How to get off to a flying start with your new class

10th August 2018 at 00:00
Every year, teachers have to begin again with a new group of students – and those initial days and weeks can make a huge difference. Here, primary teacher Alice Edgington and secondary teacher Grainne Hallahan share their tips for getting up to speed

Primary

If you’re intending to implement the old teacher adage “don’t smile till Christmas” at the start of next term, you had better make sure your poker face is rock solid. Classrooms are funny places, and it can be next to impossible not to crack a smile sometimes.

That said, children can sniff out a wishy-washy teacher from a mile off and there’s no harm in starting as you mean to go on when it comes to establishing good working relationships with them. So here are my tips for getting it right from the outset and making sure that every day of learning counts:

1. Come armed with information

For a smooth transition, it is important to gather as much information about each child as possible before September. Speak to the previous teacher, check the data and familiarise yourself with the details of any safeguarding concerns or special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). If a pupil is new to the school, call their nursery or previous school, and visit it if you can, to put the child in context. There is something to be said for each year being a fresh start; consider this information to be your road map, providing a general idea of the direction you should be heading in.

2. Set the ground rules

Once the pupils are in your classroom, share your expectations straight away. Establish rules in the first week by reinforcing positive behaviour with over-the-top praise. This is the quickest way to promote hard work and good progress.

Class routines help the children to feel comfortable and safe in their environment, so make these personal to you and to them. Choose some fun “tidy up time” music; play some calming music as pupils enter the room and settle down to morning work; play an age-appropriate game at the end of the day after story time.

3. Get to know pupils

Set out to learn a fact about each child in the first fortnight. Do they play any sports or belong to any clubs? Who has a pet or, if they could have a pet, what would it be? Get to know the children, and let them get to know you by sharing a fun fact about yourself. The children in my school love looking at the pictures of my dogs on my desk and hearing about the naughty adventures they have.

Get to know pupils’ parents early on, too. Let the parents and carers know something positive about their child now; it will make any difficult conversations easier later on.

4. Start with a bang

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but if you can start the term with something memorable, this will get you off on the right foot. I once attended a course where the ice-breaker was learning how to juggle. It’s never left me. Your ice-breaker could be a hands-on introduction to a topic that will get children thinking, or it could be as simple as a silly circle-time game.

Whatever you do, make sure children go home talking about school and wanting to come back again tomorrow.

Alice Edgington is head of school at St Stephen’s Infant School in Canterbury. She tweets @aliceedgington

Secondary

With the first term of every year come the new class lists. You have new classes with new students, and now is the time to build positive relationships with them. The first few lessons will set the tone for the rest of the year. Here are some ideas on how to get it pitch-perfect:

1. Learn students’ names

Good relationships begin with learning names. And not just the names of the naughty students. It is impossible to effectively lead a class if you don’t have a decent grasp of their names. For some subjects where you see classes weekly, or even fortnightly, this task is truly Herculean. When I’ve been split across subjects, or have taken on a timetable where all the classes have been split, I’ve never felt truly on top of things until I’ve learned everyone’s names.

Do … try asking students to tell you the reason behind or the meaning of their name. This will help it to stick in your mind, as well as build relationships with the class.

Don’t … get defensive if you get their name wrong. Apologise and move on.

2. Don’t bring old problems into the new year

Many students see the new term as their opportunity to begin afresh, following on from reintegration meetings at the end of July, in which worn-out heads of year extracted promises of a “fresh start” in September. We can help those students by leaving last year’s detentions and exclusions in the past.

Do … feign ignorance if any past exploit is mentioned.

Don’t … sour another teacher’s impression of a student by “warning” them of their behaviour. Let them make up their own minds.

3. Be yourself, but don’t make it about yourself

It’s important to allow your personality to shine through as you teach – robotic instruction is probably good only for robots. But positive relationships aren’t one-sided. Listen to what pupils have to say about themselves, and don’t relate everything they say back to you.

Do … try making small talk as students pack their things away.

Don’t … get drawn into off-topic conversations in the middle of a lesson. It’s the oldest (and most effective) distraction technique known to Year 9s.

4. Insist on manners, and model them

Some non-negotiable rules of the classroom need to be insisted upon from the second that bell rings for period one, day one. “Please” and “thank you” are not particularly high expectations and they are the minimum you should expect from, and give to, every student.

Some students are more reticent than others when it comes to warming to teachers. The only way to counter that is to be open, with a skin as tough as Teflon. Every time your efforts are rebuffed, try again.

Do … follow the school discipline policy to the letter.

Don’t … take it personally. As teachers, we can sometimes get placed in the role of “generic adult who I am angry at”. Dole out the sanction, and don’t internalise. Your worth is never based on how much a kid likes you.

Grainne Hallahan has been teaching English in Essex for 10 years. She is part of the #TeamEnglish Twitter group

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