Stepping into a classroom with 32 youths, who have no idea of who you are or what you are about and stand for can be daunting. As a training co-ordinator in a comprehensive secondary school, these are my top 10 tips to get your first placement teaching experience off to the best start – from how you display yourself on placement to how to conduct your first few lessons.
1. First impressions count
I think most trainers and professional tutors will agree that one of the likely reasons that trainees are welcomed into schools is for recruitment purposes. I am constantly looking out for who I believe would fit well in our school, and to that extent always treat each placement as an interview experience. Always set out to make the right impression and to be taken seriously as a teacher, and not just as a student teacher. Formality in the first few weeks can go a long way; being professional in the conversations that you have with your mentor and other colleagues around the school. That doesn’t mean to say that you have to be stern and serious – smile, be friendly and approachable, 100% – but avoid getting dragged into any potential unprofessional conversations, especially with other trainee teachers and other members of staff. This could ultimately cost you in terms of being employed by the school or receiving a good reference.
2. Be organised
One of the things trainee teachers can find hard is just how organised school life is. A school is a place where students come to learn, but underpinning that learning are a multitude of systems; from duties to safeguarding. Even the art of teaching could be considered as a system! Create yourself a comprehensive timetable – firstly inserting your lessons, then your all-important mentor meeting slot and any duties you have. Ensure you put room numbers and locations on, so that you know exactly where you are going to, and if you are unsure, ask. Ensure you know when your meetings are and that you are always on time for any meetings. In most schools, you will soon come to realise that teaching staff are very time poor. Being late to meetings or unreliable can cause friction between yourself and that staff member, leading to a possible deterioration of a relationship which could have been completely avoidable. One final tip for organisation is to try and get your resources planned and ready the day before so that you can get them printed off. This can take away the last-minute panic of having forgotten a sheet or a resource that you might need.
Your first classroom experiences:
3. Entry is everything
The threshold of a classroom is the dividing line between the corridor and the classroom space that is now your space. Setting the right tone at the door is essential. Doug Lemov in his book Teach Like a Champion refers this moment as ‘Threshold’. Ensure you stand on the physical dividing line between your classroom and the corridor, giving off a stance of confidence. Stand straight, feet apart so you look naturally comfortable as well and portray confidence. Receive the students calmly, greeting them as they pass you. Take the opportunity to iron out any uniform issues, such as ties, top buttons and shirts hanging out before they step into the classroom, so you don’t need to tackle these in front of the whole class, giving the student a potential audience to undermine you. It will also strike a tone that you know what to look out for in terms of enforcing the rules and setting your standards high. The tricky part comes when you have to also police those inside the classroom. Position yourself in a location that gives you vantage of the students inside the room, as well as those approaching you to save you having to turn around. Ensure to momentarily scan the room and make eye contact with those already inside the room to let them know in spite of the fact that you are also on the door, you are also looking to ensure impeccable standards from those who have crossed the threshold. Ensure that all equipment, including the all-essential planner, is out in front of students. Remind them to do this as this is essential should something go wrong later on in the lesson. You being calm at this crucial point in a lesson, in spite of the fact you probably haven’t got your routines 100% down yet, can often create a sense of calm amongst students.
4. Know your behaviour policy and don’t be afraid to apply it
A lot of people believe behaviour policy is there so students know how to conduct themselves and the consequences should they not abide by it; but I would argue an even more important function of the behaviour policy is that it is there to support you in dealing with instances of bad behaviour. By not applying the behaviour policy fairly and consistently, staff are undermining those that do, by opening staff who apply it by the book to instances of: “But Sir lets us drink in class” or even worse, students thinking that they can pick and choose which detentions they can go to because one seemed fairer than the other. You have a duty to uphold the behaviour management policy and you should strive to do so. The students will know the policy better than you, and how to play it, therefore know it inside out and consult help from your mentor should you find yourself in any tricky situations. You deserve as much respect as the regular class teacher and this needs to be addressed should you not receive that same level of respect.
