How to turn a lesson around in minutes.

Imagine the scene. It’s Thursday afternoon, and you’ve skipped lunch because you had to go to one of those life-sapping meetings, the meaningful content of which could have been conveyed in a one-line email with the subject line “Something we have to be seen to do for Ofsted if they ever turn up”. Your stomach is rumbling and you’d kill for a proper cup of coffee, but you missed the lunch service, and the filter coffee had run out by the time you managed to get to the staff room. You just managed to get to the loo, but it made you a minute late for your lesson, and by the time you arrive at your classroom door the students are loud and unruly, Beth and Stacey are arguing loudly and attracting a noisy crowd, and Lloyd is hitting Hassan over the head with a bendy ruler. You know that inside that room you have to log on to the register, find your resources and and set up the board. In short, it is going to be a messy start to the lesson.

Out of nowhere your stress level has gone up to 11. You know what you should do: take a deep breath, get the kids into a line, get them silent, think of something creative and constructive to occupy them while you set up for the lesson, smack on a big smile and greet each student as they come through the door. You know what you should do. What you do do is completely different. You shout at them in an unuseful way, with particularly focus on Lloyd (who is the student almost certain to be annoying you later), you open the door and rush to your desk while the kids pile in a unruly torrent.

You spend a few moments firing up the computer, writing on the board, giving out books, all the while barking one word instructions or hissing shushing noises. No one is taking a blind bit of notice.

By the time you are fully organised and you want the lesson to proceed smoothly to achievement of the prescribed learning outcomes, you have 100% totally and utterly lost the kids. With knobs on.


But, unaccountably not considering what this ramshackle start to the lesson has led to, you get irritated by the general lack of focus and become particularly annoyed with Lloyd, who is sitting triumphant among the turmoil, his head swivelling like a meerkat. You call him to attention. He retorts that everyone else is talking too. He’s right. They are. You know this, but you carry on regardless.

By now no one is listening to you. You set a piece of written work and go around the room, urging everyone to settle down and focus. Just twenty minutes too late.

This was approximately where I was about a week ago. In addition, I had our lovely PGCE student sitting in the corner of the room with her notebook, looking at me and trying not to let her disappointment show. After all, I’d been extolling the virtues of positive teaching since she arrived last month.

“Right,” I said, “why do you think they’re all behaving like this?”

She looked at me, trying to work out how honest she should be.

“Slightly disorganised start to the lesson?” She said, rather nervously.

I nodded.

“No names on the board?” she volunteered, nodding at the board.

And there it was. The 😊 sat there, where it should be, at the top,of the right side of the board. And under it … Nothing. Blank space. Whiteness.

“Not enough positivity?”

“All correct,” I said, “Let’s turn it around.”

I’ll admit it. I did make it sound as if I did it on purpose as a teaching experiment. Sorry Rachel. I didn’t. I really did start my lesson in that rubbish way and I didn’t moan to show you anything. I did it because I let myself get into a terrible mood and blamed the ensuing chaos the on the kids.

Come on, I thought. Practise what you preach.

“Right,” I roared above the din, “Let’s see who’s doing a good job. Harvey – your table are all working well…”

I walked over to that naked, reproachful smiley face on the board and wrote up the name of everyone on Harvey’s table. When I turned back to the class another table of students had quietened down and I wrote their names down, praising them loudly as I did so, so that they noticed.

“Who else?” I said, and by now several more were working well. “Let’s see who’s really thinking about the accuracy of their work.”

I grabbed my smiley face stamper and set off round the classroom. Wherever the work featured no errors (common French spelling mistakes) I stamped it. Where there were errors, I gave them clues as to where they were and said I’d come back to check.

Within minutes nearly all of them were back on task, and the right hand side of the board was covered in names. When Lloyd had corrected his work and got his smiley stamped in his book, even he smiled.

When the door closed on the last of the students, dismissed in an orderly and positive way, Rachel was impressed that the strategies which we’d discussed did work, even when a terrible start looked like the lesson was doomed. She proclaimed herself more than ever convinced by the wisdom of employing positive teaching in her lessons.

Everyone has their terrible moments, or terrible lessons, or even terrible days. If you can find it in yourself to try those strategies, it is possible to turn it around and thereby make life much easier for yourself. The fact is that moaning at kids begets moaning by kids and never leads to an outcome which is happy for all. Surely anything  is better than one of those endless gloomy days.

Remember: be vigilant for kids doing the RIGHT thing!


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