A lot of talk today on twitter about new starts in September, I replied to a tweet from Science NQT Mr_J_Zahn asking for tips on introduction lessons with a new class for September and I starting writing a tweet reply, which became a reply thread, which even when I was done didn’t say everything I wanted to, so decided to write this blog instead.
Firstly, we need to find a way of this not being a question asked by NQTs. We need to get NQTs into classrooms to see teachers do this for real. I know the first day of term would be an inconvient day to bring student teachers into school, but it would be so powerful for them to see how this is done well by experienced teachers. I understand that this time is probably when teachers themselves feel most vulnerable and perhaps don’t want to open their doors to inquisitive visitors but, I for one, would happily open my door in such a situation.
During my NQT year, my first lessons with classes were, in hindsight, a disaster. I was far too jokey, too eager to be their favourite teacher and I let them make too many decisions. It took quite some time to win those classes back in terms of respect and behaviour. I was lucky that the compliant classes of the Grammar School I was working in were fairly easy to win back, but I had to work harder than I needed to, at a time when my Sisyphean ball was heavy enough without steepening the slope. In the summer after my NQT year I read Tom Bennett’s Not Quite A Teacher, and immediately wished I’d read it the year before my NQT. The following quote in particular resonated with me as if Tom had secretly been watching my lessons all year.
If you meet a new class and you give them any indication whatsoever that you’re Coco the Friendly Teacher, then they will mug you like a drunk in Soho. I mean it. Even the nice kids like a bit of sport.
The next year I was moving to a non-selective school and knew that my classroom management game needed to step up. I took most of the suggestions from Tom on board that year and have modifyed it slightly over the last few years. I’m fairly happy with how first lessons go now, and I give this advice to PGCE students I mentor when they start with my classes, and strongly suggest they do the same with all the classes they’re taking. If I’d been concise with my reply to Mr Zahn’s tweet, I’d have said;
The primary purpose of the first lesson is to show you’re in charge in your room and that you care about your students and their education.
But it would have had no details of how to achieve this, so this is how I do it. I hope it falls into the #WarmStrict category of things…
Some people might suggest you take your classlists around to other teachers to get their take on the students or take a look at personal data or their prior attainment data, but I try quite hard not to do this. September is a fresh start for everyone and I know I’d not be too impressed if someone listed all my previous failings and handed them out to the kids before we started, so I try to give them all as blank a slate as possible. I’d rather not know who has previous behaviour issues, or has badly underperformed. I do quickly look up SEN and mark these on my class lists especially if you need to leave a space in your seating plan for a Teaching Assistant. My school policy is that I mark Pupil Premium on my seating plan too, but I really wish I didn’t have to and I try to forget this when dealing with students. However, you should comply with the letter of your school policy though. The first day with a new class, particularly in your NQT year is not the time to fight an idealogical battle with your SLT; though you should take up that battle at a more appropriate time.
Use your class lists to make a seating plan. Again, there might be school policies to comply with, but for me, for my first meeting with a new class anything goes. I try to avoid alphabetical, as that seems to put those who regularly sit in alphabetical order with people they already know well. If I do know I’ve got a tricky behavioural customer or two (perhaps it’s a new seating plan later in the year, or I’ve taught a few of the class before) then I use my bingo card to fill in the four corners first to maximise the distance between them, but basically I fill them in randomly. I print all my seating plans and then staple them together and basically carry it around constantly as my aide memoire for about the first three weeks.
ProTip: I copy my class lists into Excel, then have a blank seating plan template in Excel so I can just copy list into the side of new plan then drag them across into the plan, rather than type them out.
Before the class arrive I place new exercise books, book inserts such as links to online resources or periodic tables to be stuck in along with glue sticks on each desk. I then write clear explicit instructions on the board. I draw the front cover of the book showing what I want them to write on the front (Their Name, Form Group; Subject; Dr Wilkinson). With Year 7s I sometimes get them to write the days of science lessons “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday” underneath to help them remember to bring their books in on those days. Next to this I put the instructions for where the inserts are to be stuck.
Bang on the bell going, I meet the new class outside my room and have them line up in silence. The science block at my school is a bit of a confusing warren, so I do a quick mental headcount and wait if significant numbers are (in)advertently late, and then let them know that now they know where my room is, tardiness will no longer be tolerated. I welcome the students, introduce myself and tell them that when they enter in a moment they’ll be lining up along the back wall of my classroom in silence so that I can put them in a seating plan.
