back foot, because they naively think you haven’t thought things through properly. Whatever you do, avoid standing at the door and directing students to find their seat from a visual aid on the board. This never works and often ends in carnage. The same applies to lengthy expositions about your classroom rules and practices: just get on with teaching the lesson – your expectations will be obvious.

Behaviour management

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Every school should have a clearly defined behaviour policy. Unfortunately, some don’t; or of they do, it isn’t well managed. Since you will probably not yet be in a position to really evaluate the relative effectiveness of any behaviour policy, you will need to put your trust in the school’s approach and the strength of its SLT to implement it effectively.  If you learn your school’s procedures for dealing with poor behaviour, such as the grey area between department and pastoral issues, you will stand a much greater chance of getting the right support you need. No behaviour policy is effective unless it is applied consistently, and so you should aim to be part of the bigger picture from the outset. Later on you may become more cynical, but at least make sure you have earned the right to query the ways things are done by following them correctly in the first place.

Many teacher bloggers rightly cite the damage to learning caused by poor behaviour and the problems that arise when senior teams do not properly support their staff. Whilst ensuring positive student behaviour is very much a whole school issue, there is a great deal individual teachers can and should do in their classrooms. A lot of this knowhow comes from experience and the guidance of mentors, but much of it is also common sense. Take the way you speak to students, for instance. If you start off being too friendly and down with the kids you will quickly come unstuck. Don’t be fooled by the first couple of days or even the first few weeks of a new term. This is often a honeymoon period where students suss out the new teacher, settle down after their holidays and get used to new groupings. Problems often arise when you want them to actually produce something meaningful, at which point it’s virtually impossible to become more authoritative if you started off too lenient or chummy.

Yet the opposite is also true: if you’re too regimented, inflexible and not able to apply common sense or show a human side to a situation that warrants it, you may risk alienating your students. I guess what I’m trying to say (and perhaps realising as I write it’s more difficult to explain than I first thought) is you should think carefully about how you’re going to lay your stall out: what kind of teacher you are going to be. I always tell NQTS that they are going to have their classes for at least a year and will (hopefully) be teaching for many years to come, so as far as I’m concerned their first priority is to learn how get their students into a position where they can learn. Obviously, I would prefer students to learn each and every lesson, but I also recognise developing effective behaviour techniques takes time and lots of support, particularly for new teachers who are still getting used to seeing themselves in their new role.

Speaking to the class

Over the years, particularly as a Head of Department, I’ve had to take over a number of challenging classes. Whilst it may not be exactly the same experience as being an NQT, I think many of the principles remain the same: be firm, but fair; establish routines and stick to them; make expectations known and do the simple tasks well. In practice, this means things like always insisting on silence when you’re talking, even if it means you have to wait a long while before you get it. In my NQT year I remember waiting a good 30mins before my year 9s fell silent. I was tempted to get on with my lesson and talk over the noise, but I resisted and from that point on it took less and less time to settle them down. A lot of behaviour management is about confidence, and if you can show it (regardless of how you are feeling) more often than not your students will respond and respect your authority. Never talk over noise; once you start, it’s hard to stop.

Voice

In the same way as I avoid talking over my classes, I also try to refrain from raising my voice too much when speaking to students. Early in my career, I realised shouting at kids rarely works, at least with the ones that probably need it most, and that when I did it made me stressed and low on confidence. This was not the kind of teacher I wanted to be. That said, there are occasions when something or someone needs to be address in an urgent tone. In these situations make sure you don’t completely lose your composure, focus on the behaviour and not the individual and try to direct your words to groups of students or areas of the classroom rather than to specific individuals. Keep your outbursts short and, if you need to, follow up specific behaviour in a much calmer manner, such as by quietly talking to the offending student on their own, giving them take up time and revisiting their progress in a few minutes. Wherever possible, avoid showdowns in front of the class.

Planning and marking

If there is one thing I would advise NQTs to really get to grips with (in addition to learning behaviour management strategies) is their planning. It took me too long to learn that the best planning is informed by marking. That marking is planning. From my experience, a lot of misbehaviour comes from badly conceived lessons, as much as it does from poor classroom management. On many occasions I’ve traced the source of disruption in my class to something that I’d planned: pointless activities; bad timings; work pitched too low or too high; lack of appropriate structure, etc. I’m certainly not excusing those students who choose to misbehave regardless of what you do – they clearly need to be sanctioned – but I am recognising that planning can and does mitigate a great deal of low level disruption. If it’s done well, that is.

Of course, it’s easy for me to say this with 10 years experience of understanding where students should be, what they are capable of and what to look for. Experience and a position of responsibility also help to manage disruptive behaviour. But I would also like to think my lessons usually go well (behaviour-wise) because I plan for what students need, at a time when they need it and in a manner that is suited to their ability. The source of my planning is mostly the students’ books, as well as their responses in my lessons. As an NQT you should have a reduced timetable, which I would recommend you use for marking students’ work and getting to see as many other colleagues teach as possible. Don’t mark every little thing your students do, but only the more meaningful work: the stuff that demonstrates their learning, or not. Phil Beadle’s advice to always keep a pad next to you when marking so you can jot down individual and class notes is very wise. You should use these notes to inform what you teach them next as much as (or perhaps even more than) what the next lesson in the scheme of work demands that you do.

Timesaving

As an NQT you will probably be keen to please and do everything that you think is required of you. Over time you will work out for yourself what your priorities are, and how and where you can save valuable time. Obviously, your main priority in the first years is to hone your skills and learn your craft. All the other stuff should take a backseat, including making lavish wall display, getting involved in time-consuming initiatives and spending hours creating beautiful resources that have minimal impact or value. Many schools have lots of meetings and it is quite sobering to work out when those meetings are to see how much time you do or don’t have to spend on your teaching. You may also benefit from making a note of when all the important deadlines occur, such as data collection and reports. It’s at this point you start to realise how little time you have for the actual job itself!

Professional Development

My first blog was on the power of social media to drive professional development http://bit.ly/185mFOc, and since numerous others have also explored the power of Twitter and blogging to develop teachers and the teaching profession, I wont waste words here going over old ground.

Get a life

Finally, try not to work ridiculous hours and make sure you ask for support or help when you need it. We’ve all been there and most of us are happy to help!

Two things that are important to remember: most students want to learn and every day is another opportunity to improve your teaching.

I love teaching; I’m sure you will too.

Good luck.