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Stressed about taking a mixed ability class?

Don't be distracted by the attention-seekers, that's exactly what they are hoping for, says Sue Cowley


"I feel as though I'm punishing the ones who deserve it the least"

I have a particularly difficult Year 7 class. They are mixed ability, and the range of abilities within the class is huge. Planning lessons requires lots of differentiation and it has become the equivalent of planning three lessons in terms of time spent preparing resources. I have tried cutting down this time by finding activities that are suitable for the whole class, but this tends to cause poor behaviour in both the high and low achievers.

The time that I need to spend on preparing for this particular group is vast in comparison with my other lessons. The extra work involved for this class has started to preoccupy me outside the time spent planning the lesson, as I am constantly trying to think of activities that will suit the pupils. This has become a problem as I already find my workload challenging. It has started to impede on the time that I need to spend on planning and assessing the work of other classes.

I am now finding planning increasingly difficult as I am worried about repeating the style of lesson that has worked for them and they are likely to become bored; however, I haven't thought of a viable alternative.

Behaviour in this class can be poor, and they need lots going on to distract them. Once they lose concentration and go off task, I find it difficult to regain their attention and focus on their work.

The time spent in lessons is also stressful, as I feel pulled in numerous directions. The children are completing differentiated tasks and therefore need different instructions and degrees of help. I am finding that I enjoy teaching this lesson less and less.

Also, I feel guilty about the children in the class who do wish to learn as I feel that the poor behaviour is distracting them and ultimately affecting their learning. There are many hard-working girls who I am conscious don't get their fair share of my time as I am often dealing with those pupils who behave badly. I don't want this to continue as I feel as though I am punishing the ones who deserve it the least.

I need advice on how to plan a lesson that will improve the behaviour in such a mixed ability group, and also the type of activities that you would suggest.

Esther Picton teaches social science and RE at a secondary school in Cheshire


"Don't feel that every child must be given a personalised lesson - it isn't possible"

This class has taken on mythical proportions in Esther's mind until it has become her own "bogeyman". She fights the mixed ability demon as best she can, but finds herself losing the battle. Her self-confidence has taken a big knock, and she is feeling ever more stressed by the experience of teaching this class.

Esther should give herself a pat on the back for all her efforts thus far.

As she has found, planning a variety of activities is extremely time-consuming. To deliver a widely differentiated lesson you must be skilled at giving clear instructions, something you will learn to do with experience. If the children don't understand what the tasks are, there is bound to be poor behaviour.

Although differentiation is great in theory, in reality it is hard to maintain. At university you will have been encouraged to differentiate "by task", that is, thinking up different tasks for children with different abilities. However, as a student teacher you did not have to teach a full timetable. Now you have to cope with all the responsibilities that come with a full-time post.

Differentiation by task is only really possible if you have at least one other adult in your classroom. In these circumstances, your assistant can work with any groups that need additional explanations. With only one teacher available, a mixed task lesson will be almost impossible to deliver.

In teaching, there is never time to do everything - you must make difficult decisions about the most valuable use of your time. Have some flexibility in your lesson plans for the lowest end of the ability range, and for any gifted or talented pupils. Don't feel that every child must be given a personalised lesson - it isn't possible.

Esther sees misbehaviour as a direct reflection on the quality of her lesson planning. Poor behaviour will have a number of causes, many of them out of your direct control. At the moment, she is being pulled in many different directions and is being run ragged just to keep up with delivering the lesson content. The children are probably picking up on the stress that this is causing her and, consequently, are playing up to her uncertainty.

Think of activities that can be completed on a simple level by the less able and in an extended way by the bright children. When you introduce an activity, explain to the class that it might be completed on a range of different levels. A good way of doing this is to split the work into a "must do" part (which everyone must do), a "should do" part (which everyone should have a stab at), and a "could do" part (for the keen or able children).

Think about how the children can play a part in helping each other succeed - it's a key part of the thinking behind mixed ability groups. Incorporate group work, where pupils can bounce ideas around, contributing their own particular talents to the group. Don't reinvent the wheel - other teachers at your school will have worked with similar classes. Approach more experienced teachers for advice and resources: borrow lesson plans, steal good ideas, photocopy worksheets.

Force yourself not to focus on those who are misbehaving. You know the theory - you shouldn't give attention to the attention-seekers because it reinforces the misbehaviour. It is hard to do, because it means fighting your instincts. But remind yourself that the hard working children are those who deserve your help and attention. Ignore the "bogeyman" in the corner and he might vanish into thin air.

Sue Cowley is author of "Getting the Buggers to Behave" (Continuum)


* Don't expect miracles: Don't be too hard on yourself if every lesson doesn't succeed with every child. With 30 of them and one of you, it isn't always possible.

* Focus on what's going right: Watch for activities which work and use something similar in another lesson. Focus on the hard-working children rather than getting distracted by misbehaviour.

* Get them helping each other: Children can learn a great deal through being "teachers". Explaining an activity to a less able class mate is a great way of ensuring that both pupils understand.

* Don't reinvent the wheel: Teachers are often guilty of believing that only their own ideas or approaches are good enough. The sharing and borrowing of ideas is a key way of broadening your teaching and introducing new techniques to the lesson.

* Use your time wisely: Don't let one class or one child eat up a disproportionate amount of time - it isn't fair on either you or those pupils who are behaving or keeping up.

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