Archive for the ‘Edinburgh’ Category

Classroom Management In Retrospect

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

In our final session of the behaviour extension, we each had to give a presentation that reflected on our journey during our teacher training year and that looked forward to our probation year and our career in classrooms.

The class was split into two groups and we had to attend our session. I attended the other session too because I was interested in what all of my colleagues had to say. I think that learning from one’s own mistakes is an effective way of learning; learning from the mistakes of others is an intelligent way of learning.

Mostly I was saddened by what I heard, including what I myself had said. Very many of my colleagues said that they had learnt to be stricter from day one (not in itself a bad thing) and that they believed that not smiling until Christmas was a plan worth pursuing, in fact one person said that not only would they not smile till Christmas, this teacher wasn’t planning on smiling at all during the first year.

I think this made our tutor sad too (though I may be just projecting). She had told us numerous times that the mantra “don’t smile until Christmas” was misguided and counter-productive.

[Note for people not in the UK: the teaching year starts in September and the first term ends at Christmas, not smiling until Christmas is advice that has been given to teachers in the past – almost tongue-in-cheek – to help create and maintain discipline.]

So why do I think that many of my colleagues said such things? I think it is because classroom management is hard. Positive classroom management requires a lot of energy and sometimes appears to be more disruptive than strict, authoritarian fear. Life as a student teacher (or a probationer) is hard. We are put in classrooms with a supervising teacher making a page of notes in a red pen (I am now convinced that marking in red pen is a bad idea, I had heard it was a bad idea but hadn’t appreciated just how horrible it is until I was subjected to it myself). We have lesson plans to prepare that need to be approved. We have a classroom full of students we don’t know very well. We are coming to terms with the curriculum and the textbooks and the departmentally approved way of teaching a particular topic. We have expectations of ourselves that are very high. We worry about whether we are doing the right thing. When disruptions occur in our classrooms we want them to go away quickly. We get defensive and feel cornered. And we often retaliate. We learn that yelling at students makes them quiet (at least in the short term). So we learn that reactive, defensive behaviour is effective in the moment. Planning ahead to build relationships is too hard. Planning ahead to minimise the likelihood of disruption occurring in the first place is too hard. We do not have the time, emotional energy or space to be able to think proactively and positively.

As some of us progress through our teaching careers I think we will find the space and the time to be able to focus more on positive behaviour. But with very few role models I think it will be hard.

I hope I am being overly negative. I hope the situation in classrooms and for my cohort is much better than I have painted it.

After everything I have experienced over the year, what I have read, what I have seen, what I have done and conversations I have had, I am convinced that positive classroom management is the single most important thing required for good teaching. I believe it is possible. I believe it is valuable. I believe it is effective. But I know that it is difficult and that it requires a lot of hard work and practice.

Classroom Management In Practice

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Classroom management in practice, like most other things, is very different from classroom management in theory. I saw very little practice that related to the theory I’d been reading about. I saw some teachers who were engaging (and had fewer issues). I saw some teachers who were authoritarian to the point of instilling not just fear, but often contempt in their students. I saw teachers who were blind to some of the disruption in their classes. I saw teachers who picked on particular students and overreacted to the behaviour in order to show that they were dealing with disruption and to set an example for the rest of the class. I saw teachers raise their voice to students (sometimes for reasons which I could not discern). I sat in classrooms that were so unpleasant I was watching the clock and counting down the minutes (and I’m a maths teacher who loves maths and loves learning and loves classrooms). I saw teachers send students out of the classroom so often it seemed as if they were getting a monthly bonus for the number of students not in the room.

One thing that bothered me somewhat was that most of the practicing teachers I spoke to seemed to think that theory was a thing you put up with (or avoided) during your teacher training year, and that there was no reason to read any more once you started actually teaching, you learn the rest from teaching not from reading about teaching. I do agree that there is a gap between theory and practice but I believe that as teachers we have a responsibility to close that gap. We should work hard at synthesising theory and practice. An openness to theory allows us to look at our teaching from a different perspective and to make improvements that we wouldn’t be able to make on our own.

I did see some teachers who managed behaviour positively and successfully. But I did not see many of them.

