Too damn hot: winning the fight against Summer

Summer is here. Perhaps you’ve noticed the water-fights and the dogs sliding along the road, dragging their tongues on the tarmac trying to wet their whistles. If you’re British, you’ll regard the appearance of Old Man Sol with one of two entirely proper responses:

  1. Pretend it’s not there. It’s a freakish over-reaction of a normally sensible gray, phlegmatic climate. If we ignore it, it’ll get bored and go away. Cue: men in long-sleeved shirts, ties and wool jackets, tempting coronaries on the underground; school heating systems, propelled by arcane, subterranean timers that ensure radiators only switch off in November- as it should be.
  2. t’s the end of the world. Dream time ensues: mankinis, fat, bare-chested trips to the shops, scorching yourself livid in the park, allowing kids to run around classes in sports wear on the grounds that it’s an abuse of their Geneva-guaranteed human rights to expect them to do anything.

Other factors are at play that impinge upon the classroom behaviour:

a) It’s nearly the end, which is traditionally (I am told) the point at which races are lost, as athletes slack off a bit because they can see the finish. And who am I to criticise Usain Bolt if he feels like putting his feet up? Problem is, we all get like this- when we see the end in sight, it feels like momentum will carry us over the line. And it might, but that’s not the same as getting there in the manner you want. You see kids doing this as they approach every milestone in the calendar: as half term approaches (or end of term, or Pentecost, or Midsummer…)calls for Transformers DVDs and permission to bring in their Xbox 360s so they can have provocative dance-offs instead of constructing diagrams of the Citric Acid cycle or the Tudor line of descent get louder and louder and LOUDER UNTIL THEY BECOME DEAFENING AND RELENTLESS, AND THEY ARE THEY ONLY THINGS THAT CAN BE HEARD UNTIL THE END OF TIME. Teachers are in exactly the same boat. Who hasn’t felt the lazy, hazy, crazy lure of the beach when the weather turns warmer? Apart from people in Scotland, of course, where Summer, like Brigadoon, appears magically every ten years for a weekend, leaving the natives stunned and scorched.

b) Exams are over. That means school’s out, right? If you teach examinable groups, the sense of relief after the thigh-clenching months of May-June is almost enough to induce the Bends, and tall men faint at the loss of atmospheric pressure. As with any event that requires stamina, tenacity and willpower, the human instrument can only sustain such focus and nerve for limited periods. The alternative is to either maintain the focus or crack like a Swarovski decanter at the bottom of the ocean, or to unwind like Truly Scrumptious on the Music Box in Castle Vulgaria. This ‘unwinding’ is often undistinguishable from ‘completely immobile’. Out come the DVDs, the games, the ‘free lessons’ (which is the definition of an oxymoron) where children are allowed to do as they please for hour after hour in a textbook attempt to create perfect boredom and prodigality.

The teacher at this time can experience behaviour problems peculiar to the season. Kids give up, and if the teacher does too, then there’s no hope.

So don’t give up.

I batter my head against the wall when I hear about teachers who spend the whole week prior to the end of a term giving the students free lessons. Dear God, what on earth are they at school for? In schools with high levels of truancy, this is fatal, giving the children yet another reason to think that school is essentially rubbish. And if all that’s on offer is Twister, the Prince of Egypt (fine as it may be) and a Hell of YouTube formation dancing, then why on earth should they bother? They’ll get more stimulation hanging around street corners.

The problem is made far, far worse by the collusion that we, as teachers play in this pantomime of teaching, where all the players are at their places, but nothing else indicates that education is actually occurring. It’s like a Hollywood facsimile of a Wild West street. And when other teachers are less professional than you and decide to weigh anchor until Summer’s over, even though there might be a month to go before break-up, it only makes matters worse for everyone, as kids become habituated into expecting a life of Elysian idleness, rather than the somewhat more technical lesson you had prepared. They know that, with a bit of wheedling and whining, some teachers, their resistance already frayed by their own seasonal exhaustion, will give in and turn into Coco the friendly teacher. ‘Oh go on,’ they say, ‘Get the Ker-Plunk! out.’

