The foundations of effective teaching

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Resident teaching expert Matt Bromley continues his series of articles offering classroom management and pedagogy advice with a focus on some of the basics that ensure successful lessons.

Aristotle once said that “excellence is not an act but a habit”, and so it is with teaching: the foundations of a successful classroom are built of rules and routines, regularly repeated and reinforced. Rules may not be as sexy as, say, neuroscience, but without these essential groundworks the edifice of learning would simply crumble.

With this in mind, it is important that you firmly and frankly set out your rules on day one, immediately establishing who’s boss – because if you don’t articulate clear dos and don’ts before you start teaching then you will find it difficult to break the bad habits that inevitably fill the void.

Let’s start by focusing on some rules and routines to help manage students’ behaviour...

Always have a seating plan

You should always have a seating plan for every class you teach, adapted for every classroom you teach in. A seating plan serves two purposes: first, it helps you to learn the names of your students because seating them where you want gives you a useful reference point; second, it helps establish your authority in the room by dictating who sits with whom, forbidding the formation of friendship groups – and in so doing, it makes clear that your lesson is a place for learning not for socialising.

If you do not have a seating plan, students will naturally sit next to their friends and, no matter how good their intentions, will find it hard to resist the urge to talk. When groups of friends congregate, there’s a danger that the social divisions that exist outside your classroom will be perpetuated. Your classroom should be a safe haven, a warm and welcoming environment in which every student feels valued, respected and encouraged to participate in learning.

When given the freedom of choice, the less attentive students in a class tend to gravitate towards the back where they can avoid detection. Therefore, without a seating plan, more eager students are likely to surge ahead while less eager students fall further and further behind.

So how should you design your seating plan? The answer is: it depends on what you want to achieve and what you are planning to do in your lesson. 

A safe starting point is to seat students in alphabetical order, perhaps alternating boy-girl-boy-girl. This will help you to learn students’ names and there is a good chance it will split most friendships up too. If you have free reign over the layout of your room, go with the default position: rows of desks – split into pairs – all facing the front of the room. This makes it easier for you to ensure that everyone is on task and makes it easier for your students to see you and the board.

Later, you may want to use your knowledge of students’ progress to guide you, perhaps seating students of similar abilities together so that you can target your interventions, supporting those students who need it the most while also differentiating the work you set. 

Or you might seat higher ability students next to their lower ability peers in order to encourage the practice of peer-teaching. One further consideration is behaviour: as you get to know how your students behave, you might decide to place the naughtiest students nearest to you.

Whatever your rationale, insist on 100 per cent compliance at all times. Do not allow any student – no matter the circumstances – to negotiate a move. That way madness lies!

Learn their names and make a connection 

My second piece of advice is to learn your students’ names as quickly as you can and use their names as often as you can. Ask students if they have a preferred name or (clean, sensible) nickname. You will be surprised how powerful this can be in making them feel valued. 

As well as using your seating plan to help you, you could also ask students to wear a name tag or display one on their desks. Alternatively, you could ask students to say their names each time they contribute to class discussion. You will only need to do this for a week or so.

In addition to using students’ names, make a connection by showing an interest in their hobbies and interests, enquiring about their weekends and evening activities. 

If they play for a school team, find out how they fared last week and offer your congratulations or commiserations.

Make a connection with their parents, too, by phoning home as often as possible – try to make it a habit to make a handful of phone calls each week. Use the calls to give an update on progress, to praise hard work, or to raise parents’ awareness of any behavioural or academic issues. 

Making this effort really pays off over time, particularly when you encounter behaviour or attainment problems later.

Set clear expectations

While we are talking about praising or rebuking students, try to strike a positive balance whereby you reward good behaviour or effort three times more often than you sanction unacceptable performance. 

Where possible, signpost the right actions as a means of highlighting and correcting the wrong ones. For example, instead of saying “take your coat off” or “stop talking and look at me”, say “I can see that John has taken his coat off and that Jenny is facing this way waiting for me to start”.

And there’s never any harm in engaging in a bit of shameless sycophancy: tell every class that they’re your favourites and that you really love teaching them! Share a little about yourself, too; if they see you as a human being, they are less likely to enjoy angering or upsetting you. Bear-baiting is less fun if the bear’s a really nice guy who regularly shows you photographs of his wife and kids!

When you need to sanction a student, make sure you hold firm. Always follow the school’s behaviour policy and do not allow students to negotiate with you or argue about the unfairness of life. Be strong and resolute. Students will sense a weakness if you waver and they will not respect your authority if you back down or don’t see your threats through to the bitter end.

Always be prepared to do whatever you say you are going to do. As such, avoid unrealistic or unfair sanctions that punish you as much as they punish the student. Students will feel just as aggrieved by a 10-minute detention as they will by a half-hour detention. 

Always try to sanction the student who misbehaved rather than the whole class. Avoid at all costs any form of collective punishment because students always, and rightly, consider these to be grossly unfair.

You should also strive to be consistent and fair in what misdemeanours you sanction students for. Set out a list of class rules (or collaboratively agree these with students – they nearly always propose the same rules you would wish to establish, particularly if you steer them in the right direction).

Here are some suggested class rules that you might adopt or adapt:

  1. You must enter the classroom quickly and quietly and take the seat you have been assigned.

  2. You must arrive to lessons with the right equipment.

  3. You must follow your teacher’s instructions – they not you are in charge of the room.

  4. You must listen when other people are speaking.

  5. You must not call out. Put your hand up if you want to speak.

  6. You must not get up from your seat or leave the room without permission.

  7. You must complete all work to the best of your ability and hand it in on time.

  8. You must extend good manners to everyone at all times.

So far we have focused on how to embed the right behaviours from the beginning of the year. Now we will look at establishing regular routines for the beginnings and ends of every lesson...

Establish clear routines for the beginnings and ends of lessons

You can make or break a lesson in the first few minutes. You need to establish your authority and show them that your classroom is your domain. Make students line-up outside – at least for the first lesson – and only enter once they are silent, attentive, and have removed their coats.

Once students have embedded the behaviours you expect for entering your classroom and sitting down, you might want to have tasks readily displayed on the board or on desks so that students can get started as soon as they enter. You should always greet students at the door where possible, and do so with a smile and quick greeting.

The best starter work is that which reviews, consolidates or builds on the work completed in the previous lesson or lessons, and that which is differentiated and requires students to revisit or revise work they had previously found difficult.

Whatever approach you decide upon for the start of your lessons, always try to be in your classroom before your students and have your resources ready to go. Have a lesson planned in advance and make sure you know what you are talking about. If students think you are more disorganised than they are, they won’t respect you or trust you to help them make progress.

Set out clear expectations for the end of lessons, too, and manage them just as keenly as you do the beginning: you are in charge and only you can say when the lesson has finished and students can pack away. 

Rehearse how to do this calmly and quietly until this becomes automatic. Establish routines for who leaves first in order to avoid having a mad rush out of the door. If you need to speak to students at the end, do so quickly so as not to impair the start of the lesson for their next teacher.

And finally...

Remember you are not alone. Your classroom may well be your kingdom and it may well be built on your rules and routines, but nevertheless your kingdom is just one in a league of nations and you are just citizen of the wider world of the school.

For your part, make sure you follow the school rules and obey their policies, you owe it to your colleagues to hold the party line. For their part, your colleagues should support you and advise you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice.

  • Matt Bromley is an experienced school and college leader, an education writer and consultant. He is currently the group director of teaching and learning for a large further education college and multi-academy trust. Visit www.bromleyeducation.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @mj_bromley. His latest book, TEACH, is available in paperback and ebook from www.solutionsforschool.co.uk


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