Some thoughts for those new to teaching in September

Here are some tips for those new to teaching this September

Set clear rules and boundaries

Your first lesson is critical. It is also something that you are unlikely to ever observe an experienced teacher deliver and so it can be hard to gauge. It is worth making your expectations explicit from the start. Take a little time to go through classroom rules and what will happen if they are broken then be sure to follow-through. Everyone will be watching for the first infraction to see whether you mean what you say.

The exact nature of the rules and consequences will depend upon the culture of your school so you must work this out. You need to know both the official policy and what is expected. For instance, there might be a detention system in place that you are not supposed to use. You may choose to use it regardless but you need to know what you’re getting yourself into. Ask some of the old-hands in the staffroom.

Preempt behaviour problems

You may have stated the rules and consequences but it is far better to prevent poor behaviour than have to deal with it. Have a seating plan. Alternate genders if possible because this disrupts social chatter. If you have a row or table of fidgety boys at the back of your class then you’re doing it wrong. Similarly, it took me far to long to figure out that I should spread the equipment around the room at the start of a science experiment in order to avoid a crush around the trolley. Think through logistics.

Have a task that students begin to work on as soon as they enter the room. I am not a fan of lining students up in corridors – get them inside and working. This should be one of the expectations you outline in your first lesson. It works like pickled ginger in sushi – it cleanses the palette, particularly after recess or lunch and signals: ‘now we work’.

One of your rules should be that nobody else talks when someone is addressing the class. If you are talking to the class and a student is chatting then try slowly walking towards that student. Often this will be enough to signal to them to stop. Also try positive reinforcement. Say things like, “Excellent to see everyone on the back row has begun the starter activity.” Praise has had a bad press in recent years – specifically the idea of praising students for their academic performance rather than effort – and yet this kind of positive reinforcement works well. It leads to better teacher-student relationships, subtly cues the right behaviours in other students and adds to teacher authority by pointing out that plenty of students are doing as asked.

Choose who answers the questions

You should ask for responses to your questions from students whether their hands are raised or not. This operates on two levels: it manages attention and it provides useful feedback to the teacher. Students need to anticipate that they may be called upon at any time to answer a question in a class discussion. You can use a randomiser if you like but the key point is that students should not be able to predict who will be asked a question. This makes them pay more attention and avoids window-drift. By forcing yourself to ask a range of students you also get a much better impression of the understanding of the whole class than by talking to volunteers.

Break it down – teaching

Teachers suffer from the ‘curse of knowledge’. We already know or understand the thing we want our students to learn and so it is very hard to imagine not knowing or understanding that thing. This manifests as systematically underestimating the level to which we need to break things down for novices. Even textbooks do this. One exercise you might want to try if you’re a maths teacher is to write out a worked example from a textbook with a space between each line and then write an intermediate step in each space. Once you have done this, ask yourself ‘why?’ as you move from one line to the next. You need to be able to explain the procedure and why it works and there is a good chance that you were never taught the why or, if you were, you have forgotten it. So you need to think this all through in advance.

In subjects like English there is a tendency to ask students to launch straight into complex tasks such as writing. You might try instructing students to write the first sentence of a paragraph on a mini whiteboard. You could perhaps discuss the best responses and collectively write a paragraph on the board. This is likely to surface more about the students’ approach to writing than trying to divine it later from essays when the students are no longer around to talk to.

If you want students to check their writing then you need to model how to do that and then get them to practice this skill in isolation, perhaps with made-up texts. Then, with their own work, build in a specific time for checking. “Right, you need to stop writing now – you have ten minutes to check for spellings, grammar and poor sentences.” Eventually, this process will become automatic but, until it does, students can only really do one thing at a time.

The principle of training one thing at a time flows into subjects such as history: do students need knowledge to write the essay? Then train (and assess – see next point) the knowledge component separately before bringing it together. 

Break it down – assessment

When you want to create assessment tasks then the obvious models to follow are standardised tests. However, these are not really designed with teaching in mind. They often consist of complex tasks which are fine for forming judgements of overall performance but are quite poor at diagnosing specific difficulties. If a student is struggling with balancing chemical equations then they need to do 20+ chemical equations questions of increasingly difficulty, not the two or three that you might find on an exam paper. In fact, you might not even identify this problem from a whole exam paper. So don’t be afraid of using ‘inauthentic’ assessments as part of the learning process. These don’t have to look like the finished product. Ignore anyone who tries to pejoratively cast this as ‘drill’.

Plan any group work

Group work raises management problems and is therefore best avoided if you are new to teaching. However, it might be inescapable – you may have to conduct science practicals or your head of teaching and learning might be a big Vygotsky fan who has signaled that she is coming to observe you in the first few weeks. And group work can be highly effective if done well because you leverage peer instruction.

The main enemy of successful group work is social loafing: the tendency of some group members to sit back and let others do the work. This is harder to do in pairs so pairs are a good starting point. If you have to use larger groups then you need to be explicit about what you expect each group to achieve. You also need individual accountability so that everyone plays their part. For instance, you might set-up a jigsaw task where different groups research different subtopics. Let them know that one of the group will be called upon to feed back but don’t tell them who it will be in advance.

Choose tasks that cause students to think about the thing you want them to learn

This may sound obvious. It really is obvious. But this rule is violated repeatedly by even the most experienced teachers. Do a task analysis – what does the student need to do to complete this task? Wordsearches are poor because they can often be completed by analysing letters in the grid rather than by thinking about any academic content. Similarly, cloze tasks – fill-in-the-gaps – can often be solved by simply choosing the only word that makes sense in a particular position. To avoid this, ensure that your list of options contains plausible but incorrect words. This will cause students to think about their differing meanings.

Needless to say, spending 45 minutes writing the title of a poster might keep students quiet but they’re not going to learn chemistry that way. Really.

Other reading

This advice is partly based on my own experiences but I haven’t just made it all up. There are a number of places to go to read the research that sits behind many of these points. Firstly, I’d recommend my own book which is a snip at a mere $10.00 AUD. These are my recommendations for other readings that cover the research underpinning some of my points above:

Classroom Management

Breaking it down

Assessment strategies

Group work

Task choice to cause thinking

I have also written more specifically on classroom management here.

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4 thoughts on “Some thoughts for those new to teaching in September

  1. Says something about teacher education when people think new teachers need to be told these basics. I taught a behaviour management subbject in post grad special ed which started with basics like this, and I can’t count the number of times people said “why didn’t we learn this in out original teacher ed”

  2. Good, sensible advice. Wish I’d had this to read prior to my own first day in the field some twenty years ago – instead of the vacuous nonsense that constituted 90% of my Dip.Ed.

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