Originally posted December 2017. Updated December 2022.
The Christmas vacation is finally here. Many of us in the teaching profession can now look forward to a good couple of weeks of much-needed rest and recuperation.
Our students deserve a break too.
I agree that time spent with family and friends is an absolute essential right now, but I’m also mindful of the workload and duties that will hit me like a tornado when I return to school in January.
When it comes to school holidays, I always see them as time to ‘go at my own pace’. The way I see it, I have two choices:
Do nothing for the whole holiday and totally chill out, returning to the normal barrage of work that hits every teacher at the start of Term 2
Still have a holiday and some rest but do some little things to get a head-start on things before I return to school
I’ve always found that trying to do option 2 is the best, even if I don’t get through all of the ‘head-start’ work that I plan to do.
Is this an admission of failure before I even begin? Maybe, but here are my plans made as realistic as possible: meaning that I can have a rest and do around 50% (minimum) of these things too:
Requisitions and orders: I’m a Science Teacher, so I need to order chemicals and equipment for my lessons each week. This Christmas my first priority will be to get all of my requisitions done for each week of Term 2, ahead of time. This will save me many a long night when I get back to school, and will help me to plan ahead and reinforce my long-term curriculum mapping.
Termly review: Every Christmas I make it a priority to evaluate where I am at now, and where I want to be with my classes by the end of the term. This kind of self-analysis allows me to see where I’m behind and where I’m ahead and how to address those issues. This is really important for final-level exam classes as they must have covered the whole syllabus and have revised by the time the terminal exams come along.
Getting back to gym: I’ve been slacking off lately (I said this back in 2017 too!). No excuses this time. I’ve got every day free for a few weeks so I’ll be up early and out for a jog before hitting the weights later in the day.
Responding to student e-mails: Some students in my exam classes will be e-mailing me with questions about past-papers, coursework and subject-specific stuff. If I can help, then I will help. However, if not urgent, then I will deal with these queries when I am back at school.
Clothes: I’m running out of a few things (such as shirts that actually fit me!). Time for a wardrobe mini-makeover so that I continue to look half-decent at work.
Writing my next book: My first book was quite well-received, as was my second (The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback) so I’ve decided to have a go at writing another. Ten Techniques Every Teacher Needs to Know will explore the themes of classroom management and assessment to inform learning in even greater depth and breadth than my first book, and will build upon the fundamentals covered in one of my most popular blog posts. I see this as ‘downtime’ for me because I really love writing. Can I count this as ‘relaxation’?
Going back to karate: Another thing I’ve been putting off. Time to get a regular schedule set up.
Contacting people I should have contacted ages ago. Chasing up old leads and projects that I’ve allowed to slip.
Of course, as well as all of this I plan to enjoy my freedom in Thailand as much as possible. A trip to Pak Chong (where The Big Boss was filmed), along with my long-awaited visit to the Death Railway in Kanchanaburi (still haven’t done that yet – it needs to go on the list!).
How will you use your free-time this Christmas? Is it all one-big holiday or can you think of some small ways to make your life easier when you get back to school?
It was a mid-spring morning in 1996. I was 13 years old enjoying Science class with one of my favourite teachers up on the top-floor lab at North Wales’ prestigious St. Richard Gwyn R.C. High School.
I loved Science. The feel of the lab, decorated with preserved samples in jars and colorful posters and periodic tables and famous Scientists on the walls, along with the cool gas taps and Bunsen burners that rested on each desk. This was my favorite part of the school.
Today’s lesson was special though, and I remember it for a very unexpected reason.
We were receiving back our Forces and Motion tests today. I loved getting my tests back, not least because I always revised really hard and was used to getting at least 75% on each one.
I always used to do two things whenever I got my tests back:
Check that the teacher had added up the scores correctly
Check how to improve my answers
On this particular day I had lost marks on a question that was phrased something like this: ‘If a rocket is travelling through space, what will happen to the rocket if all of the forces on it become balanced?’
In my answer I had written: ‘The rocket will either continue travelling at a constant speed or will not move at all.’
