Treat your children well

29th August 2003 at 01:00
Take charge, but do not be a martinet. Joe Clancy reports on a programme designed to win over pupils from the outset

The headteacher has been suitably impressed, staffroom colleagues have been wowed.All that remains is to win over the pupils. The new teacher is a prime target for testing out by pupils, particularly at secondary school, and they will be keen to exploit any weaknesses.

So does a new teacher begin with an easy-going, friendly approach, or is it best to stamp one's authority immediately, and then ease off as respect is won?

A class lost could be hard to win back, and could diminish standing among colleagues and pupils, so getting off on the right foot is vital to the newcomer's success.

Jean Rudduck, professor of education at Cambridge University, has been researching "the pupils' voice" and their perception of what makes a good teacher. She has devised a 12-point plan on how to win their hearts and minds.

She says pupils appreciate teachers who enjoy teaching the subject and enjoy teaching them, who make lessons interesting and link their work to outside life. Good teachers will, she adds, have a laugh but also know how to keep order. They will not shout but will be someone pupils can talk to.

They will be fair in their dealings with students, and will not give up on those who are struggling or having problems.

They will also explain what they are doing and go through anything pupils don't understand without making them feel small. Finally, they will not make odious comparisons with other classes or older siblings.

Professor Rudduck says: "The saying that a new teacher should not smile before Christmas is an old chestnut that should be discarded. Of course you have to establish and maintain your authority, but it is terribly important to communicate to pupils that you are interested in them and you respect them.

"One quality that pupils of all ages seem to prize most is that teachers are fair in their treatment of them. They also respect a teacher who knows how to keep order in a way that allows them to work and to have a laugh."

If a new teacher finds things are not working out with a class, there are strategies for winning back authority. "One fairly challenging recovery plan - and it takes a lot of courage to implement this - would be to put a class into small groups, and get them to say what is going wrong with the lesson," she says. "This demonstrates that the teacher is willing to listen to young people.

"A teacher could also provide a postbox for pupils to provide their ideas for improving teaching and learning. It will communicate to the pupils that they are trusted and what they say is being listened to."

In her forthcoming book, Consulting Pupils, Improving Learning, to be published in November by Continuum Press, Professor Rudduck cites examples of how pupils have devised their own plans for dealing with problems. In one primary school, for instance, noise was interfering with learning. So the pupils devised colour codes for sound levels that were appropriate for different locations. She writes: "The fact that this was seen as the pupils' own system meant they were more likely to persuade their peers to respect it, and the colour links seemed to make it easier for pupils to remember the 'rules'."

In a secondary school where half of one year group did not do their modern foreign languages homework regularly, the teacher decided to enlist the class's help in solving the problem. The result? Completion rates for homework went up from 50 per cent to more than 80 per cent.

Pupils, says Professor Rudduck, value teachers who "don't just remember the bad things you have done". They respect teachers who are consistent in their mood, are calm and have a sense of humour, and understand students and treat them "like an equal". They also admire those who "are not petty", who don't take things personally, who can admit they have made a mistake, and who treat students as individuals. They dislike teachers who "make fun of you or humiliate you in front of others", or are sarcastic or vindictive, and who "speak to you in an irritating tone of voice".

Students respond to variety within lessons and not too much teacher talk.

They enjoy learning that allows them to identify and develop their own ideas. They want clear explanations and a clear structure for lessons.

Professor Rudduck's advice to new teachers is: "Never underestimate young people. They have a considerable contribution to make to school improvement and classroom learning."

She wants to encourage teacher-pupil working relationships based more on collaboration than on compliance or opposition. "The challenge for schools is to find ways of harnessing pupils' insights to support their own learning," she says.

She adds that pupils are as much concerned about how they are treated as how they are taught. "Having a good relationship with teachers can be an important element in pupils' commitment to learning and may also help them to resist being captured by the 'school work isn't cool' lobby."

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