I was in these classes to learn. I was working with these teachers so that I could benefit from their experience. Here are some of the things that I was told to do/not do in class in order to get better at classroom management.

  • you need to develop your “stern and pissed-off” tone of voice
  • don’t ask students to do something (can you please look at the board), tell them (look at the board), if you want to be polite say thanks at the end since that implies compliance (look at the board, thanks)
  • when you ask a student to do something, stand over him and wait until he has done it, don’t walk off
  • if you tell someone off in the same tone of voice twice then you’re only telling them off once, you must escalate your tone of voice
  • you need to show them that you’re top dog

You may have guessed that I disagree with some of this advice. And after trying these things out in practice, I can tell you that I disagree because I don’t like the philosophy of the approach and because these things just do not work for me. In fact, I believe that the reason why I had such trouble during my first placement was because I tried to follow these bits of advice and in doing so I completely broke the relationships I was attempting to form with the students.

I did get advice on classroom management that I did think was valuable and that I did try to implement.

  • wait for quiet before speaking, if you talk when they are you are teaching them that it is ok for them to talk over you
  • think about transitions between different phases of the lesson, think about materials distribution (e.g. give out rulers while the students are working on the starter)

I did have some conversations with teachers who I didn’t see teach. I got some advice from them that I liked (but, as I said, I didn’t actually see them teach so I don’t know how well it worked for them – I suspect well since they had good reputations in the school, amongst the staff and the students).

  • spend the first week or so of each year on community building in your classroom – it may take longer before you start covering the syllabus, but you will be able to move faster if your class works well together as a team
  • ask students to reflect on group work and other activities and share their reflections with the class
  • make students accountable for their work
  • give students the opportunity to make decisions in class that affect how and what they learn
  • de-escalate at the earliest possible opportunity
  • fill your classroom with positivity – you have to sit in it for 7 hours a day, make sure it is a pleasant place for you to be in

I would like to observe a lot more teachers teach. I’d like to see classrooms where teachers are implementing some of the positive behaviour techniques that I’ve read about. I’d like to see teachers building respectful communities in their classrooms.

I still have a lot to learn. I had students and staff in my second and third placements tell me that I was too nice (this didn’t happen during placement one because I was not nice during that placement). I need to get better at laying down clear boundaries and sticking to them. I need to get better at ensuring students treat each other well and that they do not behave in a way that will negatively impact upon the learning of other students.

Classroom Management In Theory

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

I read some interesting theory with regard to classroom management. A lot of the theory talks about being neither authoritarian nor permissive. It talks about being a democratic teacher. It talks about building respect and social skills explicitly in the classroom. It talks about separating behaviour from the student, not nagging the student, looking for the good that students do, praising students, engaging students, differentiating the content of lessons so as not to alienate students. The theory says that shouting at students is counter productive. It says that punishing them inconsistently or excessively is counter productive. It talks about praising students for effort (rather than intelligence). It talks about giving students responsibility for what happens in their classroom and ownership over what happens. There are mixed thoughts on whether it is better to give the students the rules for the classroom or whether they should be negotiated with the students. The theory talks about consistency, fairness, clear boundaries, clear sanctions, logical and natural consequences (rather than punishments). It talks about behaviour being student choice. It talks about de-escalating at the earliest possible opportunity. It talks about giving clear instructions and setting clear expectations for how students should be working.

One of my favourite ideas is positive behaviour narration. (That is narrating positive behaviour rather than positively narrating behaviour – the English language has far too few sets of brackets and scope is often unclear.) This is something that is called different things by different people and is characterised slightly differently by different authors but it is common in the literature. Gerard Gordon, Bill Rogers and Lee Canter being some of the authors who I’ve read who write about this sort of technique.

