I’m at the end of the first half term of my third year of teaching. If you asked me in my NQT year, I would have thought by this point my behaviour management would be excellent. I know now that everyone struggles with behaviour to some extent, but over the past few weeks some of my lessons have been so heavily disrupted by off-task and rude students that some nights I can’t sleep because of the worry that I’m letting people down.
 

Yesterday I talked it over with my other half, who reminded me of the attitude that I had in my NQT year and should have now. The challenges are part of the job and I just need to be proactive about overcoming them, not get depressed simply because they exist. Consequently, on Saturday I wrote a to-do list on Evernote regarding how to improve the behaviour for learning in Monday’s lessons, which I’ve listed below. Saturday night I slept much better. Sunday I worked through the list. Monday…

 
…it’s a work in progress. Importantly though, I feel like I’m doing something about the situation. Hopefully that means I’m doing my job.
 
  • Email a teacher that has the same class to organise a time when I can observe their lesson and see what works in other subjects 
  • Call home for students whose behaviour and effort have been less than satisfactory and inform parents
  • Call home for students that have exceeded expectations in terms of effort (there are a few)
  • Email the AST at my school to organise a meeting where I can discuss the problems and ask for advice
  • Plan some more interesting activities in lessons, even if just setting aside 15mins for Science Key Word Taboo or Pictionary
  • Differentiate down for more activities, to make the learning more accessible, build confidence, and reduce off-task behaviour that results from work being too hard.
  • Book a time to check their books every week, to allow me to reward good effort more often and follow up on inadequate effort. 
  • More regularly choose some ‘Student Learning Monitors’ – responsible students that peer-assess progress.
  • Identify students doing well (e.g. from learning monitors) and write positive notes in planners
  • Design new seating plan
  • Plan significant plenaries for every lesson and stick to it – include a review of behaviour/effort in each one
  • Plan to show off good work/progress in plenaries too.

Who should speak first when evaluating a lesson in the post-observation feedback session, the observer or the observed?

This was the subject of an extended and impromptu debate at an external training session I attended last week. The person leading the session stood back in true ‘facilitator’ style while a room of teachers explained to each other why their preferred way is better than the other. I was fascinated and decided to blog some of their points.

Why the observer should speak first
The observer is often (but not always) more experienced and has plenty of good advice for the observed teacher, why not get straight to the point?
If the observed teacher spoke first and evaluated their own lesson inaccurately, they could have their confidence dented when the observer disagreed with what they’d said.
Everyone needs praise, and if the observer goes first they can start by highlighting the good aspects of the observed teacher’s lesson and establish a positive and nurturing atmosphere.

Why the observed teacher should speak first
If they spoke second, they would be influenced by the feedback from the observer, so the observer would not hear a genuine self-evaluation. This means that they will miss an opportunity to develop their ability to judge lesson effectiveness.
If the observed teacher speaks first they are forced into a reflective state of mind in which they’ll be more receptive to advice.
Allowing the observed teacher to speak first makes it clear that the evaluation of the lesson is a shared experience and establishes a more supportive environment.
The observer’s feedback can be targeted more effectively if they hear the observed teacher’s point of view first, for example focusing on an aspect in which they put the most effort.
Teachers are often too hard on themselves, and if the observed teacher starts by criticising aspects of their own lesson it can be a confidence boost when the observer highlights some good aspects.
Lesson observations are subjective, and the observer may have missed something that the teacher didn’t. Speaking second allows them to give better-informed feedback.

If you can’t tell from my completely biased paraphrasing of the points, I prefer letting the observed teacher speak first. Any arguments about the observed teacher getting the evaluation wildly wrong seem flawed to me because without the opportunity to highlight those inaccuracies, they will never learn to adequately evaluate the effectiveness of their own teaching, nor that of others.

Have I missed any arguments either way? Let me know (@teachgr). Thanks to @grevster73, @coope83, @leedonaghy, @bio_joe, @hrogerson and@geekgirl77 who already contributed ideas.

Just before the summer holidays I was at an ASE Teachmeet where one of the talks was from two NQTs just finishing their first year of teaching. Their talk was called ‘An NQT’s Wish List’ and they set about describing what they felt were the most important things to do when welcoming NQTs to a Science department. They kindly shared their notes with me so I’ll paraphrase their points below.

NQTs are often eager to impress and might not feel comfortable asking lots of questions, opting instead to muddle through in hopes of appearing super-capable. Spare them having to go through this by making some obvious information explicit:

Where is stuff?
Take the time to talk through where the important things are: photocopier, stationary cupboard, coffee, etc.

The first lesson
I remember how gut-churningly nervous I was in the lead-up to my first lesson as an NQT. I’d done plenty of lesson planning on the PGCE and had plenty of ideas but not the confidence that I could deliver them effectively in a new context. To lessen this stress for NQTs you could provide a lesson plan and resources for the first lesson back.

