Teaching Basics

This is aimed at beginning teachers. More experienced teachers may wish to skip to the other sections.  That said, I find it helpful to be reminded of the basics.

1. Plan your lesson well before your lessons

In your teaching career, there will be times when your paper management goes astray and work builds up.  At times like this, you may not have planned your lessons in the detail to which you are ordinarily accustomed. No one is perfect so don’t beat yourself up over it. But don’t make a habit of it either.  Your job is to have engaging material prepared in a manner that will stretch students just beyond their ability level. Meanwhile, in the real world, lessons will fall flat, students will get uppity last period on a Friday, and as summer approaches, staring out the window is going to occur – and not just by the students. But you can still be prepared. No matter what, you cannot expect your students to be ready for class if you are not. So be prepared. Be prepared. Prepared.

2.  Turn up. Preferably before the students.

It’s very tempting with 2 minutes to the bell to squeeze in one last cup of coffee.  But the bigger impact will be standing in the doorway of your classroom as your students arrive.  It says so much.  That you were expecting them.  That you are ready for them.  That you have everything under control.  This unspoken message has a powerful effect on more sensitive and vulnerable students who need more than others the sense of security and stability conveyed by your control over little things, such as how class begins.

What sort of image does it convey if you are always running (or not!) to be on time (or worse, late!).

Of course there are going to be times when you won’t get there before the students.  No worries.  The point is to make being on time a habit – something characteristic of your teaching – rather than an occasional feat.

3.  When your class turns up.

I’m happy to admit that I am somewhat of a control freak.  So ignore this if you don’t like calm, orderly starts to your class.

A lot of contact time can be lost on non-teaching tasks, such as getting a class settled, dealing with a myriad of student requests at the start of class (especially first years) and any number of other minor vexations.

It is important therefore to have a well organised and routinised start to your lessons.  So this is how I do it.

Junior students should line up so as not to block the corridor.  When all or most of them have arrived, they walk into class in a orderly fashion.  This sends out a clear message about the underlying atmosphere of class. It’s also a good time to do a head count to note absences. This time also allows you to check uniform, pull aside students for a quick word of encouragement or caution and to accept notes sent in from parents.

Once in class, students have a routine. They sit at their assigned places, take out their books, homework journal, writing tools and their homework.  This is every  class, all the time.  There are exceptions to this exact routine, but they are few. I usually don’t entertain any conversation during this routine.

Occasionally a student will arrive late.  Late is arriving more than 5 minutes after the bell.  Rather than dealing with why they are late and losing class time, I have  late-book into which they write their name and the reason they are late.  If there are more than 3 unreasonable excuses in a half-term, I follow up with a sanction.  This hasn’t had to happen yet. ‘Getting books from the locker’ is not  a reasonable excuse -these should be organised first thing in the morning, at morning break, or during lunch time.

When I am collecting written homework, I have  box into which student put theirs. Excuses are dealth with after class, usually by way of a note to parents. Again, I don’t need to waste class time listening to every variation of ‘the dog ate my homework’.

Ordinarily, I would expect to have all this done within 5 minutes of the bell, so that in a 40 minute period, I have 35 to make progress with the class.

Seniors have more freedom.  They don’t line up but enter when as they arrive.  But they must be in class and settled within 5 minutes of the bell. Other than that, the approach is the same.

3.5 Duty of Care

Don’t take this as legal advice but teachers have a duty of care towards their students.  This duty is higher during times when you are supposed to have a particular student in your class.  If a student doesn’t turn up for class, it is reasonable to assume they are absent that day.  An exception might be where you are aware a student is truanting and a Year Head or Principal needs to know asap about a student absence and they ahve asked you to notify them immediately.

Absolutely do not under any circumstances what-so-ever on your nelly ever allow a student out of class. If it is to get a book they forgot to bring to class, they can catch up on missed classwork at home.  But it is better to have some spare copies which they can use. Alternatively, they can share with another student.  It is not about being sued by an irate parent; it’s about protecting the child.  They’ll understand.

One exception; students may ask to go to the bathroom.  You need to use your own judgement. Once in a blue moon is reasonable. But a rotating gallery of student in one class or across consecutive classes means that you are a soft touch. Also note however, that it could be a warning sign for other behaviours – school/work avoidance or to engage in bullying, to scribble graffiti somewhere or simply just to take time-out.

