Of course my subtitle is slightly tongue in cheek but I think will resonate with many Secondary school teachers. I’m actually part of a rare breed in the UK, a middle school teacher. Whilst middle schools have not really taken on in the UK, as opposed to our neighbours across the pond, I really do think they do the world of good for pupils. A halfway house between leaving primary and starting a huge secondary school. Sadly, however, those of us who think that are in a minority and those in charge definitely do not like middle schools so they are being shut down one by one.
But let us not dwell, whilst there are pupils to teach, engage and enthuse my job goes on! These are my top 5 classroom tips for a happy, successful classroom. I will be writing these from a Secondary perspective as once pupils hit puberty keeping them engaged is all the harder!
1. Grab your pupils by the throat the moment they enter the room. No not literally, please don’t do that or there will be trouble ahead and not in the moonlight, dancing, romance sort of way (admit it you started to sing it too). What I mean is first impressions DO count. The moment your pupils step over that threshold into your domain they must want to be there. Drab classroom displays, formal layouts, Arial black on a white screen are not going to excite anyone let alone 30 14 year olds straight after lunch.
Think carefully about your subject, no matter what it is there will be something there to spark interest. Does it link into popular culture? Are there famous practitioners you can display? My subject is RE so I go for a full sensory attack:
Sight– My classroom is bright, colourful and has a number of permanent displays alongside pupils’ work. This means that there is always something to look at and read when you enter my room. RE lends itself to bright colours so I have used saris, artefacts, posters alongside pupil work.
Sound- I’m a big believer in using music to inspire a lesson.
I will often have music related to the lesson playing as pupils enter the room and have a policy of working music during the lesson. Music = work in my room! There also items in my classroom that make sound such as rainmakers, Diwali sticks and my trusted wind chime, a favourite with my pupils on a breezy day.
Smell– smell is important to our learning. By using smell you can fully immerse yourself into the subject you are studying. Now admittedly this is more tricky in some subjects but in RE incense adds a wonderful quality to lessons. I have a variety of incense sticks and cones dotted around my room, such as Nag Champa and Frankincense. Pupils are allowed to handle and smell these under supervision during lessons and are very popular.
Taste- special festivals have special foods! I have often been seen carting in various delicacies to my classroom around the academic & religious calendar. We have sampled Diwali sweets, Matzo crackers, Seder plate items, Eid celebration food, vegetarian food as served in a langar to name but a few. These extra experiences has added a new depth of understanding to pupils’ work.
Touch- my room is full of artifacts from the 6 major world religions and I encourage their use in lessons. My favourites are my story telling dolls which tell the story of Rama & Sita and also the Temptation of the Buddha. The pupils’ favourites are usually the 5Ks, mainly the kirpan (small sword), they are always disappointed to discover it glued within its sheath!
2. Create a safe environment. I’m not just talking about from a Health & Safety perspective, although this is important too, rather do your pupils feel emotionally safe in your room? Are the encouraged to experiment? Most importantly are they allowed to safely fail? Failure is a part of life and we cannot shield children from it no matter how hard we try. You can encourage good failure by creating a working environment that allows critical analysis of why things failed and how to work to improve. Children who cannot fail safely will learn to fear it and in a secondary environment that can often present itself as “I can’t fail if I don’t try” and a block to education occurs.
3. A thinking classroom is a successful classroom. Critical thinking skills are..well…critical! Enabling pupils to think for themselves, to analyse the information and to critique it is the best achievement as a teacher. Critical thinking is not the preserve of the more able either, every single pupil can become a critical thinker and once the skill is mastered it will open doors to learning. Blooms Taxonomy is key to tailoring lessons to pupils’ needs.
My classroom is very much pupil-led. Due to the nature of my subject there is a lot pupils don’t know but are fascinated to find out. So we go with that, they tell me the areas they want to find out more and I facilitate that. It works very well. So well in fact that I was graded Outstanding by Ofsted in July 2013 (yes in 30° heat and whilst 7 months pregnant!). This approach sounds like hard work and yes it does take a little bit of getting used to but once you are in the swing of it you will find it creates LESS work not more. The pupils are engaged, much more likely to work independently, do research at home to bring in and a lot more interested in their final piece of work. You are there to guide, to assist and mainly to answer any inquiries that arise. I find it a very interesting and rewarding way to work.
4. Boundaries. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Have I made my point? I have a more relaxed teaching style to some of my colleagues, I find it suits me, my classes and my subject better. However there are some things that are set in stone. Hard-fast rules that are not to be broken under any circumstances. RE brings with it a lot of debate and is very heavily influenced by the home life of the pupils. Misconceptions are common place and it is my job to gently guide the pupils through the facts so they come to their own conclusions not those portrayed in the media for example.
5. You have to enjoy it yourself. There is no point turning up each day if you don’t have an enthusiasm for your subject. Yes there will be bad days, and awful days and days you wonder just why you bother at all but deep down you must share your love of your subject. There are always elements of each subject we like least but it is our job as professionals to overcome those so we are doing the very best for our pupils.
This blog post is an entry to the Bloggers Lounge competition: World Class Teachers’ Top Tips sponsored by World Class Teachers, a supply teaching agency who specialise in placing teachers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, America and the UK into day-to-day and long-term teaching positions throughout London.