Now, how do I remember this seemingly obscure moment in a sea of moments from high school, most of which I cannot recall? Well, that’s simple: My teacher came over and took the time and effort to verbally explain where I’d gone wrong.
I should have just written that the rocket will continue at a constant speed, not “or will not move at all”.
This moment of personal, verbal feedback from my teacher was powerful and precious. Not only did it serve to maintain my momentum in Science learning, but it left me with visual impressions of the memory itself: My friends in the Science lab, the posters on the wall and even the sunlight shining over the glistening Dee Estuary which was visible from the Science lab windows.
This little story shows us the power of verbal feedback, and therefore the caution we should place on what we say to our students. Young girls and boys grow up to become men and women, and their teachers leave a number of impressions on them, some of which are permanent.
The trick is to ensure that the permanent impressions are useful, positive and productive: As was the case with my conversation with my teacher that day.
And not all impressions need to be verbal. Written feedback can be just as memorable.
Let’s now explore the fundamentals of effective student feedback that are easy to implement, and useful.
Peer Assess Properly – The Traditional Method
I first learnt the power of peer assessment back in 2008, when I had just moved to Thailand.
As a keen young teacher with two years of UK teaching experience, I found myself teaching students who were all very keen to do their best. Homework assignments and classwork seem to come my way on a real-time, live-stream basis, and I soon found myself inundated with work to mark.
At first, I tried the traditional methods of using a green or red pen to write lengthy comments on each piece of work. I had learned from my training in Assessment for Learning in the UK, that written comments that help the student to improve were much better than a letter grade or a score followed by a ‘Well Done’. I’d learnt about the ‘two stars and wish rule’ where I’d write two positive things about the work and then one item or target for improvement.
These ideas were great in theory, but I found that my weekends became shorter and shorter as I tried to write effective comments on every piece of work that came in. I was spending less and less time doing the hobbies I enjoyed, and I became quite the old grouch.
I finally expressed my concerns in the staff room one day and a colleague of mine said “You should do more peer assessment”. She was right.
I instantly started getting my students to mark their own work, and reflect upon it, and the results were astounding: My weekends became ‘me time’ again, and students seemed to learn better than they would from receiving my comments.
As I continued to develop my skills in assigning proper peer-assessment, I discovered that I was sometimes making some catastrophic errors. I refined my strategy over the years, and came up with this six-step system:
Step 1: Make sure that the work you set has an official mark scheme or set of model answers associated with it. There’s nothing worse than trying to ‘guess’ the best answers along the way as you’re trying to get the kids to assess the work. Make your own mark scheme if necessary, but make sure the answers are clear.
Step 2: When it comes time for the kids to assess the work, ask them to swap their work with someone else in the class. Alternatively, if this doesn’t work for your particular class, then collect the work in and redistribute it.
Step 3: Ask each student to get a colored pen ready to mark with. Red and green are good. You may wish to have a set of special ‘marking pens’ somewhere in class that the kids can use whenever they mark each others’ work.
Step 4: Print the official mark scheme and give a copy to each student. This has the advantage of providing a permanent copy for each student to keep, and allows you time to help students as they mark. Projecting the answers onto a screen canalso work, but you may find that students cannot see and that you may have to scroll through at a pace that’s not suitable for every student. Printing a copy, or sharing it on the schools VLE so that students can access it via a tablet or laptop, is best.
Step 5: Make it very clear that students should tick the answer if it’s correct, and make full corrections if it is wrong. The mere act of writing out the model answer onto the work being marked will reinforce the concepts into the subconscious mind of the student.
Step 6: Let the students give the work back. Collect it in at the end of the lesson so that you can glance through and check that everyone has peer assessed properly. If anyone hasn’t, then make them do it again.
Once work has been peer-assessed, you can sit down with individual students and have ‘progress conversations’ designed to pin point areas of weakness and highlight areas of strength
You have to be quite organised with this method (e.g. making sure you print the mark schemes on time). However, this will save you loads of time and will definitely help the kids to learn properly.
Experiment with automated assessment
I wrote a blog postabout the effective use of ICT in lessons some weeks back, and I mentioned the first time I came across MyiMaths.
It was back in 2013, and it totally transformed my work life.
