Improve behaviour to improve teachers

In this blog I reveal the secret of great CPD. It’s the holy grail of teacher development and not only does it help improve the quality of our teachers, but it keeps them in the profession. It’s simple: If you want to improve teaching, sort out behaviour.

You can have great teachers, fantastic CPD and brilliantly planned lessons, but unless the behaviour system is clear, consistent and supportive, much of that goes to waste. Here is what I think schools should do about behaviour and how this helps teachers get better.

Have clear classroom expectations so that teachers can actually teach

Teaching is so complicated and getting better at it is hard. Think how difficult it is to give an explanation of a concept to students who have never encountered it before. Imagine how much harder it is when nobody is looking or listening. In that situation, instead of getting better at explanations, we have to get better at something different: explanations for students who won’t listen. There’s a skill in that, but why should we have to develop that skill?

If the behaviour system is clear and supportive, teachers are not spending their time dumbing down content to make it more ‘engaging’, they’re not spending lessons negotiating with students about rules and sanctions, and they are not creating lots of individual classroom routines and consequences. Some systems have three or four steps before any kind of a sanction is given, and even then the sanction is unclear or decided by the teacher. Our system is one warning and then a detention. It works.

There is an argument that says that relationships should come first, and that sanctions get in the way of that. Relationships are so important in teaching, it is true, but it is difficult to build relationships with students who are allowed to misbehave and impossible to establish rapport with the others in the class when you are dealing with their disruptive peers.

Leave the administration of detentions to others in order to free up teachers’ time

Teachers should not be arranging and manning detentions. (Then rearranging them when students inevitably don’t turn up.) We have central detentions every day, manned by SLT, and organised by admin staff. A lot of people put in a lot of effort to ensure they run smoothly, but not classroom teachers. Classroom teachers should be freed up to concentrate on what they are really good at, what they are trained for and what they are employed to do: teach. That freed up time can be used to improve teaching.

Let new teachers teach

Why should it be a rite of passage that new teachers (new to the profession or new to the school) have to battle through the first few months? It’s hard enough getting used to so many new aspects and then on top you have to deal with poor behaviour. Teachers do need to learn their craft, but this applies to those of us who have been teaching for a much longer time too. If you make it easier for new teachers to teach, you ensure that students behave in their classroom in pretty much the same way they do in the principal’s classroom.

It comes back to that idea of what teachers are actually getting good at. There are all sorts of behaviour management techniques that help, even when school behaviour is generally good, but behaviour shouldn’t be all that new teachers have to think about and the only thing that improves.

Support teachers who use the school system

People leave the profession because of poor behaviour, which is likely to actually be poor behaviour which is tolerated and excused by leadership teams. What makes some of this worse is the strange idea that teachers who give out detentions are bad teachers. It is a ridiculous thing to insist that teachers follow the systems and then tell them off for it. If you are struggling to teach in a school with no practicable behaviour system, then told off for trying to tackle behaviour, you will quickly start to- have to- tolerate poor behaviour and then what is the point? We should never ever blame teachers for poor behaviour. In fact, those teachers who follow the school systems should be praised and held as examples for others to see.

While a good behaviour system will have few grey areas, there may have to be some wiggle room on occasion. Sometimes there may be a pragmatic response to a situation that must be taken-professionals should be allowed to take this course where appropriate. And I don’t believe that teachers are infallible- there are times when I could have handled a situation better and de-escalated it. In a supportive culture, we can be open about our misjudgments and seek to rectify them.

I am grateful for the work that the behaviour team in my school put into allowing me to just teach. It makes my job as CPD leader much easier and it is making me a better classroom teacher. Behaviour isn’t perfect (because it is a school!) but everything is in place to allow for good behaviour, and good behaviour leads to great teaching.

 

Practising classroom routines

On Thursday I took a walk around the school during a lesson changeover. Students were walking out of lessons quietly and calmly, teachers were greeting their new classes as they arrived, and within 3 minutes work was taking place. Every lesson was different, but there was a consistency that meant that it was easy for students to learn. This wasn’t left to chance; it was the result of two hours of dedicated practice of classroom routines seven days earlier.

