The death of teaching: Gone in 420 seconds

Written by: Joel Wirth | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In SecEd this half-term, Joel Wirth is looking at common classroom practices that we might consider changing in order to achieve better lessons and better teaching. This week he discusses how we must handle the first seven minutes of any lesson...

Interview days with one of my mentor headteachers were always interesting. He had innumerable strategies to hurry things along (“no subsidiary questions for this one”) and keep everyone on the panel in check (“if I click my pen or put it down, we’re moving them along”).

Of course, he made a point of meeting all candidates first thing in the morning, keen to make and gauge that early impression.

He’d be all smiles and casual charm but, beneath this veneer, he’d be assessing the firmness of a handshake, judging the strength of eye-contact – testing the waters.

As he would say: “You can’t get yourself a job in the first 30 seconds, but you can certainly lose it.”

It’s the same in the classroom.

When I am invited to support teachers with their teaching, I always start by joining the class for the first seven minutes. I’m there when the door opens, and I walk in with the students. I will smile at the teacher, help hand things out.

I’m not averse to whispering an answer or putting a hand up to contribute. It’s always supportive, always relaxed and that’s because the teacher needs to be the professional they are every day of the week.

You can get a lot right in seven minutes. It can go just as disastrously wrong.

Be seen

There are three powerful places in your classroom and none of them is behind your computer or seated at your desk.

The first is at the door. Be there to welcome them in. The second is your power spot: that area in the room that only teacher occupies. It’s that space in front of the whiteboard where you do your teaching (as proof, watch how Jack runs his fingers across the screen as he makes his way to his seat – he knows he’s committing the ultimate trespass!). You move here from the door, reminding them who’s the sheriff in these parts.

For the experts, there’s a third, which you can try once they know you that bit better. It’s against the back wall, facing the board. From here you declare your ownership of “their” space too and subtly orientate the whole class towards the front and the learning that is about to transport them into rapture over circle theory.

Be heard

I once witnessed a teacher open the door for students, welcome them into the room, before retiring to sit in front of their computer to summon the PowerPoint from the ether.
Students milled about in that student-ish way, doing sort of what they should have been doing (sitting down, getting equipment out, putting bags on floor, etc) at a pace befitting of 15-year-olds with far more exciting lives than we have. It was two-and-a-half minutes before the teacher spoke at all. Two-and-a-half minutes!

Students had started talking about those very exciting lives, a few had not settled and were perched near or on the edge of other desks. A pen was borrowed by being thrown across the room.

Two-and-a-half minutes is a lifetime in the course of a lesson. A vacuum like that at the start will suck all the energy, pace and productivity from your lesson.

From the moment students enter, you need to be heard. You don’t need to be standing sentinel (though you might for some classes) and the vagaries of the timetable or the overrun of last lesson might mean that you are at your computer, rousing the Gods of Powerpoint from their slumbers, but yours needs to be the voice that is heard.

Develop a series of professional scripts, mantra you can chant unconsciously at classes to get them settled and leave them in the full knowledge that yours is the voice they listen to in this room.

Try variations on: “Okay, year 8, while I’m (doing x) you’ll be getting settled with your equipment out, your books opened at a new page. I can almost hear the date being written neatly and underlined – also neatly – and I’m sure your bags will all be on the floor when I decide to look.”

Repeat it. Never leave a gap longer than 10 to 15 seconds without them hearing your voice in this initial settling period.

Be out and about

If you are lucky enough to have your own room or to have set up before they have arrived, make sure you own the space. Once you have got going, rather than stand near your desk or board, move between those three powerful areas of the room. Head for the back of the class and continue to teach from there.

This is especially powerful if there’s a task on the board (which, of course, there is) as it maintains the orientation of the students’ attentions and also gives precedence to the learning as opposed to the teacher.

To students, of course, you’re in their area: you belong at the front where that bigger desk and comfier chair are. That’s why Jack touched the whiteboard. That’s the set up they recognise – the fundamental opposition of the system (one person faces the back of the classroom, they all face the front).

Breaking that both firmly establishes that, in fact, all of this space is yours and dissolves some of the inherent conflict in the system by creating a sense of a shared, collective learning endeavour.

In one of the more bizarre quirks of classroom dynamics, there is another space. It lies outside of that area in which you teach and is somewhere you choose: perhaps near the door, perhaps against the side wall. It’s the space to which you walk when you want to indicate that things aren’t going well. Too many interruptions. Too much fidgeting.

When the need arises, you walk there in exaggerated, studied silence. You stand there and you turn to face the class in silence. Questioning eyebrows are raised. From there, once they’ve fallen silent (which they will, if you do it with enough assertiveness), you restate your expectations and you don’t step back into your teaching space until it is all back on track.

Be vigilant

Nothing gets past you in the first seven minutes. Calmly addressing the chewing, bottle of Lucozade in the blazer pocket, minor off-task chatter here will head off many of whatever horrors are to come. Sweat the small stuff. But...

Never stop teaching

This is your domain and nothing stops you. Students should understand that your job is to teach and stopping you from doing that task will bring consequences. Of course, we avoid conflict where we can. A series of non-verbal cues work best and allow you to keep talking. A finger to the lips and “what are you doing?” eyebrows in the direction of a kid muttering to a mate will suffice.

Walking towards the kid chewing with the bin in your hand will fettle that. Keep teaching all the time. Four fingers aimed at the floor will let the kid swinging on their chair know what’s expected of them.

Calmly removing the tapping pen from Tom’s hand (keep teaching and don’t look at him while you’re doing it) will indicate that you even own their stuff. Uniform issues can be pointed out and addressed while you continue to gush about the Contact Process.

Exercise your authority

You own everything: what students do, where they sit, when they talk, who they talk to, the equipment in the room, who moves, and where and when. You hold the conch and gentle reminders of that are important in establishing your authority in an utterly non-confrontational way. Ask a student you know is a role-model (positive or negative) to open a window or hand-out books. Use “thank you” not “please”. Praise and thank them again once they’ve done it.

Put right what went wrong

If there was a problem with a kid last lesson, re-establish a good relationship with them before they have even sat down. Something non-public: a quiet word, a genuine smile, even a slight but obvious nod. Stand near their desk to speak to the class. Place your hand lightly on their desk while you’re doing this.

Know your kids so well that you can establish a point of contact that resets your relationship – ask about their dance classes, favourite team, television programme. Do it quietly amid your louder whole-class instructions. They will implicitly understand the bridge that is being built.

  • Joel Wirth is a former teacher and senior leader who now works as a consultant headteacher. You can read the previous articles in this SecEd series via http://bit.ly/2FERRgR


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