Why? That’s simple. Students would go into the ICT lab, or use their laptops or tablets in class, and literally be taught mathematics by the computer! The program would even assess the work immediately, and differentiation wasn’t a problem because students could work through the tasks at their own individual pace. The benefits were enormous:
All of the students were focused and engaged
All of the students were challenged
The teacher had more time to spend with individuals working on specific problems
The content was relevant and stimulating
No behavior management issues as the students were all quietly working
No time was needed by the teacher for marking and assessment. The program did all that for you. All you had to do was collate the data.
There are numerous instructional software programs on the market today that save the teacher lots of marking time, and provide the students with engaging material to learn from, Whilst I wouldn’t advocate using instructional software every lesson, it certainly can become a big and effective part of your teaching arsenal.
Give verbal feedback the right way
Verbal feedback is a great way to have a personal one-to-one conversation with a student. It can help you to address systemic, widespread issues (e.g. not writing down all of the steps in calculations) and it can be a great way to motivate each student.
However, many teachers are only going so far with verbal feedback and are not using it as the powerful tool it is.
Take this piece of KS3 Geography work for example:
I received this work from a parent at dinner, who knew I was an educational author, on 21st June 2016.
You’ll undoubtedly have noticed the dates on the work: 1st December and 8th December 2015. I’m sure you’ll have shuddered upon the realization that this work hadn’t been marked in seven months! No peer-assessment, no self-assessment and no comments from the teacher. There aren’t even any ticks! Add this to the fact that this boy’s entire notebook was completely unmarked, just like this, and you can begin to understand why I nearly had palpitations in front of several avid noodle and rice connoisseurs!
When I asked the boy about why it wasn’t marked, he said that this teacher never marked worked, he just gave the occasional verbal feedback. My next obvious question was to ask what verbal feedback he’d received about this work. He said he
With teacher workloads increasing globally, this kind of approach is, unfortunately, not uncommon, However, verbal feedback need not be time-consuming and can be executed in a much better way than is seen here in this Geography work. Here are my tips:
1. Set your students a task to do and call each student one-by-one to have a chat about their work. Be strict with your timings – if you have a 40 minute lesson and 20 students in the class then keep each conversation to two minutes.
Mention the points for improvement and use sincere praise to address the good points about the work. Ask the student to reflect on the work too.
Once the conversation is over, write ‘VF’ on the work, and ask the student to make improvements to it. Agree on a time to collect it in again so that you can glance over the improvements.
As you can see, this simple three step approach to verbal feedback generates a much more productive use of time than simply having a chat with the student. Action has to be taken after the discussion, and this places the responsibility of learning solely in the hands of the student, which is where it should be.
Be specific in your comments
Sometimes it is appropriate to collect student work and scribble your comments on it with a colored pen. When you do this, make sure your comments are specific and positive, Take a look at these examples, which all serve to empower the student:
Peer Assess Properly – The Technological Method
A growing trend that is proving popular with teachers is to use Google forms in the peer assessment process. I wrote about this in my book, and I’ve included the extracts here:
A good form for students will look something like this:
There are many alternatives to using Google forms. For example, you may wish to create a form via your school’s VLE, or even get the students to send each other their work through e-mail or a chat application (although this will remove anonymity). Either way, peer assessment with technology will save you time and provide your students with quick, detailed feedback.
Make sure students improve their work
A common theme you may have spotted in this week’s blog post is that of improvement. Students should always improve the work that’s been marked or assessed. This serves two purposes:
The student will get into the habit of giving their best effort each time. After all, a great first attempt means less effort needed in the improvement phase
The process of improving a piece of work serves to firmly cement concepts in the subconscious mind of the student, aiding memory and retention
Don’t forget to use rubrics, mark schemes and comments – students can’t possibly improve their work without these.
