Back To School After Christmas: Teacher Survival Guide

[UPDATED 30th December 2020]

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati 

Firstly, may I say Happy New Year to all of my readers! May I wish you and your families a happy and successful 2021. May we all learn from the past, regret nothing (we can’t change it), and use our experiences to inform our decisions this year. Good luck to everyone!

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I managed to squeeze in a 4-day trip to Phuket, Thailand (highly recommended) over this Christmas vacation. Beaches were mostly abandoned due to the devastation of the tourism industry caused by Covid-19. However, I was lucky enough to be able to ride a jet ski, paddle a canoe, fly through zip lines at Hanuman World and even visit Phuket old town. This was a much-needed break from (new) normality, and provided a great chance for me to relax, reflect and gain some inspiration for my writing.

2020 has certainly been eventful for me. One of my articles (Ten Techniques Every Teacher Needs to Know) reached 42,000 views! This is, by far, my post popular blog post of all time: dwarfing the second-most popular (7 Starter Activities for PGCE Students and Newly Qualified Students) by a whopping 25,066 views at the time of writing. This disparity has not gone unnoticed, and I am currently writing my fifth book which will be a deeper explanation and exploration of the Ten Techniques (Should I call them the ‘Golden Ten’?).

Thank you so, so much to all of my followers and fans – your support keeps me going despite the obstacles of life that we all face (and 2020 has really been a tumultuous year for teachers – read Dr Andreas Economou’s recent blog post entitled ‘A Teacher’s Reflections on 2020‘ for more on this, along with some great tips for 2021). 

I’m truly humbled and honored to be able to help so many teachers with my writing. I don’t always get it spot on, and I’m never perfect, but I do try to offer ideas that are easy to implement and quick to put into action in the classroom. 

Keep following my blog and social media channels (such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) for future book giveaways, Amazon promo codes (for discounts on my books) and the future release of my podcast for teachers (updates will follow)

Back to school after Christmas

Let’s go through a few checklist items for primary and secondary teachers: top priorities upon returning to school.

Secondary School Teachers

  • Mock exams: Make sure papers are printed and ready and are easy to read and that the rules, length of the paper and space for candidate details are clearly displayed on the front page
  • Have you already prepared the mark schemes for your mocks? Get those done ASAP because both you and your students will need those model answers for assessment and reflection.
  • Termly plan: for your own personal use. Do you know where you are up to and where you are going? Are you ahead or behind schedule with your teaching? Have you planned in adjustments? 
  • Personal targets: Is there anything you could have done better last term? For me, my marking of student notebooks was regular but I know it could have been better. My target for this term is to get a good weekly marking schedule in place so that I can provide my students with even more regular feedback to inspire and motivate them (and to plan ahead when I know that school events are going to affect my personal marking schedule). Want to improve your teaching skills? Check out this great book list on Amazon. 
  • Coursework: Do you know all of the deadlines? When will it be sent off for moderation/marking? What do you need to do to make the process as helpful to the assessor as possible? Are your students clear about what’s expected?
  • Revision: Term 2 will move like a steam train. Before you know it, your kids will be sitting their final exams. Have you worked revision time into your schedule? Maybe some after-school sessions will work for you?
  • Take a look at the primary school teacher list below: some things apply to us too. 

Primary School Teachers

I might need your comments and help with this one, as I’m not a primary specialist. However, after some careful research, the consensus seems to be that you should be focused on the following:

Start easy. Don’t overwhelm your kids. Many of them will have been waking up late in their pyjamas over Christmas. Starting the day with a printable worksheet reviewing 10 maths problems they’ve covered since September wont go down too well. Try the following open ended tasks to ease them in:

  • Blank paper to colour and draw on
  • Morning boxes to explore (unifix cubes, pattern blocks, play dough, lego, etc.)
  • Journaling
  • Drawing or writing about Winter break
  • Puzzles
  • “Make a list” (For example: Make a list of as many Christmas words as you can think of. Draw or write the words on your paper.)
  • Create a “Welcome Back” greeting card for a friend

I have to give credit to Christina Decarbo for these excellent ideas here. This article of hers is filled with great after-Christmas tips for primary teachers. It’s well worth a visit! 

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Get organised. Plan your outfit –  for me that involves a lot of washing and ironing so all the better to start now! Pack your teacher bag. Clean out any remnants of holiday treats. You may find that the bottom of your teacher bag is pretty much coated in glitter from sweet cards from students and candy that escaped from cookies on the last day before break. It’s time to avoid an ant infestation! Plan and pack your meals and snacks for the first week and be sure to go to bed early.

Expect the worst. Some kids will be late. Some will not turn up for a few days. Some will forget things – they’re getting back into the swing of things too. Be prepared, Have extra pens and materials on hand for kids who forget stuff. Maybe plan for kids who forget their packed lunch. 

Once again – I can’t take credit for these last two ideas. This article at the Happy Teacher Happy Kids blog is filled with great advice for surviving the first few weeks back after Winter. 