Our routines are so important, but when systems and routines are the sole preserve of the classroom teacher, we get inconsistency. And inconsistency is unfair. It’s especially unfair on the students, because they don’t know what to expect. Behaviour that is acceptable in one lesson suddenly merits a sanction in another lesson. It’s unfair on the experienced teacher who works tirelessly on developing their own classroom routines that are not followed elsewhere. It’s unfair on the new teacher, who needs to create classroom routines on top of the many many other things they must do. It’s unfair on the Teach First participant or the cover supervisor, who haven’t got the benefit of established routines.

So a school approach to classroom routines helps to ensure that consistency. At Dixons Kings Academy, we have tried to unpick the moments in lessons that could benefit from shared expectations and routines, from the habits for individual, paired and group work to the shared routines for mini whiteboard use. Yes, some elements are prescriptive – scripting of how we bring a class to silence for example- but these routines are designed to make it easier for teachers to teach the way that works best.

If we say a routine or expectation is important, then it can’t just be sent out in an email or relayed as a ‘policy’. It needs to be exemplified and practised, which is why we dedicated time to practising our entry and exit routines on our first day back. In addition to building consistency, practice shows us where we are going wrong (or where we might go wrong) and need to improve, but also helps reinforce what we are doing well, making us more confident and comfortable in the classroom.

We practised how teachers line students up, how they greet them, the way they bring them into the classroom, and complete the Do Now activity. We then practised how to end lessons (standing behind chairs in silence, teacher scanning the room to ensure that it is tidy, an orderly dismissal).

It’s a simple practice method. We share a model of what is expected, staff practise once through in groups of about six, receive feedback then repeat. Everyone practises, and everyone feeds back at least once. While the models that we practise are carefully considered, they are open to feedback, and practising will often identify the flaws, creating better models in future.

The group that I practised with had a couple of new members of staff. The practice was useful for them in internalising everything they had been told about- and as you might expect on the first day back- they had been told a lot. Think of that first lesson when students are sizing up their new teacher and the teacher starts the lesson just like the experienced senior leader. Immediately, the new teacher carries just a little more authority. For me, as someone who seems to forget completely how to teach by September, it was great to warm up. I won’t have my own classroom this year, so my entry and exit routines have become even more important. The practice session allowed me to consider things that I may have otherwise left to chance. For example, where do you stand at the end of the lesson? How do you move around the room? How do you dismiss classes from your classroom? How does this change in a completely different room? I don’t think that these are trivial questions at all.

There are more things to practise of course, and we won’t spend every session on the absolute basics, although we should never become complacent. With a relatively small amount of time spent on embedding simple whole school routines, we free teachers up to concentrate on the complex art of teaching.

Next week: how we practise in subjects.

Behaviour- 3 things you can control

I write this post as much as a reminder to myself after a few challenging lessons as it is advice to others.

There is nothing low level about lessons where you cannot talk without interruption and low level disruption is one of the most harmful things in our schools. When you have that class, you can feel completely overwhelmed and no matter what you try, nothing seems to work. You receive advice like ‘plan well and behaviour takes care of itself’ but that isn’t a helpful comment to hear when you are a hard working professional, especially if the implication is ‘plan fun lessons and they will behave’. There are all sorts of effective behaviour management strategies to de-escalate- and I swear by some- but they mainly work on individual students and are no use if the class just won’t listen.

Some things are not under your control: the state of mind students are in when they arrive in the classroom, school behaviour systems, the time of the day etc. You need to take comfort in the fact that there are some things that are very much under your control. Focusing on these things will help you improve the climate in your classroom and will allow you to remain calm, knowing that the behaviour will improve.

The seating plan

You decide where students sit. The simple act of placing students in a seating plan indicates that you are in charge. The symbolic aspect is important, but there are obviously far more benefits.

Most low level disruption is caused by chatter or students looking at each other. You should identify combinations that you don’t want and separate those students. Place them as far away from each other as you can possibly get away with. Even when they are far apart, check for eye-lines. Sit down in your classroom and identify where your ‘blind spots’ are. I have computers in my room which help me to block students off but which also create blind spots I need to be aware of. Surround your most challenging student with positive peers. Do whatever you can and insist students follow it.