Expectations
NQTs joining your department will have come from training schools with a variety of policies regarding behaviour and teaching and learning. Be specific about what you’d expect to see in lessons, at the start of the year and as the teacher progresses. Also suggest useful ‘first lesson’ activities (that the rest of us have developed over several years of trial and error) to get to know a class, set expectations and establish routines.

Lessons on the system
NQTs WILL reinvent the wheel unless you show them exactly where they can find existing lesson resources.

Exam board specifications
Provide explicit guidance as to which classes are doing which exams, and where to find the specifications. NQTs are a creative bunch and it’ll be important that they’re ticking the right boxes with exam classes.

The team
Make NQTs feel part of it. Be positive around them because they’ll need to store up that positivity to get them through the inevitable hard times.

The technicians
Emphasise how important it is for a teacher to have a good relationship with the technicians! Show NQTs exactly how the technicians like to receive requisitions.

Observations
Make it clear that these are opportunities for reflection and improvement, and make that a reality by being constructive with feedback. Encourage NQTs to observe a range of teachers from within the department and outside too – I remember some of the most useful experiences I had in my NQT year were observing experienced Science teachers and teachers from English, Technology and others early on in the year.

The mentor
Make time for regular meetings. This opportunity to reflect, discuss and ask questions is vital for an NQT, and each cancelled meeting, however infrequent, is a missed opportunity for the new teacher to improve. The mentor should be extremely positive with the NQT and give advice rather than criticism – they are ‘sensitive souls’ that are harder on themselves about bad lessons than anyone else could be.

Responsibilities
Don’t be afraid to give NQTs extra responsibilities – they’ll appreciate the trust you put in them as well as the extra experience. However, be aware that they’ll be eager to impress and may take on too much. Don’t overload them – make sure they are focused primarily on developing their teaching practise.

I’ve recently discovered how powerful “ifttt” can be. I use it to scan Twitter for any references to my chosen hashtags and search terms, and it automatically saves them in my Evernote account for me to browse later.

If you’ve read some of this blog before you’ll know I’m a keen user of Evernote for organising myself both at school and at home (I’ll summarise the way I use it in a future post). Relatively recently I found out about ifttt (standing for ‘if this then that’), which is a web service that ‘puts the internet to work for you’. You create an account on it and set up a ‘triggers’ and actions’ in a range of channels such as Twitter, Gmail, and Dropbox to name a small fraction.

The idea is that you choose a ‘trigger’, an event on a particular channel (e.g. “there is a tweet by @teachgr“) and ifttt will monitor the internet for that event. You link it to an action, which can use the same or another channel (e.g. “save the tweet to my Evernote account in the ‘Tweets’ folder”.

The best use for this service that I’ve found so far is to save Tweets that contain both the #asechat hashtag and the word “KS3″ in my Evernote account. Around once a week I check the relevant folder in my Evernote account and review what everyone on twitter has been saying about KS3 science teaching. The results have been incredibly helpful.

If you get an Evernote account only to try this out it’ll still be worth it (but I bet I could convince you to use Evernote for more stuff!). Alternatively you could get the relevant tweets emailed to you instead of saved. Give it a go and enjoy putting the internet to work for you!

“High expectations” of students: it’s a ‘Q Standard’ on the PGCE, it’s a ‘Core Standard’ for an NQT, and it’s in many job descriptions I’ve seen for teaching posts. What are high expectations worth if you can’t make them happen? I’ve found it useful to analyse the situations where expectations aren’t met and try to remove any limiting factors to give students the best chance possible of meeting them in the future.
I recently asked another teacher at school to observe me with my most difficult class. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m lucky enough to work in a school where teachers are open and supportive when it comes to observations and they’re used mostly for personal reflection and improvement. After this particular lesson, the meeting for feedback from the observing teacher was a very positive experience and one piece of advice in particular stuck with me.

I was trying to start the lesson silently with the students attempting a settling ‘entrance activity’, as they do in nearly all of my lessons. As usual with this class it was a struggle to get them to stay silent, despite numerous attempts on my part, and in the end it didn’t really happen. My colleague picked up on this and also observed that part of the reason that it wasn’t silent in the classroom was that I was doing the register at the same time. As a result it was much harder for me to identify when or which students were talking, because a) I wasn’t fully concentrating on it and b) calling out the register (and the replies) was all sound that could mask the students’ low-level murmuring.

The advice I got was to do the register silently if possible, or slightly later in the lesson when silence wasn’t required. I couldn’t simply ask for and expect silence, I had to be active in making it happen: providing every opportunity for students to comply, and avoiding any factor that made that harder for them.

