I’m looking forward to introducing my new L6th formers to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ this year. It also occurs that as we prepare our classrooms and plan lessons for the coming weeks, we could do worse than to adopt the cod-Latin motto that runs through Atwood’s novel as a personal mantra (the fact that the motto is linguistic and grammatical nonsense adds to the fun, since colleague-pedants can be some of the more energy-sapping ‘bastardes’ we encounter in schools).
Pedants aside, there are a few self-inflicted energy-sappers that many conscientious teachers get bogged down by; successful teachers know to modify, pre-empt, or otherwise avoid these in the first couple of weeks. Here are four of the most obvious, along with some suggestions for alternative beginning of year strategies that are a better use of everybody’s time:
- Hours spent making detailed lesson plans for every lesson until half term (or the end of next week) – a lesson plan needs to note your key objectives, any special resources, headline activities and enough rough timings to keep you on track: that’s all. Spend time instead getting hold of class lists and making SEATING PLANS for each of your new classes (or old ones that you want to ‘re-set’) that you can use to a) bring them into the classroom in an orderly fashion, b) establish yourself as the person in charge of things and c) put names to faces very quickly.
- Trying to communicate every detail of a two year course to your new pupils. They don’t understand how the course works yet, so they don’t remember them and you end up repeating yourself, repeatedly, for the next 5 and a half terms. Instead, give them a verbal outline and a one side of A4 handout with more details. That will satisfy the ones who want to know everything in advance, and the rest can put it in their folder and refer to it when the question occurs to them, or comes up again in class. Use the classroom time you save in the first couple of lessons to ask them them why they chose your subject and/or what they want to achieve by studying it. It’ll help you get to know them, and help them to realise that you care more about them than about the curriculum.
- Making a nice laminated list of classroom behaviour expectations/school values etc, which you talk through at the beginning of the year, before spends the next ten months gathering dust on the wall. A better way to get pupil buy in for behaviour and values you want to uphold is to allocate time in the first lesson for everyone to write their ideas on a question like ‘How do we want to be with each other to help everyone learn?’ – you can use Post-it notes and have the stick them onto the wall or or flip-chart sheets. A whole class generates a number of duplicate (and surprisingly conservative) replies that everyone can see are the practical core of a whole class behaviour agreement, while the outliers generate an interesting discussion that helps you get to know your class better – and when you know your class better, you know better how to avoid potential behaviour issues in future.
- Giving a major written homework and setting out to mark it by the end of the first week (then feeling like a failure when you only manage to mark it by the end of the second week). Of course you want to see how they write but pacing yourself is key to successful teaching and unless you’re setting out to reinforce the bad habits your pupils have brought with them, and exhaust yourself by the end of September into the bargain, large pieces of written work are best avoided in the first couple of weeks. Better to make writing short pieces (single sentences, or 1-2 paragraphs) one of the headline activities in your minimalist lesson plan. While the pupils are writing, you can go round and monitor them: you’ll learn a lot more by watching them write than by marking their work (and you’ll be on hand to immediately give corrective feedback as necessary). If you provide them with a key for marking, either on the board or on a handout, you can then give the whole class teacher feed-back as they peer, or self mark.
The beginning of September is an exciting time, full of new possibilities; by taking steps to pre-empt or avoid some of our most common counsel of perfection ‘bastardes’ – pitfalls that teachers often fall into, we’ll be stronger, happier and more effective classroom managers and practitioners in the coming months. Happy new year, everyone.