Have a great second term everyone! Don’t forget to comment below or contact me if you have any questions or comments – your feedback is my lifeblood! 

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A Teacher’s Reflections on 2020: The Year of the Coronavirus

2020 has been an unforgettable year for the teaching profession. In many countries around the world schools were closed and teachers had to quickly adapt their knowledge and skills to deliver effective lessons remotely. Today, I’ve invited Dr Andreas Economou, Head of Science at The American International School in Cyprus, to share his reflections on 2020, along with some suggestions for teachers as we enter the New Year.

2020 is now gone, and what a year this has been. If you spent some time in social media looking through education/teacher dedicated accounts, you would have been exposed to the perception of the hive mind in this particular year. The consensus is that it was mostly doom and gloom. 2020 was “the worst”, and you will be reminded of the lockdown, all the issues of remote teaching such as the staring at blank screens in the chat rooms, the chronic student absenteeism, the lax in assessment and so on. But, there are those voices that point out that this was in-fact a great year because “we did it”. We all became online instructors overnight. We managed to persevere and provide the best, under the circumstances, education we could, and this should be celebrated.

In a way, perception is key. One of my favorite authors, Nikos Kazantzakis has stated “Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes that see reality” and these words cannot ring truer this year. Both cases described above about 2020 are true. It’s the way that you perceive reality that can make 2020 “the best” or “the worst”.

If we take this a step further, consider, how important is your own perception about your surroundings, and most importantly about your students?

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Setting high expectations signals to your students that you perceive them as able, intelligent and smart. Giving hard tests and challenging assignments signals the same. The opposite, easy tests, low expectations or half-backed lectures instead of a well-planned lesson signals to your learners that you perceive them as less able. And this perception, both by the educator as well as the learners is important. Anyone who has taught an “Honors” vs a “Standard” class in the same year can attest to that. The labeling of the classes as such is a self-fulfilling prophecy because the students perceive themselves more or less able because of it.

So how do we set high expectations? If you are a seasoned teacher, you already know that that this is a delicate issue. Setting the bar too high can lead to disappointment and disengagement. You need to make sure that you know your learners and set the bar a little bit higher day by day. Just enough, so when a student “fails” to clear the bar, he/she feels not disgruntled but instead convinced that they know exactly what they need to do to clear it in the future. And remember to cheer them for doing so. And keep on going.

Will your kids like you for this? Yes, and no. They will dislike every step of it. They are going to dislike the work you put them through, they are going to dislike the feedback demanding more of them, but in the end, when they realize how much they have learned and accomplished, then they will like you. And maybe, along the way, they will also realize the value of perception themselves.

Have a great 2021 every one. Let’s make it a good one!

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On Effective Target Setting for Educators

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)

The best way I can start this blog post is with a story: a story typical of many experiences I have had over the past 15 years as a high school science and mathematics teacher. It’s a story of hope: for our students, and for us as teachers.

Lucy’s experience

Lucy appeared nervous when I first met her. She had started Year 11/Grade 10 a month later than the other students, and had come to our school from a completely different country. English was not her first language, and to further compound things she was in my class to study chemistry (and at IGCSE level at that). She had never studied chemistry at any level before.

The whole class had a test coming up in a few weeks time. The test covered advanced topics in chemistry, along with some topics that had been covered the year previously. Lucy was incredibly nervous about having to sit that test.

“I’m just going to fail this test aren’t I” she whimpered one morning.

“Just try your best”, I said – realizing the monumental challenge that was ahead of her (in both the immediate, and long-term future).

She got a grade U in that test – a grade that most would consider a ‘fail’.

After the test, I sat down for a chat with Lucy about the different questions and how to answer each one. The time-investment on my part that day was significant (and, therefore, this strategy tends to be unpopular with some teachers), but it was worth it for a number of reasons:

  • We went through each and every question on the paper and, in Lucy’s case, this involved teaching her some fundamental chemistry from first-principles. This was a rich learning experience that helped her to grasp some of the basic concepts.
  • We agreed on a target for her next test – a grade E.
  • At random points in the weeks ahead I reminded her of her target. I would ask her “What’s your target, Lucy?”, and, crucially, “How will you make it happen?”. She would usually answer the latter question by describing the textbooks, websites and resources she would use for her revision. I would always reassure her by saying something along the lines of “I know you can do this!”.

When Lucy’s next test came along, she scored her target grade. After that, we repeated the same process: going through the paper deeply and carefully, followed by target articulation and my near-constant reminders of what that next target was. On some level I think she didn’t want to let me down. Eventually, that evolved into a desire to not let herself down.

She exceeded her target on her next test: scoring a grade C.

After almost two terms of repeating this process, Lucy found herself achieving grade As, and then A*s. At the end of the academic year she sat her IGCSE exams in Chemistry, and scored an A* – a more than monumental achievement considering that she had studied the course is much less time than the other students had, and had never learnt any chemistry prior to IGCSE.

