For teachers at the start of their career a key focus is on supporting them to create an orderly and inclusive classroom environment in which all their pupils can thrive.
There are times early on when new teachers (those in training or in the early stages of their career) can sometimes perceive a tension between being inclusive and creating an orderly environment where pupils behave well.
In part this derives from a belief that establishing positive relationships with each individual in the group should be the first priority. The point here is not that positive individual relationships are not an essential part of a flourishing and inclusive classroom, but rather that these can only really happen when there are clear systems, routines and expectations in place.
It is therefore the role of teacher trainers and school leaders to demonstrate that to be an effective teacher both elements are necessary and rather than being in opposition they are actually mutually supportive entities.
Children and young people at every stage of their journey through school need to be guided and supported in how to behave. This is not about having lots of rules, or indeed lots of rewards, though those can both be useful elements in a teacher’s overall approach.
Much more significant is the shaping of a classroom culture that is learning focussed and respectful. Early career teachers can sometimes get drawn into a binary argument that in essence boils down to a choice between the ‘carrot or stick’ approach. The origin of this metaphorical story presents the idea that there are only two methods available when trying to get an animal (usually a donkey) to behave in a certain way, namely to coerce through force (‘the stick’) or incentivise through rewards (‘the carrot’).
What this debate misses out is that there are often much more powerful factors at work in promoting and establishing certain behaviours; what we might describe as classroom habits and classroom conditions. To extend the metaphorical story a little further then it is much more likely that the donkey will follow a particular path if the conditions on that path are good and if that is the path that they routinely follow.
For teachers therefore it is generally much more profitable in the longer term to focus on creating the right conditions and embedding the right habits rather than resorting to the more transitory reward/ sanction approach.
In order to do this teachers at the start of their career need to have real clarity about how they want things to happen in their classrooms and then be relentless in explaining and modelling their expectations.
Assuming that pupils will behave in the way that is expected of them without being given precise and clear instructions will seldom lead to the right kind of classroom atmosphere. This can sometimes seem like a draining and demanding task but perseverance at this stage really does pay dividends in the long run.
A sense of community
A favourite phrase is ‘Remember, this is how we do things here’; this is an all encompassing message that creates a sense of community. I often hear from early career teachers that they sometimes experience doubts and frustrations during these early stages, and this can be exacerbated when they see more experienced colleagues in action, and so for all colleagues involved in working with early career teachers supporting this sustained approach is crucial.
There are three key areas that I advocate teachers at the start of their careers focus on when establishing an orderly and inclusive environment;
The start of each lesson
Firstly teachers should have a clear plan for the first few minutes of a lesson because in these precious moments the atmosphere for the rest of the lesson is established. When considering this initial period it is important to focus on the following;
1) The teacher being alert and present as they welcome the class into the room. This is when the first personal communication with each individual happens – either as they line up or cross the threshold. As teachers get to know their classes these first individual encounters will increasingly reveal helpful information that will guide later interactions in the lesson.
2) The teacher being clear about where everyone should sit and what is expected of everyone once they get to their place. A carefully constructed and regularly reviewed seating plan is a must in the inclusive classroom. This is one of the most straightforward ‘interventions’ that any teacher can make. These are some of the factors that are worth consideration when creating or reviewing a seating plan;
- Pupils who tend to find self-regulation harder and may need more verbal and non-verbal cues need to be located to make that possible.
- Pupils with specific special educational needs and disabilities may need to be located in particular areas in order to access the lesson most effectively (for example, pupils with visual or hearing impairments).
- Consider proximity to doors and windows – think about pupils who might be more distracted by things outside the classroom.
- Be alert to bullying that can happen in close proximity.
3) Having a relevant and accessible task ready so that there is an immediate learning focus is the final strand of this initial section of the lesson. This immediately creates a sense of purpose and engagement.
Getting the balance of support and challenge right when designing tasks and assessments
The second crucial area where inclusive practices and a positive atmosphere overlap is when thinking about the levels of ‘support’ and ‘challenge’ that each pupil receives when undertaking the tasks that they are set . Effective lesson tasks should support learning and be both accessible and challenging. As a general principle, pupils are most likely to behave in a disengaged or disruptive way if they find the work too difficult or too easy.
The Goldilocks principle
It can be helpful when working with early career teachers to outline ‘the Goldilocks principle’. This is drawn from the children’s story ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ where Goldilocks eats from three bowls of porridge and finds that the one in the middle is her favourite because it is neither too hot nor too cold. This idea of things being just right and not at the extremes of a spectrum has been applied to multiple contexts including the psychology of learning.
Clearly some individuals have a far greater appetite for challenge, while for others moving out of their comfort zone will be more difficult, so as teachers get to know the mindsets of the individual pupils in more depth, they will be able to respond increasingly effectively with appropriate supports and scaffolds. Some pupils will react to especially challenging work with a ‘fight or flight’ response and understandably this may have a very significant impact on their behavioural responses.
A further link that it is important for early career teachers to establish is between motivation, behaviour and the planning of formal assessment activities. One of the greatest motivators, especially for pupils who may find school a less comfortable environment, is the feeling of being successful, and in a similar way being unsuccessful is a significant demotivator. In his much admired 2012 paper Principles of Instruction, Barak Rosenshine promotes the view that teachers should aim for a high success rate.
