Do smile, but don't make too many jokes

8th January 1999 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh suggests the best waysto gain respect and classroom rapport

For as long as there has been a teaching profession, new entrants have been advised: "Go in hard at first - you can always ease up later." (Similar admonitions include "Don't relax too soon" and "Don't smile until Christmas".) It's not always easy for a new teacher to accept this. All you believe about relationships and motivating people probably assumes mutual warmth and good humour.

How can children learn from a teacher who is cold, distant and ruthlessly stern? The answer is not that the warning is misconceived, but that it is oversimplified and thus easily misunderstood.

These dos and don'ts attempt to clarify best practice: Do:

* Smile. Often a new teacher shows a stern and worried face in class but breaks out into a wonderful smile in the staffroom, provoking the thought that it's a shame the children can't see it. Make sure it is a natural smile of friendly confidence, not a fixed nervous grin or a sarcastic smirk.

* Address pupils by their names as early and frequently as possible. Adding a name to a word of praise or a request shows respect and is always appreciated. Try to do it for all the pupils, so it doesn't look as if you only know the names of the badly behaved ones.

* Start with the same expectations for all pupils. Some pupils know they have a bad reputation, and when a new teacher comes they often secretly hope for better things. This is why the child with the reputation may seem eager to please. When this happens, take it at face value and try not to signal wariness or suspicion.

* Show respect for pupils by listening attentively to them, re-sponding to requests and remembering things they have told you.

* Confidently expect attention and respect in return. A steady gaze, focused on individuals one after the other, and good body language (a comfortable neutral stance, not defensive, not aggressive) help in this.

* Be consistent. In a sense this is what "don't relax too early" means. If you misjudge your relationship with the class (by making an ingratiating joke, or by assuming that you can wing your way through an ill-prepared practical activity) you might end up with a few uncontrolled moments. Then you will have to work hard to put things right, and the children won't know where they stand.

* Set manageable tasks, especially for homework. Until you know your pupils well and are sure of what is possible, give exercises which, though challenging, are short, uncomplicated and very carefully explained.

You can then confidently reject ingenious excuses and, having marked the work quickly, give praise, encouragement or stern warnings.

Don't:

* Relax classroom routines in search of informality. Use the school's style of addressing pupils. Keep to the usual seating layout and the standard routines of entering and leaving the room. Follow school practice on matters such as bags and coats coming into the room. It is what children expect and they won't thank you for doing it differently, even if you're trying to please them or improve things.

* Make too many jokes. If the children don't know you they won't know whether to laugh and they'll become uneasy or cheeky in return, or both. Eventually they'll know when to groan, when to laugh and when to make an affect-ionately sarcastic response.

* Use nicknames. Later when you know them perhaps, but not yet.

* Make personal remarks which are lightly, even affectionately, meant but which children or their parents might find offensive. You are in a minefield of sensitivities.

* Prejudge pupils. Being able to say "Ah yes, John, I've heard all about you!" might sound efficient and stern, but it can cause deep resentment. Using the technique on a whole group is even worse.

* Shout. It may gain attention quickly, but it is a dead end. However, experienced and naturally quiet teachers don't always realise how difficult it is for some people to avoid shouting, so don't despair if you find yourself criticised. What is important is to know that there is a better way and try to improve.

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