10 years ago, I was facing my first term as an NQT. I had some lovely classes, some challenging classes, and one tear-your-hair out nightmare class. Over the last 10 years, I’ve often had a similar combination, and after lots of practice, and much reflection, I thought I’d share my strategies for the start of the school year.
I know lots of bloggers spend hours and hours decorating their classrooms. Now, I am a Secondary School English teacher. I don’t have a themed classroom. In fact, I don’t like very busy classrooms – my displays stay on the display boards. I often do quite a lot of display work during the Summer term when I might have a bit more time, but this is not the time to decorate your classroom. This is the time to focus.
This term, the Autumn term, is the worst in the school year. It’s hard work to establish yourself with new classes, and, if you’re in a new school, new staff. It’s hard to get routines and expectations established. These things take time. At some point this term, you will look at your classes’ targets and think, they’re never going to make it. You will feel completely overwhelmed by the pressure to get your books, assessments and lesson plans perfect, and yet, when it’s dark outside and cold, working late into the night is the last thing you’ll want to do.
Be prepared for this: get some meals in the freezer, make sure you don’t over-commit your weekends (I’m still learning on this one), and settle in for the long haul. But here are some strategies for those first few weeks.
- Seating Plans
Seating Plans are your friend. They are your tool to learning those students’ names. I don’t ever meet a new class without having a seating plan. My seating plans are data and ability based: students sit in mixed-ability groups, and each student is allocated a number according to their ability. I tell them it is essential that they sit where I ask them to for their progress. A few years ago, I started telling them that the only way they could move seats was if they brought in a note from a parent about, for example, a medical condition which meant they had to move. I’ve had one such note in 4 years of doing this, and the girl in question actually was waiting to get glasses.
I change my seating plans every half term. My reasoning for this is simple: if you’re sat next to an idiot, at least you’re only sat next to him or her for half a term. I don’t always get it right, but I generally get a plan that works for half a term.
I also make sure that you don’t, for example, get one boy on a table of girls. I usually seat my classes in groups of 4, and that works well. I sometimes have all-girls or all-boys tables, and that can work really well too.
Get your hands on your classes’ data and scrutinise it. Ideally, base your seating plan on it, and mark it on your seating plans. I also have target and current grades on students’ books. If you know the students’ data, you will know who is underachieving, and who is working beyond their target. You can start differentiating from the moment they walk in the classroom.
Set out your expectations for presentation from the first lesson. Ideally, get them to complete a piece of written work in the first lesson. Then – here is the crunch – mark it before their next lesson. In this marking, pick up on every single presentation issue. Spend time the following lesson going over it, and they will quickly pick up on your standards for presentation.
I have done this with every class I have taught over the last 4 years, and it is the one thing that has transformed my books. I also love it when the kids are surprised that I’ve marked their books so quickly.
On the subject of marking, get marking straight away, and keep marking. I teach English, so my marking load is heavier than most teachers. I aim to mark all students’ books once a week, and write on my timetable whose books I am marking. Some nights it will be a quick mark, while other nights will be more intensive. But this means that you are always on top of your marking. Colleagues may ask you what you’re doing, marking this early in the term, but it’s the only way to avoid the marking hell that is a weekend of doing 150 books.
Be familiar with your school’s marking policy, and use it. If you want to add to it, start doing that straight away. Initiatives introduced halfway through the school year are not nearly as successful, so get your stickers out and print off your tick-lists.
For English teachers especially, plan your marking. If you know you’ll have 30 controlled assessments to mark one week, give yourself a lift with another class by doing speaking and listening assessments, for example.
If you’re on top of your marking, completing internal assessment data deadlines will be a breeze. Hopefully, your department will have clear assessment guidelines and tasks. If not, you need to make sure you design these at the beginning of the unit, and make sure you will have enough time to teach them. Far too often in the past, I have taught the reading components of a scheme of work, and then had to squeeze the writing in. Make sure there’s a balance.
Additionally, make sure you know when the data deadlines are. Many schools want the data in before half term, and I have seen lots of new teachers caught out by this. Plan time for your marking and filling in the data sheets – these seem to become more detailed every year.
It seems strange to discuss planning at this point, as we’ve touched on it, but in my experience, this is what teachers feel most comfortable doing – what we’re most used to doing. I’ve found that writing planning ideas on my timetable saves me time – for example, every Wednesday with Year 10 we’ll start with a reading task. Every Friday, we might have a quiz. On Monday mornings, when I anticipate they’ll be a bit sleepy, we’ll have a music-based activity. This just gives me a few more ideas. They are definitely not set in stone.
This is the hardest term, and things like Open Evenings, Parents Evenings and Inset training all seem to fall on your longest days. But if you put in the effort now, it will definitely pay off later in the year – and years – to come.