Ive been thinking a lot recently about the characteristics of great teachers. Although it is something that may come naturally to some teachers, who don’t even realise that they are doing a great job as it has become the norm. For many others they need to really consider how to become great and it is why so many people have tried to unpick what makes the great ones great. For me I think that the first thing that we can learn from great teachers are the conditions that they set in their classrooms. Many of the conditions are set over time and results in observers seeing an orderly classroom with pupils struggling in the ‘learning pit’ and engaging calmly and politely during ‘direct-interactive instruction’. I believe that when we see this it is doing to clear classroom routines that are taught and retaught time and time again. If we consider behaviour to be part of our taught curriculum then this extends to how children enter and leave your classroom and everything in between.
If you think back to the last lesson you observed, or taught, that was up there with the best, firstly consider how privileged you were to see it and be a part of it and secondly, consider the routines that were in place. Im willing to bet that if you think hard enough you will be able to identify multiple occasions where the teachers skill afforded the pupils a calm, focussed and enjoyable learning experience. I believe all teachers can achieve this but the hard work is in establishing your expectations at the beginning, rehearsing your expectations and repeating your expectations until you make routines routine. As Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli write in Teaching Walkthrus (2020):
“Routines are the bedrock of a positive behaviour management system. If everyone knows what to do, where to go, what to bring, how to respond and what happens in various situations, then it allows the focus to be on learning because the rest happens more or less automatically, with minimum fuss”
If you again think back to that lesson you observed. If i get my wallet out again I bet that the focus was on learning because everything you saw, although it looked calm, orderly and productive, was the result of a lot of hard work on both the teachers and the students part. Routines would have been explained, demonstrated and rehearsed. Praise would have been given to those that follow the routine and corrections would have been made to help those that forgot the routines.
In your classroom it is your domain and with this in mind, you set the conditions of that room. I’m yet to meet a teacher who wants a chaotic disorderly room with children jumping on tables and swinging from the lights. With classroom routines I like to start from before the children enter the room or department. As a teacher of physical education our routines start by greeting children into the department, supervising changing rooms, providing a task or an instruction for those changed early, register during this time to not waste activity time and then teach the class. In the classroom it would look a lot different and would mirror what the great teachers are doing in my school and throughout the country.
So what are clear starting routines? I like referring to the work of Doug Lemov (2015) when considering the start of lesson. This is where you can really take control of behaviour and set the focus for your class. Lemov (2015) suggests that you start every lesson with a Do Now activity. This can be a worksheet, reading or displayed on the projector or visualiser. Rosenshine (2010) suggests that great teachers review prior learning in ever lesson, wouldn’t your Do Now be a great time to do this. To make clear a positive start to a lesson i like what Jonny Uttley offered in Putting Staff First (2020):
- Have your Do Now ready before opening the classroom door (I like it when teachers are at the door to meet pupils)
- Greet each student with a smile and a hello as they come in, using their name!
- Stand at the front , centre of the room, and explain what is expected in the Do Now activity and that you will be taking the register during this time
- Take the register promptly, whilst scanning the room and intervening if anyone is off task
- Walk around the room and check that everyone is ready for learning and has complete the Do Now task
- Move to the back of the room to debrief on the Do Now
- Move to the front of the room and introduce the new learning for that day
Now i recognise that this is a very prescriptive checklist for the beginning of lessons but how many of these do you do instinctively? How many of these have you seen great teachers do in those lessons you have been so privileged to see? Finally, what do you think would happen to the start of lessons in your school if every teacher in your school did exactly this, learned it, taught it, rehearsed it and demanded it from themselves and pupils?
Beyond the start of a lesson routines can be taught, rehearsed and embedded for a number of scenarios. For example, how do children hand out text books and work, is there a certain way you like them to do it? How do children engage in debate and direct-interactive instruction? Doug Lemov (2015) Teach Like a Champion is a wonderful resource and offer accompanying videos that show teachers in real classrooms who have embedded the techniques that he names throughout the book. His book, blog and associated videos are really wonderful and he believes that if it is done, it can be given a name and shared with everyone and he does this beautifully. What about the end of a lesson? Do you pause for a plenary, do you use exit tickets? In a recent interview I had with Jo Facer, who wrote the wonderful Simplicity Rules (2019), she spoke about plenary being an awful made up term and a pointless exercise. She argues in her book that we should just simply pack up. She writes:
“We simply packed up. That was the only expectation. Half way through the reading? No problem. Halfway through a discussion? Still no worries. The kids are writing silently? Still not a problem. Take a quick glance of the clock, realise there are 2 minutes left, call the class together, and announce the lesson has ended. I’d normally say, ‘that’s all for today, we’ll pick up again tomorrow’.”
She does note however, that from some classes you need more time to pack up and for early career teachers or NQTs I would encourage them to give a bit more time for packing up until they feel they have a bearing on how long the class take. Some great teachers however, like to finish with some from of recap or review of the days learning, some like to use exit tickets or mini whiteboards to elicit evidence of learning from the lesson. One thing I would note here is that learning isn’t split into 1 hour lessons, some learning takes 5 minutes while other learning takes 5 hours.
If i double back to the start of this post I really do believe that the very best teachers have embedded explicitly and clearly classroom routines that leave no stone unturned. They also, through this rigour, allow for children to flourish and experience learning safe, fun and informative conditions. Relationships can grow to be really strong under conditions like this and we could consider classroom routines to be sowing the seeds to grow beautiful, wonderful and colourful ‘philosopher kids’.