5. Avoid setting students up for a fail
When a consequence is issued for a misdemeanour, this should be the line in the sand before moving on with the lesson. So many times, our actions in the heat of the moment can set students up for a fail. In most schools, in these instances, it will be the student that comes out worse and the staff member will simply be left feeling wound up – which is not good for your wellbeing. If you need to issue a sanction, firstly, stay calm. If you get wound up and the student does, it will draw attention to both of you. The student will probably end up with a more severe sanction and you will be left looking defeated.
If you need to issue a consequence or to remove a student, do it discretely. Firstly, by having planners out at the beginning of the lesson, before they even sit down, means that you are not opening up to a discussion, and a potential confrontation, should you need to write in it.
Secondly, rather than asking for a planner; take it. By asking for a planner, you are potentially opening up the consequence for discussion. Should you be asked why, state you will discuss it at the end and that now is not the right moment.
Finally, in the case you should need to get a student to leave your room, go up to the student and ask them in a very quiet tone to leave your classroom. Do not make a scene as again, this could lead to you looking defeated and the student receiving an even bigger consequence for being rude.
6. Pack away sitting down
Having a view of all of your students can help you see exactly what is going on and can help you address any misdemeanours immediately. Some people aren’t as tall as me, but one of the easiest ways to make sure you get a calm finish to the end of the lesson and retain control is by asking students to pack away sitting down and to remain in their seats. Do this standing in a central ‘power position’ in your classroom, focusing purely on monitoring the process of packing away. Again, students will know that you are monitoring their exact moves and will ensure that you are seen as being the figure in control of the room. Once this is done, dismiss one row at a time, standing at the same position you were when they entered to ensure that they leave in a calm and controlled fashion.
7. Look at the resources of others in the department
Training year is so interesting because you will be exposed to schools that work in a multitude of ways and it should be your chance to think about what works for you and what kind of school/department you would like to work in. Some schools script lessons, others work from booklets; some work from PowerPoints and textbooks, and some expect no use of textbooks at all. In the latter two categories you will need to resource your lessons, which can be daunting. The important thing to remember is that people will have taught the same explanation, the same content and the same groups before. Look at their planning and how they set up their lessons – as they will have done it for a reason. The golden rule is to use other resources to inform your own resource making, so that you can develop resources in the future should you need them. Should you go and teach someone else’s resource without adapting it, potentially it could be scaffolded in a way which would still be too complicated for your class to understand the concept – such as key vocabulary missing from a glossary that your class may not understand and prevent access to a text. Always look over and adapt to ensure students can access.
8. Plan backwards
One essential book that I really advocate is Peps Mccrea’s Lean Lesson Planning. Peps Mccrea sets out his Habits; one of which is planning back from your end point. This will help keep your lesson focussed and orientated towards the endpoint, without going off on a tangent. It will also ensure you look at the purpose of each activity, to see if it fits with your desired goal at the end. This short read is an essential for all new and recently qualified teachers.
9. Ask what the feedback point you were given looks like
A lot of time, feedback can be – you did this, you didn’t do that, you missed this, you need to work on this. It turns out into a case of missed opportunities and sometimes quite abstract ideas, such as something as general as “you need to work on your presence”. This leaves you without a tangible action. Make sure to ask, “What would you suggest?”, “What could I do to develop this?’ or, “What does that look like?”. This will help you get a point that you need to focus on in order to improve in that area. If you can, in your meeting, ask your mentor if you can practice that point in a deliberate practice episode. This can really help you refine your explanation; refine how you carry yourself or help you change your plan before you get into the classroom and anticipate any problems.
10. Be receptive to the feedback
I can almost guarantee that you will never have received as much feedback in your life. This can feel overwhelming. Be receptive to it and do not think you are doing a bad job. Sometimes you may feel like you’re being attacked – and it’s definitely most probably not an attack, rather it’s a new experience that you are not yet used to. Always frame it in the context of if you don’t get the feedback, you will never improve.
By the same token, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Most mentors are great in identifying two or three main improvements that will have the highest impact for you. If they don’t, it’s down to you. Have a look and consider the impact that they could have in your practice and focus on these before moving on. This will make progress feel manageable to you and will see you take ownership of your progress.
Finally: if you have issues, don’t be afraid to speak up. Speak to your Professional Tutor, your trainer or your contact at your provider. At the end of the day, you have paid the fees, you deserve to receive what you have paid for, which is high-quality training to set you up for your future career.