The research also suggests that the optimal success rate for fostering student achievement appears to be about 80 percent. A success rate of 80 percent shows that students are learning the material, and it also shows that the students are challenged.
Whole class engagement in questioning
Questioning is a brilliant way of promoting inclusive learning and assessing student understanding as well as supporting the development of high behavioural expectations and positive norms. It can also be an area where managing 30 different individuals can be challenging. This is, therefore, an area that requires careful planning and explaining. Often when I am working with early career teachers, I see the questioning aspect of a lesson being unsuccessful and one of the three following scenarios unfolding:
1) the teacher asks a question and no hands go up;
2) the teacher asks a question and the same few hands go up;
3) the teacher asks a question, lots of answers are called out and things rapidly deteriorate into unstructured calling out with pupils shouting across the classroom to each other.
Each of these situations can easily lead to less than positive behavioural norms. In the first situation, a sense of frustration can rapidly develop that will have a negative impact on the atmosphere in the room. In the second situation, the teacher may feel a sense of relief that they are getting some answers but if left untended this approach allows groups of pupils to become increasingly disengaged or frustrated by the dominance of others.
When this happens, one of the core purposes of questioning is lost, i.e. to establish what all pupils know and understand. In the final circumstance, the inappropriate behaviour means that even if there are some relevant responses being given, the chaotic nature of the interactions means that any impact on learning will be negligible and the disorganised behaviour creates a negative and potentially exclusionary atmosphere.
With these factors in mind, it is essential to adopt effective strategies for questioning that avoid these unhelpful situations arising. Part of this entails being clear about the ‘means of engagement’ that are expected. The following four approaches are all tried and tested methods of effective questioning that ensure a positive and inclusive classroom.
1) Choral responses
This simply means everyone giving the same answer at the same time. I have seen this strategy used brilliantly with 3-year olds and 18-year olds, and everyone in-between. It is an excellent way of getting everyone engaged and confident in speaking publicly. To begin with, this works best when the teacher simply gets the pupils to repeat an answer that has already given; think of it as a cross between an ice-breaker and a vocal warm-up exercise.
Repetition of responses has a significant impact on learning over time so using standard questions or rhymes or sequences (e.g. times tables) over long periods of time helps with retrieval. Behaviourally this gives a strong sense of inclusivity and community (so builds norms) and the comfort of the crowd (so supports confidence for more reluctant speakers). It can really help with adding some dynamics to break up different aspects of a lessons, for example following a period of silent work with some choral responses gives pupils a chance to open their lungs and ‘let off steam’.
2) No hands/ cold calling
As the name suggests, this means that the teacher decides who answers rather than asking for volunteers. New teachers should introduce this expectation gradually and early to ensure that it is inclusive and non-threatening. One way of doing this is to build on the choral responses approach by reducing the number of respondents downwards from the whole class to smaller groups and then individuals.
It is crucial that teachers ensure that the questions are accessible to everyone and that all pupils have sufficient knowledge to answer. At the ‘training’ stage, it can be effective to use easy factual recall questions and ensure that the answers are to hand (on the board or in a book or handout for example). This builds confidence and avoids a sense of anyone being picked on.
As teachers get to know their pupils better, the level of challenge can be increased. Different methods to employ when deciding who to call on for an answer include random name generators, lolly sticks with names on, or names in a hat. The public nature of these interactions requires sensitivity when building expectations to avoid individuals feeling embarrassed or singled out.
3) Allow thinking and/or writing time before collecting answers
One of the most frequently identified problems with questioning in lessons is that pupils are not given long enough to form satisfactory answers. This happens most often when the expectations for engagement are not developed beyond a simple ‘hands up’ approach.
There are two aspects in this approach that can be used individually or together; silent thinking time and preparing written answers. Giving adequate time for pupils to consider their answer means that there is an expectation that everyone is thinking about what has been asked and allows you to monitor and support individuals effectively. This time can be used, for example, to support more reluctant speakers to feel confident that they have the correct answer. This approach also has an inbuilt expectation (that may need to be reinforced) of silence.
The second aspect of this questioning approach is to give time for students to write an answer. Mini white-boards can be highly effective in this regard, with the expectation that everyone writes an answer that is lifted up at the same time. Once again there is an expectation that everyone is thinking silently and preparing to give an answer, but this approach means that the behavioural dynamics of selecting individuals are removed.
The mini white-boards allow you to gain instant feedback on the whole class. Pupils can also be given time to write more extended answers which may then be selected to be read out. This approach is highly effective in developing strategies for self-regulation in a supportive and inclusive way.
4) Think, pair, share
This is a highly effective way of reducing some of the potential tensions associated with questioning and introduces another key strand of behaviour management; supporting increased self-regulation through collaboration. As the name indicates, the process simply means that after the teacher has asked a question, the pupils have an initial period of individual thinking time followed by time to discuss their responses as a pair, before finally being ready to share their answer. Once again, this moves the process away from the potentially fraught whole-class dynamic and allows teachers time to ensure that everyone is thinking and engaging.
Patrick Garton is founder and Director of Oxfordshire Teacher Training, an Ofsted outstanding rated SCITT provider. He has recently published Essential Guides for Early Career Teachers: Understanding and Developing Positive Behaviour in Schools