"What are we doing today?" "What's the point of learning this?" "I won't be able to do it, it's too hard!" These are questions and statements that most teachers accept as integral to our day- to-day classroom experiences. We all have our practised responses, but it is worth bearing in mind that the answers we give and the comments we make are fundamental to allowing our young people to manage their lives in an ordered, stress-free way.
Imagine you have been told by a colleague that you need to "pop in" to see the headteacher. She or he has asked to see you. Your own unanswered questions will include: "Why?", "Is it to talk about X?", "Will there be questions I won't be able to answer?", "Is it going to take long?" and "Is my role going to change in any way?"
These anxieties are no different from the thoughts going through the minds of pupils as they enter your classroom. So, in order to ensure your pupils' minds are anxiety-free and that they are immediately ready to learn, consider adopting the following three-point strategy.
1. Provide a plan of events on arrival
This will allow pupils to make predictions about the next 60 minutes and help them to make clear links with past learning.
Pre-empt any confusion by providing the answers. What are today's learning intentions and success criteria? What stage are pupils at in relation to the scheme of learning? How many more lessons will there be on this theme? Is the next hour of learning based on completely new concepts and ideas or the consolidation, embedding and further development of prior understanding?
Try establishing routines that do not involve you having to speak. Playing music as pupils enter could signify a particular lesson shape. A green card on the board might indicate group challenges, a blue card could mean paired learning, and so on.
Assessments or exams looming? Use a large digital clock counting down the number of learning hours and minutes. Six weeks of lessons sounds like a lifetime to a 15-year-old; seeing the minutes count down adds impact and immediacy.
2. Make your pupils believe that they are ready
Your pupils have to believe that they have the necessary skills to access today's learning. Or at least it should be clear to them that support is available to help them.
Reassurance is the key. You are more than capable of furthering their learning by guiding them through every step they will take. Their task is to trust and work with you. A pupil may enter your classroom thinking "I can't do this" for a number of reasons. Your role is to ensure the reason is not that they anticipate a lack of support and guidance.
Be clear about the small achievable steps that form part of the learning journey. Demonstrate them visually and try to use the words "challenge", "stretch", "new" and "exciting" instead of "difficult" or "hard". You can introduce longer learning strides once pupils realise the expectations are attainable.
3. Make it clear from the outset that the lesson is relevant and meaningful
Telling pupils that a lesson is important purely for the purpose of doing well in an exam will not be satisfactory motivation for many young people. The purpose of our teaching must be important enough for them to give their best. They have to care as passionately as you do about the outcome. If you are able to link learning intentions to the world your pupils live in, or how they are growing and developing, so much the better.
For some subjects this is relatively easy: history, for example. Maths can be more difficult. One analogy I have used with pupils is to say that maths is the mental gym of the school. Developing mental agility in terms of problem-solving will help them deal with stressful situations now and in the future. And some problems will be more difficult than others, just like in a gym. A 50kg bench press question requires a great deal more mental muscle power than a 10kg bench press question. Boys, especially, appreciate and take this on board, along with the notion that a more difficult challenge is not a reason to give up.
Listen out for comments from your pupils relating to unease and be alert to any concerns. This three-point strategy will make it less likely that pupils will ask their usual questions, and will help them to view your classroom as a place that can be challenging and provide them with the ability to learn in a stress-free way.
Victor Allen is a freelance behaviour and leadership consultant and founder of Mirror Development and Training. www.mirrordt.co.uk.