Finally, a student may have a medical reason to leave class.  Familise yourself with a student file so as not to cause embarrassment on either side.

By this stage, you and your students should be ready for something fun and/or mildly interesting! There are few other basics to deal with.

4. Say ‘NO’ to Gum.

Do not allow students to chew gum. Ever. End of. No excuses. Nothing. If you need an explanation of this, quit teaching now (ok, a lousy attempt at humour, I’m sure you got it!).

5. Sweets, crisps, drinks.

My first ever smile in teaching, occured in my first ever class.  I was substituting as a teacher.  I had a class of 30 boys.  They were working away.  I was correcting some work at my desk but periodically scanning the classroom to ensure every one was on task.  Then one boy, who obviously didn’t think I would see him, slid ever so slightly down in his chair. then he very slowly put his hand in his trouser pocket and just as slowly removed it.  He kept his hand close to his body as he brought it up quietly and carefully towards his mouth, and passing his mouth, the his hand opened so that the contents coudl be deposited into his mouth.

I had a short laugh to myself and then, having paused for a moment, let him know that that was exactly how we used to do it when I was a pupils and that that was how I knew he was eating in class.  Thereupon, havinf extracted the remainder of the sweets, I distribute them to the rest of the class.

I’ve decided never to do that again. Students shouldn’t eat in your class.  And certaily not sweets.  Crisps are worse.  But you never know if a child has been sent out of the house in the morning with no breakfast and those sweets are the closest thing to food they’ll have for the day. Always return them.

Water has entered main stream society as an accessory since Perrier hit the streets in the 1980s. Back then we used to say ‘imagine buying water’. One Ad campaign even referred to ‘water you wear’. It was natural that the rebelliousness of youth would discover all there was to discover about the intricate science of dehydration as a means of winning at least one argument with a teacher.

As a general rule I do not allow water in my class.  There are times when I will let it go.  But it simply would not do to have synchronised water cooler moments every 60 seconds in class.  For those students who have studied the science of dehydration, I reserve my own intricate science of germ development in bottles that have been used over and over and the survival techiniques of people stranded at sea for days with nothing but one bottle of water.

It’s not worth fighting over unless it becomes a problem so use your judgement to keep a lid on it!

6.  The ‘One Voice Rule’

This rule speaks for itself.  I can not listen to what Mary has to contribute if Josephine is yapping away to the girls beside her.  In this case, not only is Mary losing out, but so too is Josephine, the other girl and indeed the rest of the class. Despite the ability of exceptionally able children, it doesn’t mean that students of lesser ability have nothing to teach them.  So every one has to listen to each other.

One of the things that seems common among teachers is the ability to hear the entire class at once, i.e. it is difficult to screen out background noise. This can be a stressful ability to have – but useful for finding out whose mobile phone just went off!.

The way to deal with background noise is not to allow it while another student is contributing.

That said, there are times when noise is vital.  Students learn best from each other when they collaborate. They not only get the answer to the question, but they develop their social skills, their confidence, their self-esteem and as an added bonus, they like the subject more.  When you set an activity that allows it, insist on students yapping to each other – of course, so long as it is directed towards the getting the job done.

6.  Getting students to listen

Classrooms are very busy places, even when you are doing nothing.  Children will take every opportunity to talk if allowed (more on this later).  This is good, but not when you are trying to teach.

You should begin the year, and indeed your relationship with a particular class, as you mean to go on.  Children will make a judgement about fairly quickly.  If they think you are a push over, they will not respect your presence in class and consequently your classroom management can become a running battle of lines and detentions.  These are two things you should try never to give out.

With an orderly start to  class, and an established routine and good lesson planning, students will naturally wait for you to begin.  There will still be time when you need to call their attention. But students know why they are in school and they know what your job is. If you communicate your expectations clearly right from day, you can minimise time lost waiting to start and through interruptions.

I find counting down from 5 is a good attention grabber. Not because of what will happen when I get to zero and students are still talking – but because it announces that I am ready to begin.

It is important that you stick to the once voice rule and not allow deviations from it.  If students do talk, stand silently at the top of the class and wait.  Very quickly students will notice your are not trying to get them to listen.  The uncertainly will bring silence fairly sharpish.