Last week I questioned the concept of outstanding lessons full of gimmicks that look great but ultimately may not result in much actual progress being made. Instead, I argued, embedding classroom routines and ensuring consistency are far more important in the long run. And, as classroom teachers, we’re in it for the long haul. Who cares whether an individual lesson is a thing of beauty if your GCSE results are rubbish? Who cares if you’re using al the latest gizmos and gimmicks if your students don’t know how to improve? Who cares if progress zips along at light speed if it’s not sustained? All too often it can seem that these short term measures of success are all anyone cares about.
Why’s this important? Well, I’ve argued before that progress can’t be both rapid & sustained: the two cancel each other out. And, at the risk of over-extending my metaphor, I’m beginning to suspect that the mode of thinking it takes to sprint and plan brilliant individual lessons could well be equally at odds with a mindset which focusses on the delayed gratification on long haul marathon teaching.
This week I’ve been mainly attempting to put my money where my mouth is and demonstrate the power of embedding routines. And, as with the high octane exhilaration of teaching a model lesson in front of the staff on our first day back, I’ve had the added pressure of doing this in front of an audience. I’ve had one of two observers in pretty much every lesson I’ve taught so far and in one we managed to squeeze 5 teachers in to watch what was going on. Of course, this is a bit nerve-wracking but it makes so much more sense to watch a teacher go through the struggle of laying down expectations with new classes rather than waiting until they’re established and not really being any the wiser about how to improve.
I’ve made a point of briefing observers what I’m going to be struggling with each lesson and doing my best to make the strategies I’m using visible to both pupils and teachers. With my Year 8 class I can concentrate on modelling high expectations and training them to be able to work towards being able to work independently. Things are going well and I’m enjoying the lessons. All will, I’m sure, be well.
But with my Year 11 class behaviour is a big deal. Let me make it clear here and now: they are not well behaved. As a school we are already in the enviable position of having 68% of our Year 11s safely through their iGCSE in English Language and most of the cohort have gone on to Literature. My class is composed of pupils who didn’t turn for the exam, didn’t bother doing their coursework, or who were actually ejected from the exam for poor behaviour. They’re either angry or apathetic. Either the world is out to get them or they feel too stupid to try. They do not tend to exhibit a growth mindset approach to learning. They’ve got very used to teachers leaving mid way through the year and they don’t trust me any further than they can spit me. And so, unsurprisingly, I’ve experienced some difficulties in getting them to work on getting their coursework folders ready for a deadline of 8th October. These are reasons not excuses. I’m very clear: there are no excuses for poor behaviour and lack of effort. It’s been interesting going through this process in the goldfish bowl that is my classroom. Some of the discussions I’ve had with colleagues have been illuminating for all concerned. Anyway, these have been the routines I have been embedding:
1. Marking – I mark their work every lesson. This is essential for them to trust that I’m bothered and to make sure that they know what they’re supposed to do each lesson. As they’re working on computers I get them to email me their work at the end of every lesson. We’re using track changes so I can see what they’ve done each lesson and so I can have a clear overview of the progress they’re making. I write my comments asking them questions which they’re expected to answer and giving them clear and specific tasks. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: making is planning. This is the purest form of differentiation and inclusion: everyone gets a unique tailored lesson designed to provide them with everything they need to make progress. For some of my pupils, this is proving enough. For most, it’s not.
2. Systems – This is where I have to follow the school’s behaviour policy to the letter. We have a system which asks teachers to issue 2 informal, verbal warnings before escalating to the Yellow Card (10 minute break time detention) and then, if poor behaviour continues or escalates we get to the 1 hour after school detention with a member of the SLT. And if that doesn’t work we brandish a virtual Red Card which results in removal from the lesson, followed by a day in internal exclusion. Fortunately for me, my school is committed to supporting teachers with this system. Pupils and staff are all clear about expectations and consequences. We also have Vivo miles about which I’m undecided. For those that don’t know, Vivo miles are the love child of house points and Club Card vouchers. Kids are rewarded for good behaviour by amassing points with which they can buy stuff. I’m being very careful to only reward good behaviour and stirling effort; merely not doing anything wrong is not enough! So far I’ve not had to Red Card anyone, but we’ve come close. For some this has worked. For some it hasn’t.
3. Parents – If you can get parents on your side you’re in a much stronger position. My general rule of thumb is to make 3 phone calls every day and (if possible) for 2 of those to be positive in nature. With this class I’ve rung every parent this week. The trick, I think, is to avoid talking about behaviour. Instead I’ve called to say that I’m concerned about the progress their child is making. No parent wants to hear how horrible their child is being but most are very receptive to hearing that teachers are concerned about academic matters. I’ve got 2 parents I’ve only managed to leave messages for but all the other conversations I’ve had have been very positive. Almost every parent has thanked me for calling and assured me that I have their full support. I’ve committed to phoning every parent once a week to keep them updated on their child’s progress. Hopefully next week I’ll be able to have some more upbeat conversations. For most this has worked. For a few it hasn’t.
For the rest, time will tell. If I’m consistent, predictable and fair I expect attitudes to change. We’ll see. Some individual lessons have been awful. In some, pupils have done practically nothing. If I can keep them in their seats and not swearing at each other it’s been an achievement. Suffice it so say, these lessons could not be described by anyone as outstanding. They’re not even good. But, this is a marathon not a sprint. It’s going to be a long, hard slog, but they will do better than they ever thought possible and leave with the best results of which they’re capable. Or I’ll know the reason why.
And model lessons? Maybe they have their place. But only if they reveal what lies beneath the surface. As I’ve said before, no one learns much about icebergs by only ever seeing their tip. So, pace yourself and settle in for this year’s marathon.