We’ve all been there and we’ll probably be there again. You’ve got your toughest class, it's Friday afternoon, they are tired and so are you. You know that logic dictates that this is the worst time to try and teach something, but your professionalism (and pride) drive you to follow the lesson plan you’ve meticulously prepared to the full.
Within the first five minutes, some of the most disruptive students in the class start to pipe up with questions that seem to divert the lesson off course. Within 15 minutes, that first task of the lesson you’ve planned has degenerated into paper aeroplanes and raucous laughter. You stand at the front of the room looking out at a sea of disaster and say to yourself: “What do I do now?”
I recently posed this question on Twitter and got some excellent and helpful responses.
James Mosley, a history teacher in Poole, Dorset, came up with a gem: his “History Loyalty Card”. He said this was the biggest success he’d had with his most difficult class and on offering this idea to an NQT in his department, they’d already noted a turnaround.
Each child was given their own stampable loyalty card. When positive things were spotted in class, either by Jon or his teaching assistant, points were awarded. On completing each row, different rewards were available, the most prized being a phone call home. I think the parental phone call is an underutilised resource by teachers, although it must be said this is partly for lack of time more than anything else. Students like nothing more than walking in the front door after school to be lavished with praise.
Josh Campbell, a science lead practitioner in London, suggested “calming music and guided meditation” as one strategy at the start of the lesson. Others suggested lining them up in silence and having them enter in the same way, applying sanctions if needed.
As a general rule, I always try to get students doing something in the Friday last lesson slot. A test followed by some self-review or marking works well (peer-marking is brilliant but does provide more opportunity for getting “off task”). A “get your head down and do it” series of tasks always works well. This allows you to concentrate on the behaviour for learning whilst students complete the work.
Noise can be a real source of anxiety for teachers who are trying to create that calm atmosphere for learning. I have used a strategy where I have three levels on the board: P1, P2 and P3. P1 = silence, P2 = personal learning voice and P3 = playground.
You can have some fun practising with students and add a competitive element by giving students one or two small tokens; take a token away if they aren’t able to adhere to one particular stage (although playground should be easier than the others). I’ve seen this in action and it worked really well.
A few things I've always avoided are putting student names on the board, because of the risk that it almost becomes a prize to get their name in lights (I usually just jot the students initials down in my planner). Whole-class detentions, although incredibly alluring, are something that can undermine the very fabric of your “consistency and fairness”.
Gary Craggs tweeted the suggestion of “isolating the key players and re-integrating them gradually". I think sometimes as a teacher it’s tempting to “blanket discipline” when there are a number of students not complying, but I’ve found that just calmly sanctioning one or two students in front of the class (and calmly moving through the sanctions with that student if necessary) will usually get the message across to the rest of the class that you mean business more than shouting at everyone.
Of course, Adam Boxer (a science teacher) added: “If they won’t behave and SLT won’t support, find a new school. There is no other long-term sustainable solution.”
This is hugely important – for sanctions to have the required effect, there has to be that culture in place to support the classroom teacher, a willingness to follow through from the top down. Without that, many of the strategies suggested above, although helpful, might not solve the problem in the long term. Courageous and supportive leaders make all the difference.
I think whatever happens, it's always reassuring to consider that a) every other teacher worth their salt has been where you are and b) by Monday morning that “worst lesson ever” for you has been completely forgotten by the class.
Every lesson is a chance to press the reset button. Nothing is as grave or irreversible as it feels at the time.
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