Train your sights on discipline
When the headteacher arrived in my chaotic classroom, I found myself in a situation similar to the Sorcerer's Apprentice scene in Fantasia. I stood like Mickey Mouse in the midst of it all and watched in awe as 30 children were swept back into their places with a single, effortless wave of my senior colleague's hand. Order was restored.
Was it simply that she was a master at behaviour management and I was very much a novice at a loss with a new class? In part, yes. But more importantly, I had made the mistake of expecting my students to know instinctively how to act in my classroom. After all, I thought, surely they had learned the ropes with previous teachers?
In fact, whether or not they were aware of how to act in school was irrelevant; I learned the hard way that they needed to know I knew. And the secret to ensuring this? According to my headteacher: "You need to train them."
Train them? What, like animals? That didn't feel right at all. I wanted a classroom full of mature, creative and independent learners, not mindless automatons. More embarrassingly, I was desperate to be the cool teacher who bestowed trust and respect on children for the first time. The role of drill sergeant didn't feel comfortable at all.
Since then, my idealistic goal of creating mature, creative, independent learners hasn't changed much. What has changed is my belief in how to bring this about. I now think that frequent and explicit training is not only permissible but necessary for all children to become as successful as possible in school.
To be clear, what I am talking about here is more than just slick classroom routines that keep the room well ordered and ensure minimal time is lost during transitions. I would go further and advocate the sort of routines that have become a hot topic recently thanks to their seemingly miraculous effectiveness in charter schools across the US and in a handful of high-achieving academies here in the UK.
Often taken or adapted from Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion book, these techniques include: "cold calling", in which the teacher asks random children questions instead of waiting for them to raise their hands; "format matters", in which children are trained to answer questions using full sentences; and, perhaps most notoriously, "straight up", in which children are trained how to put their hand up.
The practice of "tracking" is a good litmus test for where you might stand on incorporating these techniques into your classroom. It works like this: during direct teaching, I now expect every set of eyes to be following me wherever I am standing. At the start of the year, I dedicated time to explaining to the children why I wanted this to happen and we practised how to do it. If someone's gaze breaks, I stop and wait.
As these techniques grow in popularity, so too does condemnation of them. For some, whether or not you use these methods defines what kind of teacher you are. Routines are one thing, they say, but this level of training takes it too far. The fiercest critics complain of conditioning, or even indoctrination.
Teachers on both sides of the divide want what's best for their pupils, of course. We hope to send children into the adult world as articulate, confident, well-rounded citizens, equipped with everything they need to have a happy and successful future.
If we are completely honest, however, the best way we have of ensuring children go on to be happy and successful is helping them to get good grades. Perhaps this is an unfashionable view, but the statistics are very clear: any child who leaves primary school in England without a level 4 in reading, writing and maths is far less likely to achieve five A*-C grades at GCSE. Maybe that's a bad, unfair system, but it's the one in which we're working.
Ultimately, it was this realisation that changed my mind on techniques like tracking. Modelling to the whole class what you expect and repeatedly practising it together ensures high expectations of everyone. It is easy for children to hide in a class of 30, allowing the usual suspects to do all the work during class discussions and question time. Investing time in training your children frees up time and energy that can then be spent on higher-quality learning.
So although training may feel uncomfortable to begin with, I'd encourage you to give it a try in your class. Like me, you may well find that instead of creativity and independence disappearing, you create the conditions in which they can thrive.
Stephen Findlay is a primary school teacher in Essex
Create class routines.
A Teachers TV video on helping pupils to focus.
Assign roles to promote maturity and engagement.