Somewhere along this journey, Lucy really started to believe in her capabilities. I think she started to believe because she could see that was actually making progress. The process was working.

An analysis of Lucy’s story

A number of key elements came into-play to create success for Lucy. One such element was the fact that Lucy’s targets were SMART:

  • Specific: Lucy knew exactly what her expected minimum grade was for each test.
  • Measurable: Lucy knew the exact percentage she would need to achieve each grade, and therefore knew how many percentage points she would need to increase by (e.g. her grade U was 18%, and she would need 35% for a grade E – an increase of 17 percentage points).
  • Achievable: Lucy articulated her own targets along the way, and we went in ‘baby steps’.
  • Relevant: Lucy put-in so much effort because the journey was meaningful to her. She reached a stage where she wanted to outperform her peers, and she wanted to outperform her previous attainment.
  • Time-bound: Lucy knew exactly how many weeks would pass between the present moment and her next test. This allowed her to plan her revision in such a way that work could be spread-out over a period of time, rather than crammed at the last-minute.

SMART targets have been known about in teaching circles for decades, and are a well-established method for empowering students and facilitating progress. In fact, Jan O’Neill and Anne Conzemius stated probably one of the most poignant arguments for the use of SMART targets in their book The Power of SMART Goals: Using Goals to Improve Student Learning:

SMART goals redefine the relationship between effort and personal satisfaction. What the authors call “joy in work” can only be experienced when daily work is linked to goals that allow us to see that our thoughts and efforts connect, at every moment, to something larger and worthwhile – to something we can see and examine and enjoy. Without this orientation, effort and energy can only dissipate into aimless, joyless toil. Without goals, we will never work as hard or as smart to accomplish what is important – to us and for our students.

The Power of SMART Goals: Using Goals to Improve Student Learning by Anne Conzemius and Jan O’Neill.

In Lucy’s case, I could definitely see her initial ‘joyless toil’ when she started her IGCSE Chemistry studies turn into “joy in work” as she began to link her efforts to realistic, achievable goals.

In my personal opinion, however, I think teachers generally find it difficult to get the time-bound part of SMART targets perfectly on-par. Where possible, it’s really helpful to have a year-long schedule for all assessment planned in-advance, with a topic list for each assessment given to each student on day-one. Many educators, however, are reluctant to do this as it’s often difficult to follow a planned schedule as school events can knock-out a few lessons here and there, and lessons may progress at slower or faster pace than anticipated. However, I would still argue that having such an ‘assessment plan’ in-place is better than not having one – topic lists for each test can be modified along the way if more, or less, content has been covered. At least that way the students can plan-ahead, and if they are given specific, measurable targets (e.g. “I want you to get 40% on your next test”), then that can pursued with more confidence than if the test-dates and topic-lists are unclear.

Beyond SMART

A number of researchers have suggested ways to set targets that are even more effective than using the SMART system. Trevor Day of the University of Bath and Paul Tosey of the University of Surrey, for example, made the case in a 2011 paper for the use of ‘well formed outcomes’ in conjunction with SMART targets.

Well formed outcomes are a construct from the field of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and take into account the “learner’s identity, affective dimensions (feelings and emotions), social relations and values, as well as encouraging mental rehearsal.” You can read more about well-formed outcomes and how to use them for target-setting with your students at this excellent blog post here.

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The Importance of Patience in Teaching

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)

He was a mediocre student for many years: achieving unremarkable grades across the board at IGCSE level. He was reticent, stealthy and seemed somewhat shy. At IB Diploma level, however, things seemed to change. His personality remained somewhat the same as it always had, but his grades were increasing at a surprising rate. He seemed to be ‘getting it’: at least on paper.

In the end, he achieved the highest score in the whole school for his IB Diploma, and was well-above the world average. It was, by everyone’s judgement, a monumental achievement.

How many times has this happened to you as a teacher: a student shows improvement over time and even surprises you with how much progress they make? Sometimes our students just seem to ‘grow’ into achievement. Some grow slowly and steadily like a plant that is regularly fed and watered. Some shoot up in a surprising spurt: defying everyone’s initial predictions.

I believe strongly in the power of patience when working with students. This takes emotional control on the part of the teacher, but the reward is well-worth the wait. By being supportive, referring students to the most helpful resources and allowing each day to offer a ‘fresh start’ for every learner, I’ve found that even my greatest expectations are often exceeded.

Does patience begin and end with ‘waiting’ for our students to succeed? No, I don’t believe so. In fact, I’m convinced that effective teachers use patience as a useful tool for dealing with a number of situations:

  • Patience with ourselves as we approach deadlines and work steadily towards getting everything done (we must be forgiving to ourselves and learn to ‘leave work at work’, where possible).
  • Patience with colleagues when dealing with requests and projects. We’re all busy, and we have to acknowledge that our peers have commitments internally (many of which we may not be aware of) and at-home, or in life generally.
  • Patience with our students, especially when dealing with late homework and ‘waiting’ for progress to happen. I acknowledge that we may have to follow whole-school sanctions systems (e.g. a detention may be mandatory in the case of a late homework). However, where possible, patience should be deployed in my opinion. If a student consistently hands-in work on-time, but fails to bring a piece of homework to you one day, then should that student be sanctioned immediately? The answer to that question will depend on school policy, and your judgement.

