NQT Special Edition: Developing your presence in the classroom

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Having a strong presence in the classroom is one of the keys to becoming a successful and effective teacher. Matt Bromley offers some advice for trainee and new teachers

As a new teacher in a new school you will need to establish a sense of presence and authority. One way to do this is by “owning your classroom space” which can be achieved by means of body language, eye contact and tone of voice...

Body language

Not dissimilar to the cat who, when under threat, arches its back to make itself appear bigger than it is, you too can increase your presence by striking an authoritative pose and standing in a grounded way.

This might involve the use of gestures to punctuate what you say, as well as moving around the classroom, perhaps teaching from the back of the room occasionally or standing close to an inattentive or misbehaving pupil, in order to create a bigger presence as well as to signal to pupils that you are attuned to what’s happening in your room and intend to control matters in an unobtrusive way.

We all have a side of our body that we instinctively favour. So whether you are right or left-handed, you need to be aware that you will tend to speak to the opposite side of the classroom. One way to get around this potential problem is to spend some time in your room prior to starting your new job so that you can try-out different sides and see how the class looks from all corners of the room. This will help you to decide where to place yourself in order to be most visible and effective, while having a good view of all the pupils.

Eye contact

Another way of establishing your presence is through the use of eye contact. You can create an aura around yourself by standing still and casting a net around the room with your eyes. Make eye contact with every pupil as you talk, and use eye contact to send a warning shot to pupils who are misbehaving or whose minds are starting to wander.

Tone of voice

You need to sound assured and confident, calm and collected. You can use your tone and volume in order to express yourself. It’s best to avoid shouting wherever possible because you are the adult in the room, there to model mature behaviours. Shouting often means you’ve lost the argument. However, a rare and strategic verbal “dressing down” of a pupil, in order to make an example of them early in the year, can send a strong message to pupils that although you’re usually calm and reasonable, you’re no push-over either.

Starting principles

Once you’ve set upon the tone of voice and body language that best suit you and which project authority, and once you feel as if you “own” your space, you might want to think about the principles on which you intend to “run your room”.

For example, three principles on which I’ve operated my rooms (and which you may wish to adopt) are: openness, consistency and fairness.
If you do decide to adopt these, make them your own and communicate them as often as possible, both explicitly as well as implicitly through the way you speak and the actions you take…

1 Openness

It is important that your class rules are known and understood, that every pupil in your class knows what is expected of them and understands the consequences they are likely to face should they fail to live up to those expectations.

Ideally, pupils should be involved in the process of drawing up the rules or at least be consulted once they’ve been drawn up. It is important that your pupils feel your rules are reasonable and appropriate.

Personally, I favour using a pupil contract which acts in much the same way as an employment contract: it states what is expected of pupils and what they can expect in return from you and the school. If pupils sign it, they feel more like adults; moreover, they feel that they have some ownership of the rules and are therefore duty-bound to obey them.

A contract is about giving pupils ownership of their behaviour and of the consequences of their actions – showing pupils that, with rights, come responsibilities – as opposed to telling pupils what they can and can’t do. Therefore, a contract becomes enabling rather than restricting. The contract, once agreed, needs to be articulated to pupils and referred to as often as possible.

2 Consistency

It is important that your rules are (or appear to be) applied consistently: the rules – and the authority and respect of the teacher applying them – will be undermined if one person is punished for an offence while someone else, committing the same offence, escapes punishment or is punished differently.

Often, this is simply about effective communication: explaining what has happened, what action you have taken and why you think that action is appropriate (in other words, explain your rationale and explain how your decision is consistent with similar cases), and what will happen next.

3 Fairness

It is important that your class rules are applied fairly and that everyone in your classroom feels they are treated justly. In practice, this means allowing everyone a right of reply. It is sensible to listen to a range of different opinions before taking action and to involve the “offender” in the process of agreeing the consequences for his/her actions.

Often, a situation arises because a pupil feels ignored. They are told off for something they did not do and are not allowed to explain. They grow agitated by this and may become confrontational.

The best thing the teacher can do when trying to resolve the situation is allow the pupil the time and space to calm down then listen to them; allow the pupil to have their say without interruption. This does not mean contradicting the rules or what another teacher or pupil has said, nor does it mean being “soft”. It means being human, being the adult, being fair.

Once you have listened to the pupil’s point of view, explain how others may perceive the incident, ask the pupil to put themselves in other people’s shoes for a moment. Explain that you, as a teacher, also have to abide by rules and you too would face consequences if you broke them. By getting the pupil to see that he or she is not so different from their teacher you are again reinforcing the idea of fairness.

Rules and routines…

As well as developing a presence and setting the principles on which you will run your classroom, as a new teacher you will need to create a positive classroom environment which is conducive to learning. So what might this look like in practice?

1 Seating plans

Every teacher has his or her own preference about whether to arrange desks in rows, groups or a horseshoe, and this will depend largely on the age of the pupils and what best suits the subject you are teaching. Having a seating plan is not only convenient for you as a teacher but may also be welcomed by the pupils. Desks and tables should also be arranged so that pupils can move around safely. You also need to think about your desk – where is the best place for it to go? Front or back?

2 Resources

If you are going into a class that has not been in regular use, it is possible that other teachers may have borrowed items from it. Check with colleagues who are teaching similar age groups or subjects about what you will need and equip your class similarly. Generally speaking, your head of department should supply you with all the essentials.

The walls around an interactive whiteboard or other focal points in the classroom should be kept clear of distractions. However, this might be the best place to put learning prompts – such as the periodic table in a secondary science lab or a mnemonic reminding pupils how to analyse a text in English – and a poster setting out the class rules or pupil contract.

3 Developing a growth mindset culture

One of the most high-impact actions you can take in order to create a positive learning environment is to engender a growth mindset culture. In short, this means creating an atmosphere in which mistakes are welcomed, pupils are encouraged to try hard and accept challenges, are willing to take risks, and value the importance of practice and re-drafting work in response to formative feedback in order to make incremental improvements and progress from their individual starting points.

So what does a growth mindset classroom look like in practice? Here are five practical strategies which can help instil a growth mindset culture in your classroom:

  • The use of frequent formative feedback so that pupils receive information about what they need to practise and can also see the progress they’re making and the results of their hard work.
  • Articulating high expectations of every pupil so that pupils are challenged to do hard work and to take risks – and so that pupils challenge themselves to be the best they can be.
  • Explicitly welcoming mistakes so that pupils know that making mistakes is not just accepted but is an essential part of learning and of making progress; if they don’t make mistakes they won’t get better.
  • Engaging in deliberate practice, which is to say distributed, spaced and interleaved practice so that pupils make incremental improvements and improve both the storage and retrieval strength of the knowledge and skills they deposit in their long-term memories for later use.
  • Praising effort rather than attainment and hard work rather than aptitude, so that every pupil, irrespective of their individual starting point and background, can feel rewarded for trying hard and for making progress.
  • Matt Bromley is an education journalist and author with more than 18 years’ experience in teaching and leadership. He is the author of books for teachers including Making Key Stage 3 Count and Teach. His latest, The New Teacher Survival Kit is out now. Visit www.bromleyeducation.co.uk and follow Twitter @mj_bromley. To read Matt’s archive of more than 55 best practice articles for SecEd, visit http://bit.ly/1Uobmsl

NQT Special Edition

This article was published as part of SecEd’s NQT Special Edition. The publication offered eight pages of specialist best practice advice for NQTs and trainee teachers across the UK. Supported by the NASUWT the special edition published on June 29, 2017, and the eight pages are available to download as a free pdf from SecEd’s Supplements page: www.sec-ed.co.uk/supplements


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