I very vividly remember being sat in a lecture in our first year of university.
It was autumn term, inside the Adsetts centre at Sheffield Hallam. We were on a three year Primary Education degree. We were first years – which means we were young and sparky, full of enthusiasm and probably a bit annoying.
There was one of our lecturers who – how do we say this politely – we had a general dislike for. They seemed to despise young, perky trainees and loved bashing gongs, triangles or other noisy instruments in lectures to get us to stop talking. I think we just generally felt a little patronised.
This lecturer gave us one piece of advice that year I’ve never forgotten. They talked to us all about the first time you meet your new class and how to gain control in your classroom. We talked about discipline, making your mark and laying down the law. She told us that the one real trick you needed to learn was that, ‘You don’t smile until Christmas’.
I remember looking at my pals and rolling my eyes. How can you work with children and not smile for the whole first term? Ridiculous advice. So I dismissed it.
I’ve come a long way since then and I’ve learned a lot!
On my second year teaching placement I worked in KS1 for the first time. Surrounded by bubbly six and seven year olds, I set out to make them my friends. We read stories and played games in the playground. I loved those kids – only by the time it was my turn to begin teaching they didn’t see me as much of an authority figure and discipline was hard to regain. They didn’t want to work for their ‘friend’ who had lost the presence of teacher by becoming a buddy.
When I eventually qualified and started with my own Y5 class I did things my own way. I approached the class as individuals. It’s so important to learn names and learn them fast. That way you don’t end up blaming ‘Matthew’ for something ‘Charlie’ did. I had my seating plan down to a tee. I’d talked to the previous class teacher and grouped the children in mixed ability groups that didn’t include friendships. We changed seats every half term to avoid contentions between working partners. It seemed to be going well.
At this point in my class, I had only one child with particularly challenging behaviour and I made it my mission to find out about his hobbies, interests and life outside of school. We made him feel liked and wanted as a part of our class and I feel we made a lot of progress with him that year. Still, I did it all while smiling. Children want to test you, but they want you to succeed. I was still rolling my eyes at ‘You don’t smile until Christmas’.
Then I made the big decision to move schools. I had my transition morning with my new class in the July. I was all prepared. Fun activities, getting to know you games and enough Kagan structures to last a life time. Only – it was bedlam.
It can’t just be me, but I sometimes have this nightmare about losing control of the class. The more you try, the rowdier they get and in the end you’ve lost them. You’ve lost control. It’s a terrifying thought as a teacher. At the end of this transition morning I had lost control and was feeling a little deflated.
Upon reflection now, I can see many points in that morning where I went wrong. Simple things like – I’d come from a school where I’d been know for six years, the children knew me and they knew what to expect. I took that for granted and didn’t really realise that my reputation wouldn’t work at my new school.
I let them choose their own seats… I tired to fit too much in… It was just wrong. Plus, then I had the whole summer to reflect on just how wrong it had been. I was lost. For the first time in my career I decided to make my mantra ‘You don’t smile until Christmas’. I was going to go back and go back hard.
To cut a long story short – I spent the whole first half term in a power struggle. I was trying to rule by the law. Every rule was followed, there was no room to budge. I didn’t show them the slightest glimmer of personality or humor, I was almost robotic. And – it didn’t work.
It just wasn’t me. I changed tactics and yet again began getting to know my students. There are some tough ones. One night after a particularly challenging day I went and sat in one child’s seat and thought about what they saw when they were in class. In the last half term we’ve developed two new mantras. I say we – because my teaching assistant is worth her weight in gold.
‘You don’t smile until Christmas’ is canned.
Instead now we’re all about ‘Firm but fair’ and ‘Focus don’t fuss’.
Life is our classroom is a different place. ‘Firm but fair’ works because the children know the rules are going to be enforced. Yet at the same time they know that we’re going to be fair. Every child is treated as an individual, and we’ve got time to talk to them.
‘Focus don’t fuss’ became a much more positive way of saying listen, listen listen! Plus it’s alliteration – winner!
It’s been a real learning curve. I’ve realised a few things now:
- The children have to respect you.
If they respect you they want to work for you. You need them to work for you, so take an interest in them as people and have a little leniency from time to time.
- Firm but Fair
Set the ground rules, in fact make the ground rules as class and then stick to them. If you’ve said something then you need to stick to it.
- Have a seating plan
Ask children who they work well with but use your teacher judgement. Change the seating plan every half term and give the children chance to work with different people.
- Praise wherever possible
Find the good and focus on the good. I know, it’s hard to do! But giving out house points to the children who are on task will encourage those who aren’t quicker than saying ‘start working’ or ‘sit down!’
- If it’s worth making and issue of make an issue
Every day is going to be a hive of activity in your classroom. There are somethings you have to let slide – like the occasional bottle flip. However, if it’s something that’s worth getting to the bottom of then make an issue of it and resolve the issue.
- Be Organised
Organisation is key. If your lesson isn’t going to plan, make sure you know what’s coming next. Stay organised and stay one step ahead.
And when all is said and done – tomorrow is a new day!