Can you think of any other areas in which you would need to use patience as teacher? Perhaps in waiting for the queue at the photocopier to subside (I’ve been there, many times!). Perhaps it’s in waiting for a re-imbursement for some petty cash you had to spend on school expenses. Perhaps we need more patience when waiting for e-mail replies?

According to Leslie Schwab, a college science and maths professor, patience may be the most important characteristic that all outstanding teachers posses. In her article at schoolofeducators.com, she writes:

There are several characteristics that all good teachers have in common. They are patience; concern for their students; willingness to adapt, and; knowledge of the subject being taught. If these characteristics are lacking, a teacher cannot be an effective educator. Patience may be the most important characteristic of all. It is most important for teachers of subjects in science and mathematics. Some students can comprehend this subject material with minimal effort, while others may require more extensive explanations that may have to be repeated a number of times. As a college professor, I have had more students express anxiety over having to take basic college algebra over any other subject. When questioned about the reasons for this anxiety, the overwhelming response was that their high school math teachers were terrible. Their main critique of math teachers was their inability to explain solutions to math problems in a clear and concise manner. When these students would continue to state their lack of understanding, the teachers would lose their patience, and simply tell them to go home and practice more problems. When some students requested extra help, their teachers informed them they were unavailable for tutoring after class.

Leslie Schwab. Patience may be the most important.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with Leslie’s thoughts on patience?

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Should Every Movie, Series and TV Show be Screened by Teachers Prior to Release?

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)

Last night I had the pleasure of watching the latest cinematic rendition of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Based on one of my favorite childhood books, the movie did a great job of capturing the emotion, suspense and childlike playfulness that the original story invoked within me as a 5-year-old boy.

Not everyone shares my positive appraisal of the movie, however.

The film has been criticized by a number of individuals over its depiction of people with limb impairments. In the movie, the witches are depicted with deformed feet and hands, and are described by one the main characters, the Grandmother, as being “evil”. The criticism has been so expansive, that Warner Bros themselves have issued an apology in which they stated that they were “deeply saddened” that the movie “could upset people with disabilities” [BBC News].

I must admit that this is something that I, in my role as a teacher, didn’t even think about as I slouched in full amusement in front of the big screen. However, upon reflection, I understand the sentiments of Anne Hathaway (who plays the Grand High Witch in the movie) when she stated that “I particularly want to say I’m sorry to kids with limb differences” [BBC News].

Had this have been a movie aimed at adults, then the limb deformities depicted in the movie may not have caused as much indignation as they have done. However, this is a movie based on a children’s story and as a ‘PG’ film it offers an open invitation for children’s viewing. Some children with limb deformities (of which I have taught a significant number in my 15 years as teacher) may feel upset by the in-your-face connections that are made between missing fingers and toes, and the evil actions of the witches.

What’s the solution?

This is not the first time that a movie has caused controversy over it’s suitability for a child audience. Netflix’s Cuties film (2020), for example, received criticism amid claims that it depicted the child actors in a sexualized way [Newsweek]. Are mistakes like these the result of bad taste, or do they represent a serious misunderstanding of what should be deemed ‘age-appropriate’?

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPA) is responsible for age-rating movies within its jurisdiction based on their suitability for certain audiences [Wikipedia]. It would seem, then, that the lion’s share of the outrage over The Witches and Cuties should be directed at them, and not at the movie makers or actors. They were doing their job. Did the MPA do theirs?

Perhaps what’s needed is a panel of top-teachers and experts in pedagogy to screen any movies that are initially rated ‘G’, ‘PG’ or ‘PG-13’ (or their equivalents) by motion picture authorities. Could this be a ‘fluid’ panel, where a range of teachers sign-up for these rolls on a regular basis (like, for example, the role of examiners)? This, I believe, would provide teachers with an optional, and welcome, additional income. It would also provide an additional safeguard against inaccurate, or potentially problematic, ratings in the future.

Bibliography and References

BBC News (2020) The Witches: Backlash over film’s portrayal of limb impairments. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-54799930 (Accessed: 8th November 2020)

BBC News (2020) Anne Hathaway apologises for portrayal of limb difference in The Witches Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-54838201 (Accessed: 8th November 2020)

Nolan, E. (2020) ‘Cuties’ Netflix Film Causes Outrage for Poster ‘Sexualizing’ Children Available at: https://www.newsweek.com/cuties-netflix-film-poster-children-mignonnes-outrage-petition-1526483 (Accessed: 8th November 2020).

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Can Play-Based Learning Be Used in the Secondary Classroom?

