I started at a new school today. New timetable. New students. New policies, new rules and new ways of doing things. Having done this only once in the last ten years without a position of responsibility, I am a bit nervous. It is a useful and necessary nervousness though, in that it has me thinking about how to make the best start with children who do not know me, in a context where I can’t rely on the artificial gravitas a leadership position provides.
As a teacher, I will have to be at my sharpest.
In this post I am going to describe my strategy for opening my first lesson, mostly as a way of clarifying my own thoughts, and partially because I hope this will be useful to those who, for whatever reason, are in a similar position. Before going on it’s important to acknowledge there can never be a ‘right’ way to do this, and I anticipate plenty of great teachers will disagree with my way of doing things. Some will find this a bit draconian, others too soft; I hope that those who do disagree will at least trust my care for my pupils is genuine.
Disagreement is fine. Although I have my own views I am quite happy to accept that for some, in some contexts, another approach might be better and I would love to hear from others about what they do to make successful starts.
Before taking over a class I deliberately avoid anything, aside from relevant SEND information, that might make me form prejudices about behaviour. Although wanting to get a sort of heads-up of how children might act is tempting such information can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although we would never consciously treat a child differently because of what we have heard about their actions in the past, in practice it is very difficult to avoid doing so. If, for example, we have heard that “Darren is really rude”, then we are far more likely to interpret an ambiguous comment as disrespectful than the same comment made by a child we have heard is unfailingly polite. Instead I try to treat everyone the same way and if a child is rude find out whether this is typical or not once it has become established as a clear pattern.
I will also make sure I understand the school strategy for removing child who refuse to follow instructions. This is extremely important as much of my opening routine is based on immediate compliance, and if a child is seen to get away with disobedience, then the whole thing falls apart.
In the first lesson I direct children to the back of the room as they come through the door and ask them to wait in silence until everyone has arrived. Generally, I try to stay away from lining children up in the corridor because this can make the ritual a bit of a show, which can lead to some children acting up. If any child leans against a wall, or talks, or touches another child I challenge this politely but directly, for example, saying “I asked you to stand up straight. Please do not lean against the wall.”
Once the whole class has arrived and is waiting in silence, I very briefly introduce myself (just my name) and tell them as everything will be made clear soon, I will not be taking any questions until I am ready. Then I direct children into a seating plan, boy-girl but random beyond that. I think this works because it makes it clear the plan is not a personal attack based on secret information. If a child talks while others are moving into seats I tell them to stop, but find at this stage, when children are generally still trying to suss me out, doing more is rarely necessary.
Once all children are seated in silence I ask two children, one boy and one girl, to hand out exercise books. If it is the start of the year I will model how I want them to fill in their personal details on the front. If it is midway through, as is the case for me, I will move them straight onto the next task, which is to copy out a brief list of rules in their neatest writing on the next clean page of their exercise book. These rules, concise and always containing “follow instructions first time without arguing”, are displayed on a simple PowerPoint slide with a plain white background.
I make something of a fuss about how much I value good presentation and emphasise that I care more about neat work than speed. While the children work on this in I circulate around the room acknowledging but not over-praising careful work. My praise is focused on effort, not just the neatest writers and use this to gather some informal data on handwriting standards, which allows me to be sure I am am being fair if I want to criticise untidy work in the future.
Once everything is calm and settled, and most children have completed at least two or three of the rules (depending on time), I ask the class to finish the rule they are on, and then to put their pen down and sit up straight. While they finish I continue to circulate, continuing to praise and reminding them to underline titles with a ruler.
When all pens are down I smile for the first time and thank the class for the smooth start. I also apologise, in a tone that makes it clear this is a courtesy and not an acknowledgement of fault, that I have not yet introduced myself and do so. I keep my introduction short but always emphasise that I am strict because I care deeply about my subject and their learning. I promise that they can expect me to work hard, and tell them that I expect the same.
Then I run through my rules, explaining the reason for each and being as clear, concise and logical as I can be. For example, I may say “it is important you don’t talk when I do, because if you do it means you aren’t listening. We can’t learn when we don’t listen.” I always tell them that they have the right to disagree with my decisions and, inevitably as all teachers do, I will make mistakes. If this happens, I say, stay behind after the class and tell me what you think I got wrong and I will listen. The same is true if they come to me at break, lunch or after school. I promise not to be angry, to take them seriously and to remedy matters if appropriate. I do, however, say that challenging me openly in the classroom is wrong and, even if they are right about the perceived injustice, they will be punished for it.
At the end of my explanation I will ask anyone who thinks my rules are unreasonable to come and speak to me about it after the lesson, or if they feel uncomfortable doing this in person to write it in a note. Not once, in my entire career, has anyone done this.
Finally, before going on to teach my first lesson, which I keep as straightforward and lean as possible, I apologise again, for not yet knowing their names (again as a courtesy not an admission of fault), and promise that I will learn them quickly.
“For now,” I say, “I’ll have to point if I want to speak to you. I know that’s ordinarily rude, but I know you understand why I have to for the time being. Please say your name before speaking so I can start to learn them.”
Generally, I find this works but I know its only a base on which to build. To sustain a meaningful and purposeful classroom I must make sure I follow through on what I’ve said. I am teaching areas of my subject I never have before and whole subjects I haven’t taught for years, so there is lots to do. I’ll have to follow the advice I’ve given those I manage; ask for help, work with the team and to be kind. It is time to practice what I preach. I must work hard and I must care.
I will. I do. I can’t wait.