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.

 

Evaluating the impact of written feedback

A couple of weeks ago I was putting together my slides for #TMSBradford and I took some photographs of mail merge feedback sheets completed by students. (This is one method I use for reducing time spent on marking while increasing impact.)

The problem was, I had to reject the first 3 or 4 examples because they hadn’t actually met the targets in the feedback exercise. Some had written very little and some had completed the feedback incorrectly e.g. used the wrong ‘there’ in a homophone activity.

feedback

This student has attempted the task but has not added all of the full stops.

This matters because it illustrated that the written feedback I had taken time to produce in these cases had zero impact! In some ways you could argue that there was a negative impact as a misconception was allowed to continue.

As a result of this, I then decided to look at a range of my books across all of my classes and look at the impact of my written feedback.

In some books, there was feedback that had no impact on future pieces of work- identified errors continued into the next task. Sometimes the errors were fixed immediately afterwards but appeared further down the line. In both instances, the time spent marking appeared to be wasted and the issues needed to be addressed again.

Of course, most of the time, students did act on the feedback and it is important to track those instances of success and do more of the things that work.

Dylan Wiliam, speaking at the Festival of Education, explained that written feedback is effective but that some studies actually show a negative effect. It is therefore not ok just to do written feedback, it must be of sufficient quality and have a worthwhile impact for it to be worth the time it takes. This is why this extra layer of evaluating the impact of written feedback becomes necessary.

I have already written about the entire process of making written feedback work. I would add the ideas that follow to that sequence so it becomes: before, during, after, evaluate.

Here are my recommendations for ensuring that written feedback does actually make a difference:

Ensure that any written feedback comes with advice on how to improve.

If you say ‘You need to organise writing into clear paragraphs’ then the few students who just forgot about paragraphs will possibly remember next time but the ones who don’t actually know when to take a new paragraph are not going to be able to understand just from that. It needs to come with some guidance on how to do that. Then students need an opportunity to put that guidance into practice. This is clearly the most important stage of the written feedback process so students need to be given time to do this. They also need to develop the mindset of relishing their feedback and wanting to use it to improve. Teachers need to assure students that their feedback is simply the most important thing for them to improve.

After giving feedback, read the responses to the feedback and ensure that any misconceptions are addressed.

Read the response to feedback immediately (or as soon as you can). If you don’t check that they have understood and improved as a result of the feedback then you risk the possibility that the feedback didn’t work. If students don’t improve from your feedback, refine it. Was the wording of your feedback helpful? Were students given sufficient time to read and respond? If a student just didn’t try then you can discuss it with them. This is obviously much more effective soon after the feedback.

If you only write a comment with no opportunity to act on the feedback then it is going to be difficult for you to ascertain whether they have even understood the feedback. Asking students to comment on your feedback or phrasing the feedback as a question might be one way to do that. Even then, you need to evaluate the quality of student responses. A comment of ‘Thanks Sir. I have read my feedback and understand it’ isn’t really that illuminating!

Tackle wide misconceptions in class too.

Take the opportunity to teach things that are coming up repeatedly in your marking. Do this in addition to students acting on the feedback. The feedback is much more likely to stick if it is accompanied by this.

The taxonomy of errors is a good approach to this. Andy Sammons has a couple of blog posts on the subject too: DIY LEARNING: Taxonomy of Errors and Using Taxonomy of Errors for feeding forward. This is my example of common errors in descriptive writing for use with a class.

Ensure that students revisit their targets repeatedly.

There are a number of ways to do this:

Make sure most recent targets are displayed on the front of exercise books or folders. Make them easy to refer to.

Another idea, which I will experiment with next year, is to create feedback bookmarks to be kept in exercise books.

Use the targets to feed forward into the next piece of work. Make this the first thing that you focus on when you mark.

Meticulously record targets for students and monitor them. I RAG them on a spreadsheet- If I don’t I lose track of the targets I have given in the past.

Have routines embedded to ensure students’ targets are memorised. This could be that they answer with their target in response to the register. It could be that you repeatedly ask individuals about their targets. It could also be part of a call and response.

(I’m not interested in students being able to recite these simply so they can say it when someone observing asks them, I want them memorised because I want them to be conscious of what they need to do and then do it in their work.)

Don’t give too much feedback to act on.

Sometimes you will identify a number of things that need addressing. You should be precise with your feedback to ensure that progress is made as a result of the feedback. Write too many targets and there is a danger that they will not be acted on.