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Updated: October 2022 (Originally posted May 2017)
I received a message from a very stressed out Newly Qualified Teacher a few weeks ago. It pertains to a problem that many educators face: dealing with homework. When I told her that I was planning to write an article about this very issue, she agreed to share her message with all my readers:
Dear Richard. I’m about to finish my first year in teaching and I’m really ashamed to admit that I haven’t been able to mark my students’ homework on time each week. In fact, I’ve set so much homework that it has just piled up and piled up over the course of this year, to the point where I now have a literal mountain to deal with! I’m kind of hoping that most of my students will forget that I have their work, and this seems to be happening as some of it is months old. I’m so stressed out! How can I make sure that this never, ever happens again?! – G
Being overwhelmed with marking, particularly that caused by homework, is a common problem for new and experienced teachers alike. In this article, I’ll examine the best ways to design and organise homework, as well as ways to avoid being bogged down and ‘up to your eyeballs’ in paperwork. If you would like an audio version of my strategies, then please listen to this excellent UKEdChat podcast (highly recommended for anyone who wants to get better at assigning and organizing homework)here.
Consideration #1: Homework is not pointless
It’s really important to make this point from the outset. A number of articles have come out in recent years causing us to question the merits of setting homework. At one point, this mindset became so mainstream that I remember sitting-in on a departmental meeting in which a number of teachers suggested that we shouldn’t set homework at all, as it is totally pointless!
This might be a nice excuse to use to avoid some paperwork and marking, but unfortunately it’s not true at all.
In my experience, homework is only pointless if the kids never ever receive feedback, or if the homework doesn’t relate to anything on the curriculum. Then, of course, their time has been wasted.
I’ll always remember one school I worked at where all of the teachers had set summer homework for their students. Piles and piles of homework were set, including big, thick booklets full of past-papers. Guess what happened when those students returned to school the next academic year; many of the teachers had changed, and the work was piled up in an empty classroom and never marked. What a tragedy!
We’ll explore some ways in which we can give feedback in a timely manner today, as well as ways in which we can design our homework properly.
Consideration #2: Think carefully about the purpose of each piece of homework you set
This is crucial. Ideally, all homework should fall into one of four categories:
To review concepts covered in class
To prepare students for new content they will cover in class
To prepare students for examinations (e.g. with exam-style questions, revision tasks and past-papers)
A combination of two or three of the above
If the homework you are setting does not fall into these categories then you are wasting both your time and the students’ time by setting it.
Consideration #3: Think carefully about how much time the students will need to complete each piece of homework
This is an important consideration. Put yourself in the students’ shoes. Is this homework too demanding, or too easy for them? Will they actually have enough time to complete it? Is your deadline reasonable?
Consideration #4: How much self-study or research will your students have to do to complete your work? Where will they get their information from?
If the piece of work you are setting involves preparation for content or skills soon to be covered in class, then your students might have to do some research. Is the level of self-study you are asking of your students reasonable? Are they old enough, and mature enough to be able to find this information on their own? If not, then you may need to give some tips on which websites, textbooks or other material to look at.
Consideration #5: Can you mark this work?
This is such an important consideration, but can be overlooked by so many teachers who are in a rush.
Think carefully: if you’re setting a booklet of past-paper questions for ‘AS’ – Level students, then how is it going to be marked? Crucially, how will the students receive feedback on this work? And remember: homework really is pointless if students don’t get any feedback.
Be honest with yourself. If you honestly don’t have enough time to mark such large pieces of work, then it’s much better to set smaller, manageable assignments. At least that way your students will get some feedback, which will be useful to them.
Also, don’t try and do everything yourself when it comes to marking. Use peer-assessment, self-assessment and even automated assessment (such as that found on instructional software) on a regular basis. Be careful though – make sure you at least collect in your peer-assessed and self-assessed assignments afterwards just to be sure that all students have done it, and so that you can glance over for any mistakes. Students can be sneaky when they know that the teacher is trusting them with self-assessment each week by simply providing the answers to the work.
Another good tip is to spend some time on the weekend planning your homework for the week ahead. What exactly will you set, and when, to allow you enough time to mark everything? How can you set decent homework that’s not too big to mark? An hour spent planning this on a Saturday is much better than four hours cramming in a marking marathon on a Sunday because you didn’t think ahead.
Consideration #6: Are you organised enough?
Not to sound patronizing, but are you, really?
If you’re a primary school teacher then you’ll be collecting in assignments relating to different subject areas each week. If you’re working in the high school, then you’ll you’ll be collecting in work from potentially more than a hundred students on a regular basis.