You should see a seating plan as a constant work in progress. If it doesn’t work, change it. Swap students around. If you feel at any point it needs changing, then change it. Students complain and will always try to sit where they want to. Be resolute and insistent- it doesn’t mean that you can’t move someone if they speak to you at an appropriate moment and explain a situation you were not aware of e.g. a previous incident of bullying.

The phone call home

I have learnt that 99% of parents are incredibly supportive. They want exactly the same thing for their son/ daughter as you do. A phone call and a quick conversation can often be the only thing that is needed to keep them on track.

You can find out things that help too. Once, I had a challenging student who I could barely get into the classroom. I found out from his mother that he wanted to be a zookeeper and from the moment that I talked about animals with him, he was a model student.

Changing the atmosphere of a class isn’t just about phoning the parents of the students who display the worst behaviour. You should make positive calls to the students who are doing the right things. You do this because they deserve it, because it’ll make you feel happier and because it will keep them on your side. There are a number of students who will get one or two warnings in your class but never a detention. Phone their parents too because they are ruining your lesson every time it happens.

If you are ever greeted with hostility, just keep the conversation about the specific behaviour displayed in the lesson. It isn’t an attack on the student, it isn’t a comment on them as a parent- it is a specific behaviour that is the problem. Don’t be defensive- you are making the call because you care. If you think that the conversation may be hostile, make it with your head of department present (or another more senior member of staff)and prepare responses to negative comments. For example, ‘What is he going to need R.E. for?’ or ‘She only misbehaves in Maths so it must be a personality clash.’

Remember that this all part of building teacher reputation. You want students to know that you will phone home. An initial flurry of calls home can have the required effect and you may never need to make a negative call again.

Feedback

Books don’t answer back. Writing doesn’t chew. You can give feedback to students without any arguments and you should place marking the books of your most challenging classes at the top of your list.

Obviously, when you have a challenging class, the conditions under which feedback is received may be difficult to manage. But when you are struggling to get the attention of the class, feedback in books sends the signal that they matter to you. Despite the behaviour that they have displayed, you will continue making them your priority. I find that most pupils appreciate this and slowly but surely they come on board.

When the books of your most challenging classes find their way to ther bottom of your to-do list, they can end up looking pretty awful: graffiti, dog ears, pages ripped out. Marking books means that you can get on top of these things. If you allow books to get this way, it is another subtle signal that basic expectations don’t matter.

 

I am not suggesting that there are not wider issues in play. Everyone in a school has a part to play and we do need to think carefully about our lessons and reflect on our own practice. We must de-escalate using language and movement and we must escalate using the behaviour system. But when those things are not having an effect, we need to keep fighting the battles that are ours to win.

 

Building classroom routines

I have been considering classroom management this week for a number of reasons.  First of all, I am going to deliver a training session on it and I have been thinking about the focus.  I will certainly discuss de-escalation strategies and language- see this blog from Tom Sherrington- but another focus will be routines.  I think good routines are essential for calm classrooms and they are also essential to create the climate for outstanding lessons.  Often, school is the most routine thing in some of our students’ lives and, while they may never admit it, I am sure that even the naughtier students crave teachers where the classes are ordered and learning can take place.

Secondly, I have a couple of classes which I feel are not making the progress I would like and I can see that this is partly because, for various reasons, my classroom expectations and routines are not ingrained.  I filmed myself teaching one of these classes yesterday and it was clear that I wasn’t following my own routines.  (Also clear was the fact that I have to establish a healthy eating routine!) So part of the reason for writing this post is for me to develop these areas of my practice- to look at the routines that work effectively in most of my lessons and apply them to areas where they are not established.

Charles Duhugg’s fascinating book, The Power of Habit, goes into some detail on how routines form, how they work and how they can be changed.  He speaks below about his own experience and the habit cycle: ‘cue>routine>reward.’

I suppose the reward is that classrooms are calm, positive, efficient places where students learn.  It does take time and concerted effort to make sure these routines take hold, however.  This post from Alex Quigley looks at the idea in a wider school context.

I’m not a fan of formal lesson observations but I do appreciate that they remain a part of teaching.  If you have your classroom routines established then you know that you have a good chance of a positive outcome.  Routines are evident in exercise books through good progress and I do know of Ofsted inspectors who have asked the students, ‘is this a typical lesson?’

