In my NQT year I had two hellish groups. There were some good kids in there but the unmotivated and disruptive outweighed the good kids. We had to deal with verbal and physical abuse of peers and staff (me), refusals to work, refusals to do anything or be sent anywhere and refusals to listen to you explaining anything. They would throw things, swear, talk about all manner of unearthly thing and be loud and abrasive. Some would storm out with a sense of drama befitting an RSC production. Over the years I’ve got better with these groups. If you’re a new teacher reading this. I have three words for you: it gets easier. The longer you are in a school; the more the kids begin to follow you.
I’ve learnt the following and I have a lot of colleagues to thank for this.
1) Relationship is the most important element of teaching these groups
If you are new to teaching then stick to the rules, follow policy and try to be understanding at the same time. Most of the students in these groups see little point in languages and therefore you’re an obstacle between them and break/lunch/a more exciting lesson. In the first few weeks, consider how you can make them want to be there and how they can feel succesful. Learn their names in the first two lessons and learn things about them. If the worst behaved kid in the school happens to do kickboxing outside of school, ask him about it. You might be the first person that day to take an interest in them as a person.
2) Critical mass
Sometimes a few individuals can tip a group. I remember being told on my PGCE that “the ideal group size is 3 smaller than you already have, and you know which three.” It is a fair statement most teachers would identify with. Look at the group. Who influences behaviour? Who follows? Is there a way to get the influencing ones “on-side”? This does not mean being their pal or mate, rather that you find a way to challenge them and get them involved. If they are involved others will follow and you will have less to deal with. Sticking to the rules and following up is crucial in this process. I had a group where the critical mass was definitely not in my favour and it is really hard work. The key to not getting into this situation is the first term and sticking to the rules. Make them accountable to each other. Explain how you want lessons to be and that it is their job as much as yours to make lessons enjoyable. Bill Rogers suggests reviewing with a group how you feel lessons are going. I would take the approach of getting pupils to write in the back of their books the following:
1) What skills or aspects of languages am I finding easy/difficult? Why?
2) How am I getting better at languages?
3) Complete the sentence – my favourite lessons involve…
With these the students get a chance to “influence” your planning. You can then say “‘you asked for this activity so that’s why we’re doing it”. It shows them that 1) you listened 2) you acted on it 3) you want them to enjoy lessons.
3) Don’t pitch your lesson too high
Low ability sets are fighting weak literacy/numeracy, low self-esteem and being written off as a “bottom set”, “sink group” or “nurture group”. In their minds, they have already lost. You have to give them manageable challenges and praise them when they do it or when they don’t quite manage it but have tried really hard. For some kids a sentence using a verb and an infinitive correctly is a huge challenge but if they can manage it, great. Then stretch them further. “You’ve done that, bet you can’t …” – some boys will really respond to this. If they decide they can’t, then find a way to appeal to their competitive side or stretch them on that aspect next lesson.
4) Relentless positivity
Bottom sets are used to being bottom sets. They are known as being the groups that no teacher looks forward to. For one difficult girl I taught last year, all she needed to have a good lesson was the belief that I was happy to see her and wanted her there. That meant finding something nice to say at the start of a lesson or asking how her day was. It meant finding activities the group could do well early on and making things fun. It also meant being honest when a less fun bit was coming.
5) ICT room
Every now and again I will take a group to the ICT room. Kids enjoy ICT and websites such as www.linguascope.com or www.languagesonline.org.uk have excellent resources and cater well to all abilities. Make sure they are clear on what needs to be done and don’t allow them to run out of activities.
6) Have a plethora of redirection phrases at your disposal.
Lower sets go off task quicker than most. “Bradley, whilst your pet turtle’s mating habits are really interesting, can you get on with what you’re meant to be doing, thanks” “That’s a really good question, ask me at the end.” Praise the ones on task from the front, sometimes this will provoke the others around to action
7) Have a routine (Michaell Marland – Craft of the Classroom – massive help with ideas for this)
- Date title and starter on board as they walk in. Students get books out, write date and title and attempt starter. First finishers can be helpful in giving out books etc.
- Register while they do starter
- Go through starter.
- Explain objectives
- Present something
- Practise it in some way (L/S/R)
- Check their understanding so far (mini-plenary)
- Produce something – what can you do with it (S/W)? What understanding needs to be practised (L/R)?
- Plenary – an activity that shows you and them that they have managed to achieve the goal set at the start.
8) Reward effort (Carol Dweck – Mindset)
We spend a lot of time in our schools awarding achievement. We celebrate who can run fastest, act best, sing well, play well and much more. Effort is something that needs to be praised. The end result may not be great but the effort that went in was. If you show you value effort then you will eventually get attainment. If you show you value only attainment then the rest that missed it will not try. How could you deal with the situation below?
Teacher: “You put a lot of effort in there Tyler i’m really pleased”
Tyler: “But I didn’t finish it”