When teachers want something done we often start by asking (or telling) our students what we want them to do. “Get your pens out.” Some students comply. Others don’t. What usually happens next is that the teacher starts to get a bit annoyed that there are not 30 pens out. “Come on, get your pens out.” One particular student may be particularly recalcitrant. “John, I’ve already asked twice, get your pen out.” With every utterance the teacher gets more annoyed, they nag. The students get annoyed because being in a room with someone nagging at you isn’t very pleasant. The teacher may now start on a sanction routine. “John, this is your last warning, if you don’t get your pen out in the next 10 seconds then you’ll have to stay back after class (or have a time out, or get a detention, or get a letter home to parents, or whatever the next step on the sanction scale is appropriate)”

Positive behaviour narration works a little differently. We start by asking (or telling) our students what we want them to do. “Get your pens out.” Again, some students comply and others don’t. At this point we don’t start to nag. We just start to narrate the positive behaviour we see happening. “The back table have their pens out.” This narration can include praise but it doesn’t have to. “Well done back table for getting your pens out.” Some more students will comply. But there will almost certainly still be at least one recalcitrant student. So what we do next is to pick a student sitting near to John and narrate his positive behaviour. “Peter has his pen out.” John hears Peter getting attention for doing the right thing and hears the request again (sometimes students just don’t hear the teacher the first time). John now gets his pen out.

Many students misbehave because they crave attention. This technique gives attention to the students who are behaving. Some students don’t hear the request the first time. This technique allows repetition of the request in a way that isn’t nagging. The environment of the room is much more pleasant and it is effective.

I liked the idea of this and tried it a few times. It was a bit tricky and felt a bit artificial, and it can be very difficult if the whole class is rather chaotic. But I did have great success with it with regard to a particularly stubborn 12 year old who could take a good 30 mins to get his pen out of his bag. When I used this, he had it out and ready as soon as I mentioned the person sitting next to him. Amazing.

I still have a very long way to go and an awful lot more to read. But what I have read so far does give me hope that positive classroom management is something that I can do.

Classroom Management At University

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

During my time at Edinburgh I did a module called Making Sense of Behaviour. There were only about 20 of us who did it. Not everyone had access to it (scientists spent that time doing general science, aesthetic subjects spent that time doing primary placements, design and technology students spent that time doing more design and technology, etc). Of those who were able to choose a curriculum extension not everyone wanted to do this one and not everyone was able to. The other choices were English as an Additional Language, Outdoor Learning and Representations of Young People in the Media.

But I did Making Sense of Behaviour. So once a week I had a two hour seminar discussing classroom management. I had a book list and did lots of reading on the topic too.

During our maths sessions we talked about classroom management in passing a few times but we didn’t really spend much time on it. During the Professional Studies sessions we also touched upon it in various ways but it wasn’t a major focus. There was one lecture from the lecture programme devoted to Classroom Management. As such there was also one Professional Studies session devoted to it. The lecture, unfortunately, was cancelled and was never rescheduled and the professional studies session was based on a lecture that none of us had seen.

When I mentioned to the powers that be that I didn’t think there was enough coverage of classroom management throughout the course, I was told that this was something better done in school whilst on placement. There is a subsequent post about classroom management in practice and how (in)effective I found it. But whether it is effective or not, it seems to me to be of concern that the teacher educators are devolving this most important of skills to practicing teachers. Granted, many practicing teachers are good at classroom management. Many practicing teachers are good at teaching. Some (but perhaps not many) practicing teachers are good teacher educators. In the same way that being a good mathematician does not necessarily make you a good maths teacher, being a good teacher does not necessarily make you a good teacher educator. Also, very few practicing teachers keep up to date with the cutting edge of teaching theory. That is what teacher educators should be doing. Added to all of that, the teachers in the school are trying to help us with our implementation of all of the subskills that teachers need. In my opinion, their job should be to monitor and feedback on our integration of these skills, it should not be to teach them to us.

Classroom management was an issue I had identified before I did the course as something I knew I needed to work on. Because I did the behaviour extension and because I did a lot of reading I did learn quite a bit about classroom management. Not as much as I was expecting and not nearly as much as I had hoped. But I did learn enough to get me started. My question is: what is the future of those teachers who did not do the extension, did not do the reading and did not identify classroom management as a skill to be developed. I fear that some of them will leave the profession because they feel ill-equipped to manage behaviour, some will become more and more disillusioned and resentful and some will learn a lot from their own reflections on their practice and will observe good practitioners and will develop their skills to become excellent classroom managers. I fear that very few will fall into that last category.

The Importance of Classroom Management

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Classroom management (and behaviour management as a subset of that) is a difficult issue for any teacher. Even experienced teachers can find it difficult. It is a very large cause of teachers leaving the profession. It is a very large reason for teachers feeling resentment towards their students and their job. It is challenging.