So where do we need to build routines and what should these be?  Here’s my top ten:

Meet and greet at the door: Line the students up, make sure they are wearing the correct uniform but most importantly, talk to them and say hello.  Deal with any issues outside before they come in.  You are indicating that you are the sort of teacher that insists on the rules but that you are happy to see them too.  I appreciate that some teachers don’t have their own classroom so find it hard to get there before the students but there is still no reason why they shouldn’t be lining up and have a settled start.  Find ways that work for you.  I know of an MFL teacher who asks students to stand behind chairs.  It’s not for me but it works for her.  I will never ask a student to write down a learning objective but I know teachers who use this as part of their routine with difficult classes.

Transitions: Work out routines for moving from one stage of the lesson to another.  I love when primary school teachers clap in a rhythm and the students have to respond.  The old hand raise can also be used although I hate when this is used in teacher training to shut up teachers (but it does work!)  I like a leisurely count down from 5 to 1.  It goes something like this: “5…4…and just finishing off your conversations…3…and putting pens down…2…everyone facing me…and 1…brilliant, thanks.”  It is also good to move into position at the front of the room as a cue.  Some teachers use music and others use a call and response.

Active listening: When you are speaking to the class, insist on full attention with pens down.  Keep insisting on this and it’ll become established.  Nag nag nag about it and also expect them to track you as you walk across the room.  Don’t allow anyone not to show you they are listening.  Once you allow this, more will follow and you will have more and more students who don’t know what they should be doing.  This video, advertising Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion– a book full of routines- shows this in action:

Equipment: Art teachers have this nailed because the equipment is essential- they count out pencils and rigorously police the equipment. Go and visit them or a Technology teacher to learn their routines.  I am fortunate to have a set of laptops and use students to check them, count them, plug them in etc.  For students without equipment, there are a number of responses.  One colleague of mine makes students write in a brown pencil when they forget their pen.  It means that they can chase this up when marking if it happens more than once.  I also hand pens to repeat offenders which they keep in their folders.  The only surefire way to make sure students have the correct equipment is to chase every incident up but it is time consuming.

Handing out books: Work out your best routine for handing out and collecting in exercise books.  I have 7 tables.  At the end of lessons, they put them in table piles, then bring them to me as they leave.  It takes 20 seconds.  Then they can be handed out really quickly next lesson because they are in table groupings.  If you can reduce the time spent on these parts of the lesson, then you have more time for the proper stuff.

Acting on feedback: Establish routines for acting on feedback.  I go into some detail about my routines for the whole process here.  Make it a habit for students to read and act on feedback.  They really value this when they are accustomed to it and getting this right will lead to massive progress.

Teach group work: Bad group work is really really bad.  It is impossible for group work to be effective at all if students don’t know how to work in a group, what their roles are and how these roles combine into a productive group.  I like the following: ‘Scribe’-writes everything down; ’Reporter’-presents findings to class;  ‘Chairperson’-leads discussion; ‘Envoy’-sees what the other groups are up to. All students are involved in the discussion.  Kagan structures are worth exploring and jigsawing (from David Didau) is another routine worth teaching.  The key is to teach group work skills explicitly and revisit.

Marking: You need to establish routines for marking.  When should you do it?  I set aside Sunday afternoons for some of it but most of it I do the day it is handed in or before the next lesson with a class so it is completely fresh.  I have to plan for this so that I have time but I rarely have any of those days when I’m marking literally every waking hour.  Marking also makes it very easy for me to plan the next lesson, especially when much of it will be spent acting on feedback.

Questioning:  As an English teacher, I love a good class discussion.  To get this right, you need routines.  I use lollipop sticks to select students and they know that I won’t accept ‘I don’t know’.  This has forced them into a habit of thinking which some do not have in class discussions when it is hands up.  This blog from Rachael Stevens also has some great questioning routines.

Modelling: This one is less about classroom management.  In each subject there are methods which should be used repeatedly.  For example, as an English teacher, I am asking students again and again to respond to texts.  I show them examples but, more importantly, I model the process.  I don’t just do it once and accept it is learnt because students need to practice.  This goes for any other aspect of the subject that is required and doesn’t stop with the subject specific stuff.  We should regularly model peer assessment, redrafting, presentation etc.

