'I would hate to think that my students are bored. That would be a failing on my part'

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Can the way you teach motivate your class? Sarah Matthews (overleaf) always opts for a sunny disposition. "I am motivated by people responding positively to me, so that is one thing I always try to be with my students."

How do you do it? Over the holidays you've contacted us with your own take on how teaching in certain ways can inspire and concentrate minds. Friday columnist and author of The Motivated Mind Dr Raj Persaud, parent Brian Smith and 15-year-old south London pupil Kelvin Omonfomah join the debate on page 14.

For next week we'd like to hear about your experiences with assessment.

Share your best practice - or schemes that sank - in our forum at www.tes.

co.ukfridaymotivation. If we publish your contribution, we'll pay you Pounds 25. How's that for motivation?

The day Dyl Powell took over as headteacher of Stamford high school in Lincolnshire, she posted the memorable words of child psychologist Haim Ginott on the staffroom wall: "It's my personal approach that creates the climate. It's my daily mood that makes the weather."

Sarah Matthews, who has been teaching religious education at the girls'

independent secondary for the past five years, has taken these words to heart and always adopts a sunny disposition whenever she enters a classroom. "I am motivated by people responding positively to me, so that is the one thing I always try to be with my students," she says. "Above all else I try to point out the things they are doing well and move them on from there. If I have a bone to pick, I never do it at the beginning of a lesson."

Being positive doesn't mean showering her students in compliments. "Those of you who got above 'A' really extended your learning through extra research and that was impressive," she remarks briskly as she hands back projects at the beginning of a Year 9 lesson. But there is also plenty of praise. "That picture was amazing Ellie. How long did it take you to do that?"

She structures her lessons so pupils of all aptitudes have a chance to shine. On this occasion, a lesson about Hinduism and reincarnation, her introduction to the key concepts and vocabulary is followed by whole-class discussion. "If you come back as a person, have you already lived your life as a plant?" "What happens if you die very young?" "What is a soul?" The questions come thick and fast, but at the first sign that the flow threatens to fragment into private conversation, the girls are moved swiftly on to the next activity - designing a reincarnation board game.

Sarah Matthews says she tries to vary the tasks so that different students get the opportunity to excel. Sometimes it might require role play (recently she involved students in creating a chat show on abortion); sometimes, particularly with lower ability students, she might book the IT suite so they can lay out their work on the computer. "They can create a lovely-looking piece of work that they can feel proud of," she says. Once she asked students to bring in food so they could recreate a langar (a meal shared by Sikhs after worship in which everyone is honoured as equal).

Often she will ask them to devise PowerPoint presentations, a popular option. She says she aims to break her lesson up into chunks with manageable targets, and to keep the pace lively and the mood upbeat. "I would hate to think that my students are bored. I would see that as a failing on my part."

Although much has been written about different types of task suiting different types of learners (design tasks for visual learners; practical projects for kinaesthetic, and so on), Sarah Matthews believes the key to motivating students is showing that you care enough to want to make the lesson interesting and "that you love being there".

Her students seem to agree. Katharine Bradshaw, 15, is one of a growing band of Stamford high pupils taking RE as a full GCSE, rather than the short course, on top of an already busy academic timetable. RE is also the fastest growing subject at A-level. Katharine says she prefers to be given a range of activities in lessons. "It's much better than just being talked at, because then you tend to switch off. Also, you need to be able to see that the teacher is enjoying the lesson as well."

Mike Hughes, a former teacher and now a full-time trainer and author specialising in motivation, says students are often galvanised by having some control over what they are doing. "If they have a choice, say, whether to prepare a poster, poem or a presentation on a particular topic, they are more likely to complete it with a smile on their face," he says. "A teacher who makes this kind of effort to engage students is saying, through verbal and non-verbal means, 'I like you, I like teaching you, you are a worthwhile human being'."

In his book Strategies for Closing the Learning Gap, Mike Hughes says that teachers should never underestimate the effectiveness of getting to know who they teach so they can give words of personal encouragement. "This might seem like common sense, but league tables and curriculum pressures can squeeze out things like human relationships. Fostering these is crucial in developing motivated learners." He gives the example of one staffroom where teachers put up a "motivation bulletin board" so they could post information about students, such as a child passing grade 6 piano or scoring in their Sunday league football match. This allowed them to make positive personal comments.

At Stamford high, charitable fund-raising plays a large part in extracurricular life and Sarah Matthews has got to know students by taking part in disco sleepovers and a pyjama walk, as well as performing in the staff Christmas panto. "Students like to see that you want to have a laugh with them, that you are prepared to put yourself on the line for their sake, that you can take a joke."

A patchwork quilt hangs on the wall in her office, a gift from last year's form group, a personal thank you on each square. On one is written, "You always manage to make things fun"; on another, "Thank you for putting up with me for two whole years;" on another, "Also thanks for all the extra letters you've given me due to my constant folding them up and losing them!"

Sarah Matthews says she learned the power of being positive as an NQT in a co-educational maintained secondary. "I inherited a class of Year 11s who were vile in their behaviour. I tried varying the lessons, giving lots of different activities, but they were hell-bent on teacher baiting and I had to get the senior management out to them twice. In the end I asked them why they didn't care about getting their RE GCSE. I found out the last teacher had told them they were going to fail, so they had just given up. I told them they would fail if they carried on in this way but if they tried, if we worked together, we could pull through. It took a long time, but from that point on they began to change and some of them did very well."

More recent experience has taught her the importance of listening to students about their preferred ways of learning. She is responsible for GCSE citizenship and had tried many ways of pepping up a subject taught in period 9 on a Friday. She organised the four teachers involved on a carousel, and children were told the day, room and teacher they would be going to in order to vary lessons. But the girls hated the arrangement and their parents couldn't see the point of their taking an extra GCSE. "What the pupils wanted," says Sarah Matthews, "was one teacher always in the same room, who would get to know them and know what progress they were making. I gave them the syllabus so they could see the shape of the subject, gave them the one teacher, and they started to calm down and get on with it."

She is clear, however, that encouragement can also mean students having a go at things they don't feel comfortable with. "Not all of them, for example, like role play. I had a girl in tears recently because she didn't want to have to do it. But I explained that she would benefit from having a go and in the end she did it. That worked wonders for her confidence."

Also, she says, it's not always possible to dress up something that simply requires hard graft. "I will sometimes say, 'I know this isn't the most interesting thing we've ever done but we've got to get our heads round it because it's crucial information to the subject'."

Although Stamford high school (part of Stamford Endowed Schools, which includes the Stamford school for boys and a joint sixth form) is selective, with no girl gaining fewer than seven GCSE A*-Cs, Dyl Powell says many girls lack confidence. Since her arrival she has concentrated on developing a positive culture. "If you are upbeat and enthusiastic as a teacher, continue to build your subject knowledge, and the package you offer is vibrant and varied, the students will feed off that energy."

Next week: Can assessment affect motivation?

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