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)

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Play is a term that is often associated with the teaching of small children, with the
aim being to
maximize spatial experiences so that long term memory, manual
dexterity and skills are developed.

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The Department of Education for the Government of Western Australia have the following to say about the importance of play:

Play is a powerful and important activity. It has a natural and positive influence on children’s social, physical, emotional and cognitive development. The best learning happens when children play. It is important to let your children play every day.

Department for Education, Government of Western Australia [2020]. Available at https://www.education.wa.edu.au/play-based-learning (accessed 1st November 2020)

Play doesn’t have to be limited to primary school and Early Years, however: teenagers and young adults can also benefit greatly from tasks that include competition and creativity of some kind. Try these ideas:

  • Play learning games with your students on a regular basis. This makes learning a lot of fun and helps to cement concepts firmly in the working memory of each student. Check out this blog post on learning games that require virtually no equipment and can be applied to any subject area.
  • Carry out practical activities related to your subject area (where possible). As a science teacher, this is quite standard for me as I am required to run experiments and laboratory investigations with my students on a regular basis. In other subject areas, anything that gets students moving and using their hands or technology to build, create or interact with something can be a great way to develop working memory (provided that the task being assigned is on-point and very closely related to the learning outcomes of the set curriculum (see my blog post on Cognitive Load Theory for more on this here).3.1-01
  • Get your students to build things. Materials like plastic bottles, bottlecaps, cardboard, coloured paper, plasticine/modelling clay, straws, shoeboxes and old rope can all be used creatively by students to make models of the concepts they are studying. I’ve used this technique across my teaching in Science to get students to create everything from atomic models to makeshift ‘eco gardens’. Here’s a model atom that one of my IGCSE Chemistry students made out of rudimentary materials a few years ago:

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What is ‘Cognitive Load Theory’?

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)

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Accompanying video (What is ‘Cognitive Load Theory’?):

It was a cold winter morning in Bangor, North Wales (UK). The year was 2004, and I was a second-year molecular biology bachelor’s student at Bangor University. My professor had given my group of students the task of finding a genetics-related research paper from any academic journal in the library, and then breaking it down into simple language so that we could present our findings to the rest of the class.

The task was incredibly difficult! In fact, it was so difficult, that it’s up there with one of the most cognitively demanding tasks I’ve ever completed. The paper our group selected centered-on ‘apoptosis’ (that’s when cells basically ‘commit suicide’), but the context and language of the paper was so specialized that the majority of what was written in it went right over our heads. The research had been written by PhD-level and post-doctoral experts and specialists.

We we’re 21-year-old kids who’d recently finished our ‘A’ – Levels.

Nowadays, educational experts would argue that the ‘cognitive load’ of the paper was too much for us to glean anything significant from it. We didn’t even have the language skills to understand what most of the paper was describing.

Difficulty vs. Pace

Cognitive Load Theory is a research-based tool for assessing the difficulty and pace of the tasks, assignments and instruction we deliver in-class to our students. In essence, when difficulty is high and pace is fast, then the cognitive load is high. When difficulty is low, and the pace is slow, then the cognitive load is also low.

That’s a very simplified synopsis, however. According to Mindtools.com, Cognitive Load Theory “takes a scientific approach to the design of learning materials, so that they present information at a pace and level of complexity that the learner can fully understand.”

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Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) builds on earlier models of memory and knowledge retention (such as the Atkinson and Shiffrin model of human information processing) and was developed in 1998 by psychologist John Sweller. The theory is considered to be the most modern and ‘up-to-date’ explanation of how memory is developed and stored. In the past 5 or so years, the theory has gained momentum and popularity in teaching circles, thanks in some part to Dylan William’s iconic tweet of 2017:

I’ve taken the excellent image below from a 2015 research paper by Edwards, Aris and Shukor, and I’ve modified it slightly to highlight what I believe to be the key takeaways:

Key points to bear in-mind about CLT:

  • Keep unnecessary, superfluous material to a minimum (e.g. news articles that may be topical and interesting, but link tentatively to the content that the kids actually need to learn for the final exam).
  • Increase exposure to actual, relevant learning material (this is called ‘intrinsic load’). This may include textbook sections, websites, learning software and summaries.
  • Present information through all of the senses (use movement, action, practical activities and outdoor activities where possible). See my blog posts on outdoor learning and spatial learning for more tips on how to embed this.
  • Practice, practice and practice some more! Use past-exam paper questions, quizzes (e.g. Kahoot!, Quizlet and BBC Bitesize), textbook questions and exam-style questions to really get the students to process the information they have learned. This is called ‘Germane load’, and it must be maximized in order to create long-term memory.

Recommended video

UKEd Academy discussion on Cognitive Load Theory with Steve Garnett (author of Cognitive Load Theory: A handbook for teachers):

Bibliography and references

Mind Tools Content Team (2016) Cognitive Load Theory. Available at https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/cognitive-load-theory.htm (Accessed 18th October 2020)

Atkinson, R.C.; Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). “Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes”. In Spence, K.W.; Spence, J.T. (eds.). The psychology of learning and motivation2. New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.

