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Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Back to school

All this week teachers will be preparing, both mentally and logistically, to meet their new classes. It can be quite a scary time. Will your new classes respect you? Will they cooperate or will they be obstructive? You’re not sure. To make matters worse, these nervous thoughts are compounded by several unhelpful myths that surround the beginning of the school year.

A prime example of one of these myths is the old adage “Don’t smile till Christmas”. This one’s not too bad because no one takes it seriously, but it does reinforce the idea of an “us vs. them” culture, where you can’t let the students know the real you. 

A more pernicious myth goes a little like this:

 Students, particularly year 7s, will arrive in your classroom fresh faced and ready to learn. They will follow all your instructions and instinctively know good learning behaviours, like taking in turns to contribute to a class discussion or asking their peers first if they get stuck. When they start demonstrating different behaviours – calling out when you are talking, forgetting their homework, constantly asking for help, this is because the teacher has somehow “un-trained” them. Standards have slipped and they have regressed backwards because the teacher has not been authoritative or consistent enough. And once the boundaries of expected behaviour have been breached, it is very difficult to build back up again to the halcyon days of the beginning of term.

I don’t agree with this narrative and I think it can be very unhelpful. When people talk about standards slipping, I think in many cases these ideal standards simply weren’t there in the first place. Sure, you might have a honeymoon period with your new classes, particularly if they are in year 7 or if you have quite a commanding presence in the classroom. But until you have built a relationship with your students, until you have taught them to think about what makes a good learner and what you personally expect to see in the classroom, the supposed high standards at the beginning are merely a fa├žade. The students seem to be cooperative little angles, because they are uncertain. They haven’t pushed the boundaries yet, so they don’t really know where the boundaries are. For most classes, it doesn’t take long before one or two students start exploring.

I think it is much healthier to think of all your new classes as starting a journey towards having high standards, where these standards can go both up as well as down. Of course you should have high expectations from the start, but don’t expect students to know what to do automatically. Students need to learn good classroom behaviour just as they need to learn the content on your course.  To create a culture in the classroom where truly outstanding behaviour is the norm, you need to work at it, reflect upon it, and work at it some more. Rather than feeling nervous of putting a foot wrong and letting standards slip, expect students to push the boundaries and to cross them. And don’t worry if you have a few students that do this several times at the beginning of a year: if they’re a tough class they won’t be perfect straight away. It will take time, patience and enthusiasm, but you’ll get them onside in the end.