Remembering the basics

This week I was reminded quite how much of behaviour management is about making the lesson interesting.

At the start of September I picked up a new group in Year 10. It can be difficult taking over a class which has previously been taught by a colleague for some time (in this case over two years). In some cases it might come as a welcome change for the students. In our school, however, more often than not classes become quite attached to their teachers and might resent the change. This was certainly the case with my Year 10s.

Starting out with this new class, I very quickly began to hear “But that’s not how Mr XYZ used to do it”, for example when I imposed a seating plan in the second lesson. There was unrest. It made me nervous because I didn’t know any of their names, a serious handicap when it comes to dealing with unrest. Furthermore, a class like that carries its own confidence, built up over time, which makes them feel like I am intruding upon their territory. And I confess, with hindsight, that I underplanned my first few lessons: I had taught the topic many times before, I knew what examples to give, which bits they would find tricky. It was all fine, except that the lessons were, well, boring.

The result was the classic “low-level disruption”. Not how I wanted to start out with a new class.

I realised I had to engage and interest my students much, much more. So I called upon an old favourite starter of mine, picked up on my PGCE, which I refer to as “silent algebra”. As the girls came in and got settled, I put my finger to my lips and made a theatrical shushing sound. Any utterance from them was met with the same gesture, each time more over the top. Meanwhile I began drawing on the board. A number “1”. An arrow to the right. Shhhh!  A “7”. Meaningful look around the room implying something impressive is happening (it isn’t, yet). Then underneath, a “2”. Shhhh! Arrow. “10”. Another meaningful look. Underneath: “3”. Arrow. Then stop. At this point I held out the drywipe pen, lid off, eyebrows raised, looking for a volunteer. They quickly got the idea. The first volunteer correctly wrote “13” – she had spotted the pattern – and I immediately gave feedback by drawing a large smiley face next to the number. This went on for a few iterations, getting harder as I started missing numbers out, then going for massive ones (1,000,000 is always good), then finally “n”. Keeping the shushing going all the while, as they were enjoying it by then.

Mathematically, they were spotting patterns, solving particular examples, then generalising (a higher level skill). But more importantly they were waking up and buying into my lesson.

It may be coincidence, but the next day in my pigeon hole I found a small but delicious cupcake, accompanied by an anonymous note:

Okay, maybe your lessons aren’t THAT boring…