Edwards, B., Aris, B., Shukor, M. (2015). “Cognitive Load Implications of Social Media in Teaching and Learning”. Journal of Multidisciplinary Engineering Science and Technology (JMEST). Vol. 2 Issue 11, November – 2015.

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The Impact of Covid-19 on International School Recruitment

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)

On Wednesday of this week I had the pleasure of attending a webinar hosted by Diane Jacoutot of Edvectus: one of the world’s most respected international teacher recruitment agencies.

The webinar’s theme was centered on the impact that Covid-19 has had on international school recruitment, along with predicted trends for the near future. However, I found that the conversation between Diane and Dr Stephen Whitehead covered many important topics that are relevant to anyone currently teaching overseas, or those who wish to make the move one day.

You can watch a recording of the webinar at the Vimeo link below. However, in this blog post, I will provide a bulletpoint summary of the key points I took from this excellent dialogue, for those who prefer a quick read.

General points on teaching overseas

  • Making the move to teach overseas is a life-changing decision that should not be made lightly. Host culture, school culture, cost of living and your ability to teach the relevant curriculum/curricula are factors that should be considered.
  • International schools teach various curricula (e.g. the IB Diploma, the ‘British’ curriculum, the ‘American’ curriculum, etc.), and embody various approaches of applying said curricula (e.g. enquiry-based learning, Montessori pedagogy, traditional techniques, etc.).
  • 80% of international education caters for the host nationality/populace. This means that international school teachers are typically working with many students who are ESL/EAL/ELD. In addition to this, one has to consider native sensibilities when applying an international curriculum to a host culture (e.g. teaching freedom of speech and freedom of expression related-issues in China requires extra consideration. Teaching sex education in some southeast Asian countries can be tricky, as the host culture may not teach this until a later age than, say, the UK or US, and may not be as open to ideas related to gender fluidity/homosexualtiy as a western culture may be).
  • Culture-shock hits you regardless of where you go, or how many countries you’ve been to. In addition, many international school teachers face reverse culture shock when heading back home after a number of years. This is because not only has their home town/city changed in the interim, but they have changed too.
“An AMAZING Book!”

Transitioning from a state school in your home country to an international school overseas

You may find that:

  • There’s less paperwork and systems are more ‘streamlined’.
  • Class sizes are smaller.
  • Some schools can be very ‘corporate’ and business-driven.

It’s a good idea to do your due diligence before making the decision to take up a job at an international school. Ask if you can be put in-touch with a teacher who works at that school. If the school is reluctant to do this, then that’s a definite red flag.

The effect of Covid-19 on the current international education jobs’ market

  • Vacancies are down by about two thirds/66% and the market is depressed.
  • Lot’s of online teaching is happening right now.
  • Having a poor internet connection can be a major disadvantage now, as this is increasingly becoming a prerequisite for getting an overseas teaching job.
  • Key skills that schools are looking for now include being tech savvy (why not become a Google Certified Educator?), being adaptable, evidence of outstanding teaching abilities and good subject knowledge (as teaching from home means that you can’t rely on your team as much as when you’re physically at school).

Schools are basically recruiting teachers with online teaching capabilities in-mind (preparing for the possibility of a second lockdown, or in some cases, for the lockdown that’s already in-place).

  • China is now open for applications, and it’s pretty much business as usual there.
  • In the Middle-East it’s 50:50 – around half of the teaching that’s happening right now is online; half is in-school.
  • Kuwait is still in total lockdown. Schools are shut and online learning is taking place.

Presenting the best impression of yourself in the application process

Make sure you have a great C.V.:

  • Talk about the things you’ve actually done. Don’t just copy tidbits from the published job description of the job you are applying for.
  • Describe what you’ve done to get excellent results (attainment is an especially important consideration for schools right now).
  • Explain your tech skills. Get tech skills if you don’t have them!
  • Demonstrate good communication skills – schools are really looking for this now, as you may have to teach online in the event of a future lockdown.
  • Show that you are resilient. Schools will look at your C.V. to determine this. A big factor will be how many schools you’ve worked at, and how long you’ve stayed at each school. Do you come across as a ‘job hopper’ or a loyal, stable employee? Schools are really looking for stability right now, so try to capitalize on any evidence of ‘sticking with it’ that you can show, If you’ve left a school in the past, then why? Does this demonstrate resilience?
  • Reputation is more important now than ever: and that means your current school’s reputation as well as your own. Develop a strategy: Teach abroad for a few years at a decent school before moving on to a more elite establishment (with higher pay and more benefits). Be careful about what you post on social media: your personality will be judged (e.g. openly supporting Hong Kong protesters may not be looked upon favorably if you’re applying for a job in China).
  • IB (International Baccalaureate) experience is extremely valuable. If you don’t have any IB experience, then it will be probably be worth doing some IB courses (e.g. IB Category 1 courses in your subject area, which can be done online) prior to applying. Getting into IB schools when you have no IB experience can be tricky, but it is possible if you are tactical: look at less desirable locations to teach at an IB school for a few years first (e.g. Kyrgyzstan) – this will give you valuable experience that you can use to support an application to a top-tier school in a more desirable country later on.