Routines won’t make students learn anything but they will make it much easier for them to do so.  Oh, and if anyone has any good ideas for establishing good homework routines (or anything else) then I’d love to hear them.

 

 

 

Disagreeing with myself

I have spent quite a lot of my time recently working on our school’s teaching and learning magazine:  the last minute edits, page order revisions and the ridiculous process of naming the magazine have taken their toll.  Copies were handed to staff on Tuesday and I breathed a sigh of relief.

One of the biggest issues that weighed on me was that when I printed the copies, my views, ethos, ideas etc were final.  More than this, the school name was attached so what was written in there almost instantly became part of what the school stands for.  While the electronic copy could be edited, that version I gave to staff was physical and unchangeable.  Therefore I had to ensure that I could stand by what I wrote.

But…I have no idea how my views on teaching will change.  I guarantee that if I read the magazine in a year’s time, I will disagree with myself on some specific ideas. I find some of my earlier blog posts naive and they were only written 6 months ago! However, I hope that my overarching ethos, that of collaboration and developing teachers doesn’t change.

One of the things that makes a great teacher is clear confidence that you are right in what you do.  You can’t second guess everything.  However, disagreeing with yourself is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign that you are open to new ideas and able to change your mind when evidence or experience leads you down another path.

So, on this theme of changing beliefs, below are 5 occasions when I have been absolutely sure of something, but where I disagree with myself now.

“As soon as ‘they’ come in, do a mini plenary”

‘They’ in this case being Ofsted.  I have said this on many occasions in recent years as I was convinced that ‘it’s what Ofsted want’.  (I wrote here about Ofsted not prescribing a teaching methodology)  The idea around demonstrating progress is sound, but creating fake opportunities to show progress which in fact hamper progress is a real issue.  Oftsed actually went to steps to decry this in their report on English. (I recorded a podcast on this last year.  Nobody listened to it.)  Now I stand by the fact that the progress is evident to see in exercise books that are marked well.

“If you plan good lessons then the behaviour will be good”

I have said this so many times.  While I still believe the reverse of this to be true and pretty obvious- If you don’t plan well then there may well be poor behaviour- I have been in situations where students disrupt a well planned lesson and I have observed lessons which have been destroyed by factors outside the teacher’s control.  Sometimes the lessons are great but the behaviour management is poor.  Behaviour management is different from lesson planning and this shouldn’t be ignored.

We know students like certain things and there are activities etc which may well lead to better behaviour.  We know that you must take into account the needs of individual students when lesson planning.  However, behaviour management is a skill that needs to be developed too.  I rarely observe badly planned lessons.  It is an unhelpful piece of advice to give someone after they have struggled with poor behaviour.

“Teacher talk is bad”

It can be but isn’t always.  I have seen teachers engage students with passionate talk and skilful questioning.  I have watched as teachers model the writing process.  I have also had really active lessons myself with minimal teacher talk where the students may well have had a nice time but they didn’t learn things.  I wouldn’t encourage it as the only method, and it is a poor method when it is just a teacher lecturing students, but if it works then why shouldn’t you do it sometimes?

“You should always share the learning objective at the start of the lesson”

I have been scathing in the past of teachers who don’t have the learning objective written on the board.  Nowadays, I’m just sick of students interrupting at the start of lessons to ask what the WALT is.  My lessons always have clear learning objectives, but I’ll share them how I want and when I want.

“Kids will get what they deserve”

In my first couple of years in the profession, I was a poor teacher.  One of the reasons was very low expectations of students.  I believed that students got what they deserve and this was rooted in the culture of the department.  Students routinely handed in incomplete coursework folders and there was zero intervention.  We just taught them and ‘they got what they deserved’.  What I later realised was that ‘what they deserve’ is different to what they can get and that my job was to make the difference.  Students actually deserved the teachers to care about them even if they didn’t seem to care enough themselves.  Now, our English department gets outstanding results with the same broad pupil demographic.  (I am still in the same school).

Now, I wonder how long until I disagree with this blog post…