In most lessons since then I’ve changed the way I start them. The task is displayed for students to begin immediately, I stand at the front for several minutes doing very little other than watching them carefully and picking up on off-task behaviour. As a result my lessons now begin in genuine silence, with every single student engaged with a task that prepares them for learning, and this has a significant impact on the entire lesson (I still think it’s odd that, on reflection, the way in which the students begin the lesson can dictate the atmosphere for the entire hour). In my opinion one simple change has improved my whole classroom practice.

One point to be made from all of this is that high expectations of student achievement and behaviour don’t mean much without actively making them a reality; and that in order to do so it’s worth analysing what the limiting factors are so that you can get rid of them.

Take the time to jot down what went well in one lesson every week, or every day if you can. Get colleagues to observe you as often as possible, and return the favour. Reflecting on your teaching is the only way to improve it.
One of the things I’ve found hardest about being a second-year teacher is the lack of observed lessons I’ve had. Some might find that surprising, given how stressful an observed lesson can be to plan and deliver, but it’s only now that they’ve become so infrequent that I’ve realised how valuable they are.
During both PGCE year and NQT year I was getting so much feedback about my teaching it was hard to act on it because there was so much to consider. When planning each lesson I was drawing on several pieces of advice from each of four or five different teachers, some of which was entirely conflicting. The challenge was in selecting one or two targets to focus on for each lesson. This was much more the case during my PGCE, but it felt similar on my NQT year given how quickly observations by line mangers/senior leaders/mentors seemed to come around.

This year has provided a new challenge: going long periods of time without any feedback and thus relatively little guidance about my teaching. I still reflect on my practice but now it’s a solo experience, and something I have to remind myself to do as often as possible.

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Any teacher that thinks back on a lesson they just taught is sure to be able to identify a couple of simple ways to improve it next time, but the important and difficult bit is taking the time to write it down (and to read it again when it matters). I personally find that Evernote is a brilliant tool for this – I write a quick ‘What Went Well’ and ‘Even Better If’ on my phone on the commute home.
Even more importantly, a few teachers and I have formed a set of ‘coaching trios’ in our department. Every half term or so we observe one other teacher’s lesson and help them reflect on how to improve. I couldn’t recommend it enough. Every time I’ve been ‘coached’ by a colleague in this way I’ve had incredibly relevant advice, and also been given an opportunity to be proud of all the little things I get right. Everyone needs a little praise!
Without reflecting on your practice, with or without someone to talk to about it, you might not take the time to acknowledge what you achieve every day, and on the other hand may end up making the same mistakes every lesson. The trap of second-year teaching.

I was at the ASE Conference in Liverpool last week (my first ASE conference and first time in Liverpool!). There were so many useful talks and workshops that I frequently wanted to be in three or more places at once – I strongly recommend it if you haven’t been lucky enough to go yet.

The Institute of Physics in particular ran a huge number of high quality sessions, mostly workshops for practical activities, and I’ll use this post to share the ideas from one of them. (Thanks to Alex Birchmore for taking notes in this session and sharing them with me).

“Real Graphs from Real Data”

The session started with attendees contributing activity ideas for teaching reliability, repeats, precision and taking measurements, for example devising ways of measuring the thickness of paper, the mass of grain of rice, the time taken for cart to roll down track, etc. We were then introduced to a new activity idea along the same lines.

Equipment needed: Per group: 1 x A3 paper; 1 x A4 card; 5 x plastic or polystyrene cups with a hole cut in each of the rims; 1 x aluminium ruler (with ridge down the centre); 1 x marble.

Setting up: Fold the A4 card into a triangle and lean the ruler on it to make a ramp. Rest the other end of the ruler on the A3 paper, on which you draw the axes of a graph.

The investigation runs by positioning a plastic/polystyrene cup at the bottom of the ramp with the hole facing the ramp. You roll the marble down the ramp, it goes into the hole, hits the inside of the cup and moves it along the graph. Mark where it ended up, then repeat – inevitably the result is slightly different every time.

The independent variable can then be ‘number of cups’. You repeat the procedure with the cups stacked up, and the more cups you have the smaller the distance they travel along the graph.

I really liked this activity because of how quick, simple and fun it was, with potentially such a lot of learning opportunities.

Potential uses and discussion points

  • Modelling good graph drawing
  • Control variables – ask students to identify what they ought to keep the same each time (e.g. angle of ramp)
  • ‘True value’ – is there one?
  • Lines of best fit
  • Confidence and error bars – this practical gives instant error bars, which can then be adjusted depending on the desired confidence level. As the distance decreases, the absolute certainty obviously decreases to, but a few calculations reveal that the percentage certainty stays the same.

I’m considering asking to include this activity in the department’s Year 7 ‘Becoming a Scientist’ scheme of work, where we already introduce some very simple principles of scientific enquiry.

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