The basic theme that you want to keep in-mind when preparing your application is this: Can I cope with the unknown? Can you show a potential employer that you are adaptable?

The international education market experienced an explosive growth track in the years immediately prior to Covid-19. The market has now been effectively ‘dampened down’ by the pandemic. The market is still expected to expand, however, but in different ways to years prior.

  • Top-tier schools are not offering as many high-end packages for teachers as before.
  • Dubai and other countries in the Middle-East have local education markets that are very much dependent on oil prices, which have been very low for quite some time. Covid-19 has added fuel to this fire as fewer people can, and are, travelling there. At the moment, the Middle-East is understaffed and when lockdowns are finally lifted and travel resumes, demand for expatriate teachers will be at an all-time high.
  • High fee-paying schools have been losing students to mid-level schools, and this trend is expect to continue as we enter 2021.
  • China is expected to continue running normally. China is closest to the ‘old normal’ than any other international school market on the planet right now. There are around 3.6 million Chinese millionaires in China and there exists a ‘pent-up’ demand for international education in wake of restrictions on international education being recently lifted.

Global demographics of international schools

  • British curricula (EY, KS2, KS3, IGCSEs, ‘AS’ and ‘A2-Levels) are taught in roughly one third to a half of all international schools globally.
  • The American system is popular at affordable schools in the Middle-East and Japan. Approximately 15-20% of all international schools follow an American curriculum.
  • The remainder of the schools are IB World Schools, and these tend to be high-paying, top-tier establishments with great expatriate packages. As mentioned earlier, IB experience is extremely valuable on the international marketplace.

Predicted trends

  • The market will recover, albeit in different ways depending on location.
  • Africa and Latin America are expected to recover slowly.
  • The Middle-East is expected to be depressed for a number of years: this region has been hit with a ‘double whammy’ of Covid-19 and low oil prices.
  • One-year contracts are becoming the norm in many schools, but some clients are asking for two or three-year contracts (and schools sometimes offer these). Permanent contracts are extremely rare at international schools (due to visa and immigration regulations).
  • The application and renewal of contract process is expected to keep moving to earlier and earlier dates in the calendar. Teachers will be expected to notify their school of their intentions early (typically in Term 1/the first semester) and more and more schools will begin recruiting in November (or earlier) for the following academic year.

Questions and answers

  1. Is this a bad year to be thinking about changing jobs?

Yes and no. On the one hand, there are fewer teachers on the market this year, so there is less competition for jobs. On the other hand, there are fewer jobs available. Early years positions, for example, have seen a massive drop globally as this is non-compulsory education (and parents are choosing to keep their kids at home).

2. Have leadership posts changed?

Not really, but again: this is regional. Senior management positions are relatively unaffected, but many schools are cutting middle-management positions in order to save money.

As mentioned earlier: China is relatively unaffected. 200 new international schools were planned to be built in China (prior to Covid-19). Around 100 of those are actually happening and are being built.

3. Have contractual obligations been affected?

For the most part, no, but there have been anomalies. Contracts are dependent on teachers getting a visa. If you can’t get a visa, then a contract may be cut. Recently, contracts at some schools have been cancelled prior to the position starting due to a drop in enrollment.

4. Will a gap year due to Covid-19 reduce my chances of getting a job?

It depends. A potential employer will most certainly want to know what you’ve been doing to keep your ‘finger in the pie’ whilst you’ve been away from work. Think about taking some online courses (e.g. through Udemy, Coursera or EdX). There are many great online courses in educational theory/pedagogy that are free to take.

Please watch the full interview at the top of this blog post to hear answers to more questions (such as ‘Does age matter?’ and ‘What do you need to be considered as a ‘qualified teacher?’)

Recommended book

The hosts of the webinar recommend International Schools: The Teacher’s Handbook (a forthcoming book authored by Dr. Stephen Whitehead and Denry Machin) for anyone who is interested in teaching overseas.

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Using Data to Empower Students

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback)

Accompanying video:

He sits in class quietly, fumbling through the pages of his end-of-topic test. He’s not used to achieving well academically. He tries to revise and study, but finds that distractions at home get in the way (e.g. online gaming). He receives validation and enjoyment from the superfluous, and has not yet learned to gain power from personal progress that is real and tangible, as opposed to intangible and virtual.

He leaves around 50% of the paper blank. I mark it, hand it back to him the next lesson, and he find out that he got a grade E. He’s not surprised. He’s used to this.

Then I decide that this simply cannot happen again. I decide to end the cycle of mediocrity.