Like any area of professional practice, we need to continually refine our approach to written feedback so that we maximise the impact. While I still rate the quality of my written feedback highly, there is still much more room for improvement.

Getting on top of marking

For the first time in my 10 years of teaching, I don’t feel the stress of marking and I hope to explain how in this post.

I’ll start by saying there are no quick fixes when it comes to marking.  You can’t cut corners.  There are some methods to reduce the time spent doing it, but the ways to get on top are more about how to increase the impact of marking.  Mainly, it’s about establishing a different relationship between you and marking.  Instead of seeing your marking as that horrible thing that you have to do on top of all the real teaching, see it as the most important aspect of that teaching.

Regular, high quality marking will:

  • Help students to get better
  • Build positive relationships (they see that you care)
  • Improve presentation
  • Allow you to evaluate teaching
  • Make students value what they do (they know you’ll read it)
  • Improve behaviour (you are a teacher with high expectations)

You can read my detailed post about the specifics of making written feedback more effective here.  Here are my views on how to get on top of marking:

Mark for the students

Forget the book scrutinies and the Ofsted inspections.*  Just focus on making your feedback work for you and your students.  This means high quality feedback which the students act upon.  It means giving them opportunities to meet the targets you set and to use your feedback to develop.  Get that right and then you don’t really have to worry about what ‘they’ want to see because your books are going to show that students are learning. You can spend your life trying to second guess what people are looking for but the fact is that no one can argue when students are clearly improving.

I have been involved in looking at colleagues’ exercise books and, trust me, there’s nothing worse than seeing lots and lots of red pen (or green or whatever) which is never read.  I’d rather see less of it but the feedback being used effectively.  If you ever find yourself having to take home 3 boxes of books because you have received ‘the call’ then I think you have your priorities all wrong.

Marking is planning

I always used to prioritise lesson planning over marking.  Now, I prioritise both by ensuring the students act on the feedback.  They either complete an activity or redraft-or both.  The rest of the lesson is built around any other misconceptions evident in students work. The next few lessons are sorted too because you know what to teach based on the work produced by the whole class.  You are saving time because the next lesson is planned and you are making your lessons more efficient because they are truly tailored to what students need to learn.  David Didau writes about his ‘marking is planning’ mantra here.

Without marking students’ work, how do you really know what to plan anyway?

Mark regularly but selectively

Be selective in what you mark. There is no point in marking a spelling test that they self marked.  I would generally give good quality feedback every 2-3 weeks.  Usually that would be for extended writing which is the culmination of planning, drafting, editing, peer marking etc.  This isn’t a hard and fast rule by the way- just an estimate. I would also add that you should read everything-it doesn’t take that long.  You might find something out that helps build the relationship with that student or you may identify something that you think they need to work on.

Save time on writing out comments

I have written a post on how to use mailmerge here.  I honestly think this is the greatest discovery I have made to make my written feedback more efficient.

I often find that I am writing similar targets for several children.  If it is an essay on poetry, for example, then there are a finite amount of targets for improvement.  This will be especially common if there is a misconception owing to your teaching.  Writing these targets again and again- plus an activity to help them improve takes forever.  Using mailmerge means you can type comments, use copy and paste, and print individual target sheets.  Have a look at the post for more details.

Being able to print out all of my students’ targets like this just saves a lot of faffing in class too.  Print them out and glue them on the front of books.

 

Remember that you are never behind marking

Although I am pretty much on top of my marking, if I were to get behind I wouldn’t waste my time going back in the book and marking work from the past.  Unless the students will read it and do something about it then what’s the point?  Pick up from where you are with the students and give them feedback based on their most recent work.  Of course, you will sometimes have key assignments that you need to mark- controlled assessment is a real pain.

There isn’t going to be a massive negative impact if you haven’t marked some work.  There will be a negative impact on your sanity if you try to catch up on everything once you have fallen behind.

Regular marking makes the experience of marking a pleasure

Bear with me!  Marking is a chore and I won’t go so far as to say I actually enjoy it.  However, I do like when I read a piece of work and the student has ‘got it’.  I like the coming together of our efforts over a year and comparing work at the start of the book with work at the end.  When marking is like this- and it will be if you get it right- then it makes the time burden slightly more bearable.

 

*I’m not naive and understand that there are some pressures to conform to school policies etc.  There’s nothing wrong with doing those things, especially as some of them are not particularly hard to do e.g. sticking marking policies in books.  I have often received helpful feedback on work scrutinies too so we can’t dismiss them entirely.