It is also something that students identify as a key component of good teaching and learning. So it matters if you’re good at it. It matters because if you’re not good at it you won’t enjoy your job, you’ll get stressed and resentful. It matters because if you’re not good at it you don’t create a positive environment for your students and this may mean they hate you and your classes (depending on the way in which you are not good at it – too hard, too soft). It matters because if you’re not good at it, the learning environment in your classroom suffers (if you are too terrifying the students can’t learn, if you’re too permissive the room descends into chaos and the students can’t learn). These are extreme cases and most teachers lie somewhere on the spectrum. But the examples do serve to highlight just how important classroom management is.

Classroom management is hard. It’s hard because every class is different. And each class is different each day too. What works once for one class may never work again for them, never mind for any other class. It’s difficult because you are trying to juggle 30 personalities in one room. Many of the people in your room have different aims for the lesson. Your aim may be for the class to learn about Pythagoras, theirs may be to catch up on what happened on the weekend, or to get the attention of someone they fancy, or to make life difficult for someone that they are having a fight with, etc. It’s difficult because not everyone thinks that stem and leaf diagrams are important (I love maths, I love teaching maths and I think stem and leaf diagrams are not important; cryptography on the other hand …). It’s difficult because for many students classrooms are unpleasant places. Even if your classroom is nice and enjoyable and positive for them, they may have such bad associations with classrooms that you are at a distinct disadvantage even before they’ve walked into the room. It is difficult because every person who walks into your classroom (yourself included) brings in the history of the day. What happens outside your classroom has an effect on what happens inside (whether you know about what happened or not). It’s hard because as teachers we have to be the adults in the room. We have to put aside our stresses, irritations and exhaustion and give those students and that class the energy and positivity that they deserve. Regardless of how bad the last lesson was, how much sleep we didn’t get because we were up late marking essays, or how annoyed we are with our head of department / head teacher / education minister for the fact that there is yet another initiative that we have to implement. As the adult in the room we have to rise above the childishness that our students sometimes display, even if what we most want to do is to throw our own tantrum and storm out of the room. Classroom management is hard.

Everyone knows classroom management is hard. Good teachers know it. Bad teachers know it. Mediocre teachers know it. The teaching textbooks know it. The newspapers know it. The average person on the street knows it. Students know it. Teacher education centres know it. Or rather they should know it. And if they do know it, they should acknowledge it. They should do something about it. Something big. Something constructive. Teacher education should (if it does nothing else) prepare teachers for dealing with classroom management.

Because this is important. This is more important than knowing the definition of a prime number. This is more important than being able to draw the water cycle. This is more important than knowing the difference between an adjective and an adverb. This is more important than knowing the underlying philosophy behind whichever education policy is in fashion at the moment. This is the most important skill that teachers should have.

And if teacher education is not acknowledging this and is not doing something about it then they are failing not only the newest generation of teachers, but they are also failing the next 40 years of students.

Research Project

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

As a part of my course I have to do a research project. I will be choosing a topic and a question, doing some reading, collecting some data, critiquing the reading, analysing the data and writing it all up. It’s only 4,000 words so it’s not that long. And I will probably be doing data collection during my first and second placements (which are 6 weeks each) so I won’t have much time to collect data. Plus, during those placements there will be lots of other things I’ll be doing too, so it won’t even be 6 solid weeks of full-time data collection.

Before we went to school for observation week, we were asked to start thinking of a topic that might interest us. And to put together an observation schedule that would help us to collect data in the classroom. We would spend some time during observation week trying out our schedule to see what did and didn’t work.

