First impressions, and how I use competition to motivate those unenthusiastic types
We’re two weeks into the new school year, and I’ve spent as much time forming first impressions as my students have. While they’ve been figuring out what sort of teacher I am, what my lessons are going to be like and what they can get away with in my classes (not a lot, as my Year 9s found out fairly swiftly), I’ve also been sussing them out. As well as spotting the glaring mistakes in my seating plans - how did I manage to get every single chatty pupil in the class on one table? What were the odds? - I've definitely had chance to get some first impressions of my pupils. I’ve got a fairly good idea of which ones are the MFL nuts who thrive on that sense of achievement you get by communicating in another language, which ones love MFL lessons despite spelling and pronunciation being an uphill battle for them, and which ones will be begging their parents to let them go on every single foreign trip available. On the other hand, I can also see who has come to my lessons with pre-formed ideas about how they can’t do MFL, they didn’t learn anything last year, and there’s no point doing it anyway because everyone abroad speaks English. Fortunately these are far from being my first pupils with this sort of attitude towards languages, so I was working on getting everyone on board as soon as they came into my classroom for the first time and with most pupils, I can see it starting to take effect already.
The most important part of my armoury for fighting these pessimistic fixed ideas is competition. My room is laid out so pupils sit in groups of 5 or 6, and everything I do in my classroom revolves around them earning points for their teams. Handed out books? Point for your team. Answered a question, even if it wasn’t a correct answer? Of course you get a point. First table to all be doing the starter activity? 5 points. Used the target language voluntarily? There’s another point. Someone talking when they shouldn’t be? Lose the 10 point bonus that you get at the end if your team has always been quiet when I’ve asked. It makes pupils self-policing, telling their team-mates to work harder, stop talking, pack away faster, so that I can concentrate on teaching more than on classroom management. When asking questions or playing a game, I won’t accept a second answer from someone until everyone else on their team has taken part – this pushes pupils to help their team-mates and makes sure everyone is participating. When doing group work, I’ll offer points for the best teamwork, or sometimes there’ll be points up for grabs for the team who show the best problem-solving skills.
When I first started doing this, I trialled it with Years 7 and 8, thinking that everyone else would be far too grown up and cool to be persuaded to work hard by the promise of little lines on a tally chart on the board, but I was soon proved wrong by my Year 10 class, who saw the score chart from the previous group, wanted to know what it was, and demanded that I start doing it with them as well. I’ve still never encountered any classes who aren’t motivated by this from Year 7 right up to 6th form – there’s always the occasional pupil who is determined not to be suckered in, but even they’ll often find themselves being tempted by it despite themselves. One of my favourite moments of last year was when a Year 9 girl who had previously been very disparaging of my points system, asking me if I thought they were in primary school and refusing to take part on principle, lost her head when I forgot to add a point for her team-mate and yelled “MISS! YOU FORGOT OUR POINT!” across the room at me before looking very sheepish when she realised that apparently she wasn’t too cool for a bit of competition.
My aim is to show pupils that participation and effort counts more than being 100% correct all the time, and that anyone can contribute to their team, whether they think they don’t know a word of French or think they’re the best in the class. Most pupils are motivated by praise and recognition of their efforts, and over time their confidence will grow and they will hopefully lose that fixed mindset and start to see that anyone can make progress, however slowly, if they keep a positive attitude and try their best. It remains to be seen how long my Year 9 toughies will take to get to this point, but I have confidence that it will happen.
Starr Green is a teacher of French, Spanish and German and Deputy Head of Year at Tupton Hall School, Derbyshire