Updated from original in 2014. This is a summary of things that I have tried and their various strengths. For any ECT/NQTs looking for a more detailed walkthrough, I would recommend Silvia Bastow’s website and particularly this
The one thing my PGCE never prepared me for was what to do in the first lesson of the year. I’ve now had 8-9 attempts. As a result of different heads of department, changing schools a few years ago and different policies, I have tried many different ways of doing the first lesson of the year. I’ll come to these later.
The biggest help you can give yourself is a strong start. As readers of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of football and a particular club which might explain the lack of Liverpool/Man City in the following examples. A strong start normally makes for a good season:
- 1960 Tottenham – won first 11 games, won the league.
- 1993 Man Utd – won 13 out of 15 opening games, won the league.
- 2003 Arsenal – won 10 out of 13 opening games, won the league.
I would argue the same applies in teaching, however if you don’t manage a strong start with a class, then let me assure you that it can improve over time. If you find after a few weeks that you are struggling then I would suggest:
- Talking to someone in your school.
- Observing others with similar classes and seeing how they manage them.
- Any material by Tom Bennett, Tom Sherrington and Shaun Allison Their writings were invaluable in my early career.
- This shameless self-promotion blog.
- And this blog from the same shameless self-promoting author.
How do you give yourself a strong start?
Have a Seating Plan. Students enter the room and I tell them where I want them to sit. Seating plans are an invaluable tool in pre-empting behaviour, learning names and establishing that it is your space they are entering. Students with various needs will have arrangements made for their seating. This will be done entirely in the TL. Students line up outside the room and are greeted before being asked in TL to sit in a particular seat. As for where to sit students, I generally go with boy/girl pairings never in alphabetical order. Some with particularly tricky behaviour records will be strategically placed, according to any intel that we have on them. SEN/PP are also carefully considered. If they disagree with the seating then I will offer them the opportunity to discuss it at the end. If they refuse to take that opportunity then follow your school’s policy regarding defiance.
Have every resource ready and accessible. Slick and professional is a good way to start. If your school has a number of sheets to glue in then make sure you have the sheets. Make sure you know where you can get more from mid-lesson if needed (a friendly colleague or a central supply). Make sure your PowerPoints, mini-whiteboards and whatever you intend to use are ready. This highlights that you are in control, you are organised, you pay attention to detail and you want to maximise the time they have in the classroom.
Be prepared and look calm. Most groups will likely be quite compliant in this lesson. It is a honeymoon period. Do not be fooled, many students will push your boundaries over the next few weeks. This could be through disruption, defiance or non-completion of homework. Be ready to use the systems and don’t be afraid to do so. Don’t be afraid to call home positively or negative in the first few weeks.
Consider the student. Some students will already have written your subject off. Consider painting the big picture briefly at some point. How is this subject useful? Draw on experiences you or others have had. I could line up 20 teachers in my school who openly have expressed regret at not learning a language. How can you convince them that learning languages is: fun, relevant and useful? Consider how you can create a feeling of “can do” and success in the early weeks. Rosenshine suggests that students need a success rate of 80%. How are 8×6 and 9y5 going to have a success rate of 80%?
Smile while being firm and fair. I remember being given the “don’t smile until Christmas advice” on my PGCE. No! You can smile as long as you are doing your best to be firm, fair and consistent. It’s ok to get things wrong occasionally, we are human beings and it does happen. The key thing is how you learn from it and what you do next.
Do not lower your standards at all. High expectations are crucial. It may sound harsh but will pay dividends long term. I learnt this the hard way in my first few years. Behaviour matters, effort matters, trying matters and homework matters. Reward the good stuff and make sure there are consequences for the negative stuff. Stick to the school systems.
After that is where things vary year to year. Here are some of the approaches i have tried:
Admin first approach
The pros of this approach is that everyone starts from the same point and all the necessary stuff is done. Rules can be established and students are very compliant in this lesson, often regardless of ability. In the past, this has included gluing in various sheets, going through and copying out some classroom expectations and maybe completing some reflection sentences. My three “go to” sentences were these:
- I enjoy Spanish lessons particularly when …
- Aspects of language learning I find difficult are …
- If my last Spanish/French/German teacher were here they would say…
The latter generally is answered quite honestly. They also give you an idea about which activities the class enjoys least (often listening, remembering lots of vocab, speaking in front of others or writing long paragraphs). This then informs your planning for the first few weeks as you can build up to these and scaffold accordingly. It is also quite helpful with some pupils to follow up on it later in the term. “You said you found writing long paragraphs hard last year, has it got any easier?”
My main issue with this is that sometimes there is not enough time for a language based activity or fun. This means that students are left waiting until the next lesson for the real learning to start. A lot of subjects also take this approach and it can get a bit monotonous if students have done it 5 times before they reach your lesson.
Lesson learnt: if showing the kids what to put on the front of their book never write an example name like “Lionel Messi” as some Year 10s don’t know who he is…as a result I taught Lionel Messi for a year, and she did alright in Spanish.
Information Gleaning Approach
Often following shortly on the heels of the “admin first” approach, the teacher may set the students a series of questions to answer in the back of their books such as:
- What aspects of language learning have you been good at/struggled with in the past?
- Which skills (speaking, listening, reading, writing) do you feel you are good at, and why?
- If your previous teacher were here, what would they say about your performance in their lessons?
This can often be quite useful as long as students are silent when doing it. The information needs to come from them unaffected by their peers. If you refer to the information gleaned in subsequent lessons then this shows the students you value them.
Lesson learnt: really effective if kids are silent but also if they are lazy or unmotivated then they will probably not finish this. That in itself is information enough. The question is then what are you going to do about it?
Engage then admin.
In my second year of teaching, I tried this approach of having a normal lesson first with a number of good fun activities to start the year. It really worked with a couple of year 7 groups and year 8 groups as it allowed them to have a sense of achievement and the emphasis was on learning rather than admin. We then completed the admin in the second lesson. A short summary of rules were given and I made sure students kept to them. There was a focus on speaking and listening as students had no paper to write down anything.
Lesson learnt: Short summary of rules is crucial and mini-whiteboards need to be available. Routines around the use of mini-whiteboards need to be established quickly.
In my current school, we seem to manage a hybrid of both “admin first” and “straight in”. Books and sheets are swiftly given out. Rules and expectations are outlined. We then get straight into learning or revising content from a previous year. If it is Y7 then we will start on meeting and greeting. If it is Y8,9,10,11 then we will get started on the topic for the term. Personally, I have never been a fan of quizzes about the country in the first lesson. I prefer that they leave my room feeling that they can do something in the TL, or have learnt something. That doesn’t mean that the cultural stuff is not important but when it comes to culture, I prefer teaching them the various cultural aspects as they arise, or linking them to a topic. I have yet to write a post on teaching culture so maybe that will come at some point.
Lessons learnt: So far this hybrid model seems to be may preferred method. It makes expectations and rules clear but then gets on with the first priority: learning.