I started to think about my topic and I came up with a short list of 14 things:
* Use of real-life examples in maths teaching
* Text book use
* Use of proof in maths teaching
* Use of rhetorical questions and how they impact upon unanswered intended questions
* Effect of time of day on behaviour and concentration
* Effect of eating habits on behaviour
* Effect of energy levels on concentration
* Calming down strategies employed by teachers
* Use of students’ names in class
* How do the teacher’s movements around the classroom affect off-task behaviour
* Effectiveness of making learning intentions explicit
* Time management / pacing in a class
* Questioning
* Teacher Talk Time, Pupil Talk Time

Now this is quite ridiculous. So I narrowed it down to four. Some from the initial list were too impractical or difficult to measure so I ditched them.
* Use of real-life examples in maths teaching
* Text book use
* Use of proof in maths teaching
* Use of rhetorical questions and how they impact upon unanswered intended questions

I wrote up observation schedules for these four and observed lots of classes. At the end of the week, I’d seen no rhetorical questions at all, only one example of proof (which was wrong), no real-life examples in maths and some text book usage. So it seemed that text book usage was the thing to go for. Except it wasn’t really something I was finding interesting.

What interested me was the difference between morning classes and afternoon classes. And this has interested me since I was a teacher in Cambridge (GCSE maths from 4-6 on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons can be rather wearing). It was also something I found fascinating while I was in Sri Lanka, Grade 3s last period – not fun. Grade 11 just after lunch – difficult.

So I’ve decided to look at that for my research project. I’m not entirely sure exactly what my focus will be yet, but something about behaviour – how many informal warnings and time outs (when a student is asked to wait outside the room for a couple of minutes) there are in a class, and how the teacher feels the class went.

I’d also like to look at different things to do at different times of the day to see if the effect of time of day can be mitigated. But I’m not sure whether this research project is big enough for that. We’ll see.

I like this topic because it applies to me as a maths teacher and it applies to me as an English teacher.

Observation Week

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

The course I’m doing is 36 weeks. 18 of those weeks are at Moray House (the School of Education at Edinburgh) where I go to lectures and tutorials. The remaining 18 weeks are divided up into 3 block placements, the first two are 6 weeks each, the final placement is 5 weeks. The more astute amongst you will have noticed that that only adds up to 17 weeks. Which is true. There is also an observation week which happens before our first placement. It is at the same school as the first placement.

I’m off to a secondary school in Edinburgh called Liberton High School for my first placement. So I also went there for my observation week. I don’t yet know where I will be going for my second or third placements.

I spent a week at Liberton getting to know my way around, meeting the maths department (there are 6 teachers) and getting to know some of the classes I’ll be teaching when I come back for my first placement. There are 4 classes I’ll be working with. Two are first years (year 7 or year 8 depending on which country you’re in – but the first year of secondary school, so they’re about 11 or 12 years old). I’ll also be teaching a second year class. I have been allocated a fourth year class (14 or 15 years old) who are doing higher maths (AS Level, year 11, etc) over two years. I won’t be teaching them when I come back but I will be observing them. To be honest, I may end up doing a little bit of teaching of them, it’ll depend on my workload and how keen their class teacher is to let me have a go.

During my observation week I watched and took notes (about different aspects of teaching). I tried to get to know the names of some of the students. I got to know the names of the teachers (both first name – for the staff room, and surname – for the classroom). I almost got used to saying Ms McGuire when someone asked me my name, but it was tough.

And I also got a chance to teach a class. The school I was in have just finished retesting first and second years. They were being put into new sets the following week. So the week I was there was them playing games and doing various activities, with some students sitting tests as well. On Wednesday after the second year class, John (the class teacher) asked me if I’d like to run a game with them on Friday. I said I would. I asked how long he’d like me to spend doing it. He said I could take the whole lesson. Awesome!

So I taught a lesson on the Friday. I had a few goals in mind. Almost all of which were about me rather than about the students. 🙂 I wanted to work on my time management within the class (sometimes my pacing in a class is a bit rubbish – I get a bit carried away and forget to notice the time). I wanted to use the electronic white board (it’s a type I’ve not used before) for planning and delivering the lesson. I wanted to see if they could work in groups. I wanted to see if my instructions were clear enough.

And it worked! There were of course loads of things I could do better next time, but actually the class went really well. The students were great! And so much fun! We made and played with some tangrams ( And we played maths word bingo too.

So I’m really looking forward to going back to the school at the end of October to see everyone again and to get a lot more teaching hours under my belt. 🙂

The Teacher Training Chicken and Egg

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

So, what’s the best way to teach people how to teach? Do you give them lots of theory in advance of them ever walking into a classroom? Or do you throw a trainee into a classroom and let them find their own way? Most people would probably want a healthy bit of both.