To be fair on children, sitting in a hot room isn’t fun. Looking out the window and imagining the endless numbers of other things one could be doing, is. We often forget, as mobile, autonomous adults, how hard it is to remain focused, sitting behind a desk, for lengthy periods of time, and how much harder it is for the students, who are emerging from the childish

 

So while we should never pander to their whims, we should cater for their genuine needs. Here are a few thoughts about how to make the run up to Summer less of a lurch and more of a Ski Jump:

  1. Get sensible with the uniform code. If your school has a uniform policy, allow it to be amended in a considered, structural way, rather than just abandoning it. Many schools will have a Summer dress code, which is sensible. So allow it, man. But make sure you still stick to the uniform points stipulated. The argument about uniform rages like a Summer Storm, but if you’re going to have one, then have one. Don’t half have one.  Speaking of which, tread carefully around the issue of clothing in Summer. Some children come from homes where fresh, clean clothes is either not a priority or a possibility, so don’t press a stubborn student to, for example, take a jumper off if they resist the idea- they may be attempting to hide an embarrassment worse than any temporary discomfort. Talk to them later, but not in public.
  2. Water, water everywhere? A contentious one. Your school may forbid liquids, and there are sensible reasons to do so. But there are also good reasons to allow students to hydrate themselves (did I just say ‘hydrate’? Apologies; I meant ‘drink water’) throughout your lessons. I would say a transparent bottle with water only is a sensible thing to allow on hot days. If students abuse this privilege by turning the class into a Water Park, then you know what to do- withdraw the privilege, at least from the squirts.
  3. Get active. Get the kids doing something active, even in the classroom. It’ll satisfy their restless, wandering spirits to be given something to do, and will help get some oxygen into their drowsy heads.
  4. Keep as focused as YOU can. The way you treat your subject and your room is indicative of the status with which you regard it. The kids will pick up on this, and at start to treat it accordingly. Tellingly, if you walk into the classroom like a rag doll, flop onto the desk and say ‘You know what? I can’t be stuffed today. Can you?’ don’t be surprised if the kids don’t see your class as terribly important. They need to see you seriously engaged with the lesson otherwise they never will be. And if you are one of those fortunate souls who can communicate enthusiasm (you know who you are- yes, you: at the back with the sun shining out of your trousers) then keep it up. This also means planning meaningful lessons with relevance to them , their education, the curriculum and their futures.
  5. Can we have a fun lesson? Of course you can. ‘ALL my lessons are fun,’ I say to them whenever I’m asked this pointless yet endlessly predictable question. When the laughter has died down (in my mind), I always tell my classes that they get what they deserve. If they’ve worked hard, then, sure, we can watch a film, or play some kind of amusing game…as long as it is still embedded in their education. We aren’t, after all, child minders or entertainers. We’re teachers. We’re paid to teach. So teach them something. I have no problem with films that make them think, as well as amuse them. As long as we talk about it before and after we watch it. You aren’t the telly man. And if we play a game, then it can be as simple as ‘Who am I?’ hangman, or something more complex. But never forget that these kinds of lessons should sustain and support all the other teaching you do. And yes, if pushed, you can have a purely fun lesson…but this should be as a consequence of a period of prior effort. And even then, try to think of ways to imbed it in their learning.

Take a trip

And of course, this is the time of year when many schools turn to thoughts of trips- some call it an activities week, others use the ‘soft’ time at the end of year (that is if they’re not busy promoting next year’s content, and good luck with that) to reward trips and whole-year group excursions, safe in the knowledge that no major examinations will be upset.

And why not indeed? This is a good time, or as good as any, to take kids out and about, when the weather is fine and museums, parks, exhibitions and plays open their arms to the school party. Some schools bunch all of these activities together into a short space of time in order to minimise disruption to the rest of the school calendar (which has some merit, although it tends to put the kibosh on spontaneity and seasonal fixtures). Behaviour on trips is something special, and deserves a little consideration. Long gone, of course, are the days when you could simply grab a handful of students and march them across town to the Art Gallery; Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society would have been filling out forms for forty five minutes before he got anyone into the quads.