I talk, at length, with Michael about what went wrong in his test. He tells me that he ran out of time. He tells me that he didn’t understand some of the questions (so we go though them, together). He tells me that he truthfully did not spend any time at home revising.

I tell him that he absolutely MUST get a grade D in his next test. Failure is not an option.

“What’s your target for your next text, Michael”

“A grade D, sir”

“Yes, and I know you can achieve that because I’ve seen your amazing work in class with me before” (I prime him – I tell him that I believe in him and, crucially, why I believe in him. And it’s not a lie I’ve made up. I mean it).

“What can you do to make sure you get that grade D”

“I can review the textbook questions on Google Classroom. Look at notes. Go through the BBC Bitesize material. Go through my past test again” (I make sure he knows what he can do to make this big change in his life – going from an E to a D)

His next test is not until 5 weeks time – perfect: this gives me the opportunity to work on his self-motivation, subtly (a process I call ‘subtle reinforcement‘).

I see him on the corridor infrequently, and I ask him “What’s your target for your next test, Michael”.

“A grade, D, sir”.

I see him in class as the 5 weeks pass by. I ask him “How’s your prep for the next test going”.

“I’m working on it”.

The test day comes. He gets a D (and is one mark off a C). He asks to see me at teh end of class. He can’t contain himself:

“This is the first time this has happened to me”, he says.

“You made it happen, Michael. We can all achieve what we aim for, if we do actually aim and work.”

For the first time in Michael’s life, he feels deeply (at an emotional level), what it means to make something happen.

We collect data, but do we use data?

My question to teachers this week is this: We’re all very good at collecting data, but do we actually use that data to enact massive change in our students? Do we use that data to initiate the momentum of self-actualization for our students?

Michael’s story is typical of hundreds of students I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the past 15 years. When a teacher truly and genuinely believes in a student’s capabilities, and then uses the leverage that data provides, amazing things really can happen.

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What is the Metacognition Cycle, and how can we use it?

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Accompanying video:

I’m a great believer in passing-on information about strategies that actually work: things that we, as teachers, can actually deploy in the classroom right away.

The Metacognition Cycle is one such thing.

Great for project work, or for transforming any task we set in-c;ass; the Metacognition Cycle can be used effectively to draw out extra richness and depth from any content our students are required to understand.

So, what are the stages of the cycle, and how does each stage work?

Stage 1: Assess the task

What does the task actually involve? What do we have to do, or understand? What’s the desired outcome?: a Google Slides, a written price of homework, a Kahoot! Quiz?

These are the fundamental questions that students must know the answers to before the task can even begin. You may wish to try the following approaches:

  • Create a concept map on the whiteboard and ask students to come up and write down what they think they need to do, and what the task may involve.
  • Have a quick group discussion.
  • Explain the task as clearly as you can, and follow-through with extension questions in a quick-fire manner: “Jessica, what does ‘Describe the process’ mean?”
  • Try some spatial-learning techniques to draw-out the answers from the students. For example, try asking true/false questions and ask students to walk to positions in the room that represent those two options. Try a human graph.

If the students are not REALLY clear about what the task involves (or what the task is), then how can they begin the task correctly?

Stage 2: Evaluate Strengths and Weaknesses

Our students need to be encouraged to honestly evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses so that:

  • They can utilize their strengths in the completion of the task (especially good for group tasks)
  • Work on practicing skills that will improve their areas of weakness

A suitable example might be a group of three students assigned the task of creating a news report about a chemical explosion. One student might be the best at art, and could be assigned to produce the graphics. One student might be great at verbal communication in front of an audience, and could be the ‘news anchor’. One student might understand chemical calculations really well, and could provide the script for the news anchor for that particular part the task.

It’s important that students delegate carefully in groups, and work on personal targets whether in groups or working individually.

Stage 3: Plan the approach

Flow charts are great for this, as are concept maps. Where possible, it’s great if the students can CHOOSE the approach they take (e.g. for a news report, perhaps a choice between a written article, a filmed on-site report and web-based report could be given).

When students have some degree of autonomy over what they can choose to do, this will make the planning process more useful and fruitful for them. This stage of the Metacognition Cycle is designed to work on critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as providing the opportunity to be creative.

Stage 4: Apply Strategies

This is the ‘doing’ part – the part in which the students are actually getting ‘stuck-in’.

My advice to teachers is to supervise well (walk around and check on the students, or ask group leaders, groups or individuals to come to your desk to report on progress). Also, be sure to remind students that they can change their approach along the way if a particular strategy isn’t working).

Stage 5: Reflect

As teachers, we should be providing feedback, but why not also get the students involved in that? Ask groups to evaluate groups, provide a self-reflection form to fill in or even get groups to add a reflection on the process at the end of their project.

Three (bare minimum) questions that students should be asking themselves are:

  1. What did I learn during this task?
  2. What did I do well?
  3. What would I do better if I were given the opportunity to do this task again?