They come in and line up. If they don’t do this in silence they go back out again, and try again. I’ve never had to have a third attempt. This is a great opportunity to show that you are in charge and you want your instructions followed explicitly.
Once they’re in I explain that I’m going to go along each row in turn reading out the name of the student I wish to sit in each space. “Only when I’ve completed the whole row do I want anyone to move”. I read out the names slowly and clearly placing my hand on the blank exercise book at each position as I read the names. I send back anyone who moves before the row is finished, 8-10 moving kids make a lot of noise even if their mouths are silent, don’t try and talk over the noise. “Front row take your seats”. It feels slower, but I’m sure it’s faster than projecting the seating plan and letting students find their seats. Even if it is slower, it’s definitely calmer.
“Front row, you can now follow the instructions on the board in silence while I read out the names of the second row.” Repeat for subsequent rows. Everyone is now sat down and the front row should have completed the personalisation of their exercise books and be sat in silence. It’s currently the only state of being they know in this room and thus it’s rare for students to have started talking. “Did I say, discuss the cover of your book with your neighbour?”
Give the back row a minute to catch up, then I ask for their attention with my classroom catchphrase; “Show me you’re listening.” I explain this phrase is different to “silence” since they could be silently writing, or fiddling with a ruler or gluestick which has their attention instead of me and thus they haven’t shown me that they are definitely listening. We all agree therefore that “Show me you’re listening” means stop what you’re doing, stop talking, hands empty and look at the teacher.
I then introduce myself again, tell them what we’re going to learn today, unblank my projector which shows the title of today’s lesson, the date and a starter, and off we go. No gimmicks.
The starter activity or quiz for this first lesson should be something that everyone can at least start… an easy quiz on last year’s work, a list of something where there’s some easy options and more difficult ones; but if you throw something too difficult up here you’ll lose them, especially if you say “Oh this is easy – you should have learned this last year.” If they can’t do it, say “That’s OK, you’ve probably just forgotten it, perfectly normal part of the learning process”, then reteach and question the class to tease out what they do know. Do not plough on. But this isn’t special to lesson one, this is just good teaching practice. In this regard lesson one is the same as lesson two and three. I don’t waste time with a game or “get to know you” activity. I care too much about their education to waste their time.
What is special to lesson one is that while students are completing the starter I quickly walk along the rows doing two things; firstly I check students have underlined the date and title, a minor thing perhaps but if you set high standards for their work today, then you have set your expectations for they whole year at this high level. Secondly I ask each student what they’d like to be called this year in my class. “Do you prefer Thomas or Tom?” “Apologies, did I pronounce your name incorrectly at the start, what’s the correct pronounciation?” I make alternations to my seating plan accordingly so that I can remember and use their preferred name.
It’s a small thing perhaps, but it’s a really strong sign that you respect them as individuals. I’ve found students who much prefer to go by their middle name, or an unusual shortening of a common name, others who really dislike their name being shortened. It’s something I had a torrid time with personally at school, being called “William” or worse “Will” by teachers who never asked how they should address me. Anyone who cared about me or knew me at this time called me “Billy” so in my mind those calling me by anything else neither knew me or cared about me. It’s really not rocket science, yet I still see reports after a whole year of teaching where students are refered to by names they or their parents never use to describe themselves.
The second purpose of my walk around is that I nearly always find students on the walk around who’ve swapped places from my seating plan. Always by accident, “Oh, I though I was here” and yet despite the accidental nature they are always reluctant to swap back. Strange that. But I insist they swap back, because this is the first day and it’s their way of testing whether they can bend the rules slightly. They’re testing whether they can be in charge instead of me. But they are not in charge. I will not let them win even the smallest victory today on their terms, because I will have subconsciously told them that they are in charge.
That’s about it for my first lesson, I then continue as normal. I don’t waste time with an ice-breaker, I don’t monotonously go through dozens of rules, most of which are applicable across the school and some of which won’t apply until we do practical work – I’ll go through those when it matters. I won’t make them blindly copy a list of rules or demonstrate their best handwriting. For now I get them in, show them that I’m in charge, that I care about them as individuals and that I care about their education, so we’d better get started.