And to be fair, there’s a good reason: taking ten, twenty, a hundred kids out of the classroom and into the big scary classroom with the blue ceiling has attendant concerns that simply don’t normally occur. The world is very large, and children are very fragile, and very curious. Letting the two parties meet is an essential part of growing up; it is also a greater responsibility. While we can never plan for every (or perhaps even most) eventualities, there must be a careful analysis of what might happen, and what we would do if it should.

Hence, the much hated risk assessment form- and you can hate it all you want, it’s compulsory, so get your snout into it. Think about the hazards the trip presents that wouldn’t normally be met- from grabby tramps to electric fences, you need to nail down some simple procedures to minimise the risk they present. Because what are children, if not agents of enthusiasm, opportunity and chaos? It’s in their job description to stick their noses into everything new, so anticipate that and work out what to do in order to keep them as safe as possible- never safe, you’ll never be able to reach that Utopian goal.

Trips are obviously great educational opportunities- but for me, the more interesting part is the behavioural and relationship opportunity it affords. For the first time, perhaps, the kids see you not merely as a tiresome tyrant, the harbinger of worksheet and sugar paper, but as a responsible adult- responsible for them. You, if you’re doing your job properly, see to their needs, their hungers, their comfort, and that, eventually, means something to most of them. Residential trips more so- you literally take them to be fed and housed. You get to encounter the play, or gallery, or hike, or whatever with them, not merely as a delivery mechanism. It can be a turning point in the way that students relate to you thereafter. If relationships form 50% of behaviour management (and I’ve just made that up, but it’s true) then trips are a prime opportunity to build them.

Making behaviour work on a trip:

  • Pair them up- make it clear that no one goes anywhere alone. And choose the groupings to emphasise responsibility, not just sociability.
  • Clarify in advance the permitted areas- and the forbidden
  • ·Set out your behaviour expectations before the trip, and on the way, just as you would in a classroom. Emphasise that you need behaviour to be even better, because safety is at stake, and you care about that.
  • If you have any darlings who can be fractious or unpredictable (well, more than usual) then keep them closer than skin. You will never regret it; you WILL regret it if you get a phone call from the fire brigade, telling you someone’s stuck up a chimney, and not in an amusing way.
  • Decide - and communicate- a clear, over-riding educational activity that the trip is designed to meet. This can be vague enough to allow creativity and interpretation, but specific enough to make them realise that it isn’t just a day off school. That way, they can engage with the trip in a more purposeful way, and not simply wander off in a way destined to end in mischief and angry letters the next day
  • The end of the year is a minefield for behaviour. Keep your eyes sharp and your foot on the gas, right up till the end. You can’t afford not to. And the students deserve it- whether they like it or not.

Good luck

Tom

Read more from Tom at his personal blog:http://behaviourguru.blogspot.com/?site=aus

Or get behaviour advice on the TES Behaviour Forum:http://community.tes.co.uk/forums/5.aspx?site=aus

Or buy his books, The Behaviour Guru and Not Quite a Teacher, both published by Continuum,here.

More resources

End of year MOT

If any of your classes are out for their exams, why not take the time to check in with yourself- do you still have some of these common bad habits that new (and not so new) teachers often have?

Using body language effectively

If you’re tired, you might be telling it to your class without realising it. Some suggestions about keeping your non-verbal communication the way you want it.

Trip out:

This is the time of year that teachers really start to get serious about trips away- so what should you think about if you’re planning one?

Working with parents

Whatever the time of year, building up relationships with parents/ carers and guardians is one of the best investments you’ll make. Some advice about dealing with the most important people in your students’ lives.

Teacher’s TV- Field trips

An interesting clip about field trips in Pembrokeshire.

Risk assessment packs for farm visits

Good web resource for teachers taking pupils away to the scary green-carpeted outdoors.

Risk assessment of a residential trip

Does what it says on the tin. A good template on which to base your own risk assessments.

TES Whole School Forum- School Trips

Your one-stop-shop for advice, offers and discussions about where to go, and how to do it.