Get out from behind the desk...

Written by: Adam Riches | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Effective classroom circulation is crucial, says Adam Riches. In fact, if you are sitting behind your desk while your pupils work, you are missing several tricks...

In most classrooms, the teacher has a desk. Although most do not have the stereotypical apple placed on the corner from an endearing student, teacher’s desks are a typical part of any classroom scene – but should they be used during lessons?

There are certain practicalities that a desk affords – a place for your computer, somewhere you to put your coffee (in a sealed cup of course) and a dumping ground for any extra hand-outs that you copy and have no other home for.

Besides these practicalities, I would argue that your desk should not be used during lesson time. It may be controversial to say it, but teachers should not be sat behind their desks.

I work with a lot of trainee teachers and they use the desk at the front of the class in a novel way. It is used as a kind of barricade between themselves and the class – it provides them with a physical wooden barrier that they often feel (initially at least) gives them some protection from the rabid horde in front of them.

Of course, they quickly come to realise that standing behind their desk inhibits them from truly dominating the front of the classroom and as their confidence grows, they venture out from their safe place into the realms of the unknown.

I can understand why trainees naturally take this approach – the classroom can be a scary place after all, but experienced teachers (more often than not) do not use their desk as a barrier, they use it to do “nothing”.

Can you honestly say that you know what is happening on the other side of your classroom from behind your desk? By “what is happening” I mean, for example, what (exactly) is being written in a book during a task.

So many teachers have fallen into the habit of starting a task and letting their class get on with it. It is understandable – the class look engaged, they have started well, there are no questions, you have got five emails to send from yesterday and the time would be wasted if you watched the class work – wrong (well right, but wrong). Being active during tasks is a really effective way to keep on top of misconceptions, support learning and most importantly (for me) reduce my workload outside of the classroom.

Circulating

The concept of walking around your classroom is not something new. Good circulation means that you can keep your students engaged in tasks, support them when they are stuck and stretch them as they work.

My current principal really opened my eyes to the power of good circulation. Her ideas around the concept of circulating, checking and reacting really refined my practice and got me thinking more about how I spend my time in the classroom.

Having been able to see this approach applied consistently across our school reinforces my belief that teachers should be active and not sat down at their desks, especially when students are working silently.

Your movement round the classroom needs to be calculated. Simply floating from desk to desk is not always enough to ensure that you are supporting the learning as well as you could be.

As structured as it sounds, you may have to create routes depending on the type of task set. If your classes are anything like mine, you often have a huge variety of need in one room. For example, I know that certain students in my classes struggle more with longer writing tasks, whereas comprehension is an issue for other children.

As such, having set routes gives additional value to your seating plan and you can pre-plan where and how you are going to support individuals depending on the tasks being set.

And it is not just a matter of knowing where you are going, it is also important that you consider your behaviour as you circulate. Be mindful of the space between you and the pupil to whom you are speaking or those you are keen to observe.

Realistically, most classrooms are relatively small – but you need to avoid being overbearing. The last thing you want to be is intimidating, so you need to ensure that your students embrace your circulating and checking by showing them how powerful this kind of support can be.

Tracking, not watching

Doug Lemov (2015) conceptualises this idea perfectly. The idea simply is that one of the most important skills for any teacher or coach is observing during independent practice.

Observing is not watching – observing means looking at practice and calculating your next actions. While a teacher circulates the class they need to make a note (mentally or physically) of what needs addressing or re-addressing in order for the class to improve. By effectively tracking misconceptions and successes, teaching becomes responsive and learning is more efficient.

Of course, for this kind of an approach to be effective, you need to be flexible and reflective in your planning – but by addressing misconceptions as they arise, teachers can make much better use of their lesson time.

An additional advantage of tracking your class as they learn is that you are able to actively intervene while they are working. This encourages them to stay engaged but it also adds a personalised element to your teaching.

You become less of a distant figure at the front of the class and you show students that you value each individual’s learning and progress.

This can lead to a significant increase in motivation for learning and it also builds a culture of trust. As we all know, students are notoriously reluctant to show their misunderstandings in front of their peers, so by effectively tracking their misconceptions and successes, and intervening as your circulate, we are able take some of the threat (and guesswork) out of the learning process.

Marking

I do not mark books outside the classroom. I have not done this for a while now. Effective circulation and tracking means that I can achieve two things that remove the need for any out-of-class marking: whole class feedback and live marking.

The most effective time to get feedback is while you are still doing something. Think about how effective it is being redirected as and when you are doing something wrong. Now imagine you are going wrong and somebody takes a day or a week to intervene and set you right again – it is frustrating.

Instead of sitting at the front of the class sending emails while your class works, why not circulate and mark their books as they work?

Questions, correction and advice all work brilliantly. Not only do you instantly improve their outcomes, but you also build their confidence and their skills by highlighting short-comings in their responses immediately. You are modelling how they can question their own work (for more on my approach to in-class marking and feedback, see SecEd, 2017).

Meanwhile, underpinning learning and filling gaps or addressing any big misconceptions can be done with a whole class feedback sheet. Why trawl through books after the lesson when you could read responses as they are being written – and I can guarantee that you will spot the same misconception a number of times.

Making use of your time by circulating and reading is such a powerful way of gauging the progress of your class and it allows you to know where the short-comings are in real time, not two days later.

Conclusion

I am not saying that teachers cannot sit down – what I am trying to encourage you to reflect upon is: why would you want to sit down while you are in the classroom?

  • Adam Riches is a lead teacher in English, a Specialist Leader of Education and an ITT coordinator. Follow him on Twitter @TeachMrRiches. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2DhTAJu

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