I did it the second way. I’ve spent bits of the past 8 years teaching (maths in the UK and English in Sri Lanka and India). I’ve done ad hoc bits of tutoring. I’ve done short revision courses (1 week). I’ve taught full-year courses. And I’ve learnt a lot simply through doing it.

And now I’m learning about teaching. And the theory is useful to me. One reason is because I have practical experiences that I can pin it to. But another, perhaps more important reason is that there is a lot of low-level stuff that new teachers worry about (projecting your voice, saying the right things, paying attention to the class, dealing with difficult questions, how to physically move in the classroom, what persona to take to class, how to deal with the subject matter, etc). I don’t need to worry about these things to the same extent that new teachers do (or to the same extent that I did when I was a new teacher) and that allows me the mental freedom to be able to concentrate on some of the more complex notions of teaching (differentiation, questioning, pupil-talk time, active learning, etc).

I suspect many people will have different things on their low-level stuff list and on their complex notions list. And that’s fine. But what it does mean is that in order to be able to develop as a teacher, you need to be able to actively concentrate on one aspect of your teaching, and that means that you need to be sufficiently confident that all the other aspects can take care of themselves.

And that’s the position I currently feel like I am in. I can pick a professional development focus for a lesson and really concentrate on that one thing, because I know that all the rest of the stuff that’s going on will be fine even if I’m not consciously aware of it.

But having said all of that, there are some fairly fundamental aspects to teaching that can be taught to teacher trainees before they start that will give them a massive helping hand, and will fast-track their own professional development.

So theory or practice first? I don’t know. Both probably! 🙂

A Paperless PGDE

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

I would like to be able to do my PGDE electronically. And to a large extent I can.

I take my laptop with me to lectures and classes to type up my notes. I am getting pdfs of the readings whenever I can (ejournals are awesome) and am typing my reading notes up too.

I even have a cool spreadsheet (yes, I’m a geek, I know) that helps me keep track of all the reading I need to do for the different components and links to my notes as well. It helps me see what is due when and what I’ve read already, etc.

I’m doing lesson preparation electronically too. I have downloaded the Notebook software that works with Smart Boards.

But, sometimes we are being given handouts in class. So I need to take them home and scan them. Sometimes we have to print things off to hand them in (group lesson plans etc).

And perhaps most irritatingly, one of the most important pieces of assessment for this year is my Professional Development Portfolio (PDP). This is basically a lever arch file of everything: lesson plans, observation notes, reflections, handouts, reading notes, everything. And because of the way this will be assessed (my supervising teacher at the school will look through it periodically, my tutor from Edinburgh will look through it when she comes to school to observe me), it is something that does need to be done as a hard copy. Ah well.

So I’m trying to be paperless. And I’m doing a reasonable job so far. But it would be nice if I was able to be entirely paperless. I don’t see that there is any reason to kill trees in order to create a massive pile of paperwork that I’m just going to want to get rid of at the end of the year. The information I will keep, but having it electronically is more practical anyway, I can search it more easily and I don’t need to carry a big, heavy folder with me.

Some people are worried about what will happen if I lose my laptop. But all of my information is backed up online. Which, in my mind, makes it more secure than theirs. A house fire could wipe out all of their work. For me to lose everything would require losing my laptop and my online backup. Though I’m certainly hoping that none of us lose anything. 🙂

Anyway, back to the scanning and the typing. 🙂

Having Lots of Fun

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

There are several reasons why I’m enjoying my course. One is that I’m an education geek and I love the fact that I get to read about, talk about, write about and think about education every day.

Another reason is that it’s only week 6 and I’m already a better teacher than I was when I first came to Edinburgh. I have a better understanding of what I’m trying to do as a teacher and some of the ways in which I can do it. And I know I’ve got a lot more to learn.

I’m really enjoying being a student again. It’s nice to be reading and learning and discussing and working. I’ve missed it. 🙂 Plus, I get to play with maths on a regular basis. Maths is cool!

The people I’m studying with are really nice. I’ve made some great friends on this course. People I can chat to in pubs, have dinner with, and not go clubbing with. 🙂

And I’ve done some bits of teaching too. Both at Uni and in a school. 🙂

Kath is a very happy Bucket! 🙂