You need to have some kind of filing system in place for all of this work. Maybe a set of draws? Folders? Trays? Electronic folders?
One strategy that absolutely works for me is that I get all of my students to complete their homework on loose sheets of paper, not their notebooks. Why? Because if they do it in their notebooks, and I haven’t had time to mark their work by the very next lesson, then it’s a nightmare having to give back notebooks again and collect them in continuously.
With loose paper its easy. I collect it in, and put each group’s assignments in a set of trays. I have one set of trays for work collected in, and one set for work that is marked. It stops me from losing students’ work and losing my sanity at the same time! The students then glue the work into their notebooks afterwards.
In addition to organizing my paperwork, I also organise my time. I use every Saturday morning for marking, which really saves me lots of headaches during the week. Do you set aside a fixed slot each week to do your marking?
Think carefully about the purpose of each piece of work you set
Don’t set work that will take the students too long, or too little time, to complete
Think carefully about the demands of any research that students will have to do. Maybe you need to point them in the right direction?
Use a variety of assessment strategies to mark student work. Don’t make assignments so big that you just don’t have time to make them.
Make sure you have some kind of filing system in place, so that you don’t lose work.
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Teachers are expected to demonstrate high competency in a range of skill areas. Some skills that may come to mind are personal organisation, classroom management, behaviour management and confidence in the use of educational technology. One skill that may not immediately come to mind, however, is leadership: yet this is vital, as teachers are required to be good leaders of their students (and, sometimes, other teachers). Today, I’ve invited Mitch from Destination TEFL, Bangkok, to to share his tips on how to be a good leader in the classroom.
Truly great teachers must also be leaders. By devoting time and energy towards developing leadership skills, along with technical teaching skills, teachers can make a profound impact on their students that transcends the information they teach.
Leadership seems to be a bit of a buzzword these days, but maybe there’s a reason for that.
Just take a look around. In government, the corporate world, and yes, in education too, our world seems to be suffering from a lack of leadership. We have a surplus of bosses, managers, and influencers, but not enough true leaders.
But together we’re going to change that.
The classroom is your domain, one place in the world where you truly can make a difference. You may not be able to fix the government, or even the overall culture at your school (toxic bosses tend not to take feedback well), but you can absolutely change your classroom and, in so doing, your students’ lives.
Here’s how to do it.
What is true leadership?
In order to become great leaders in the classroom, we need to really nail down what leadership actually is. And more importantly, what it isn’t.
Good leadership is NOT:
Being right all the time
Never making mistakes
Making all of the decisions
Always being strong, confident, and outgoing
Surprising, right? Many of the usual stereotypes we have about leadership (ones that many leaders today try a bit too hard to represent) aren’t actually what leadership is about at all.
True leadership, especially in a classroom full of students, is much more nuanced and, honestly, more accessible than many are led to believe.
In contrast to the list above, true leadership in the classroom looks a lot more like:
Being human, and acknowledging mistakes
Letting your students make decisions, and teaching them to make the right ones
Being the best version of yourself, not fitting into boxes
Focusing on empathy and emotional intelligence
Real leadership is about putting others first, and doing your best to help them become the best versions of themselves they can be. As teachers, this is something that probably sounds familiar to us!
So now that we know what leadership is, how do we grow in these areas and incorporate them into our classroom?
Becoming a leader in the classroom
The first step in becoming a better leader is to know that you can!
People are conditioned to believe that you are either born with leadership qualities or not, and this is true for something like being naturally outgoing. But that’s not what great leaders are really made of.
Emotional intelligence is something you can work on. Taking responsibility and acknowledging mistakes is something you can work on. Becoming the best version of yourself is something you can work on.
Real leadership is accessible, and it’s accessible to you.
All becoming a leader in the classroom takes is recognizing areas you want to grow in as a leader, focusing on developing yourself in those areas, and (most importantly) finding opportunities to implement what you’re working on in the classroom.
You listen to their advice and start doing things like labeling your emotions, practicing empathy, and opening yourself up to feedback. The more you do this, the more you notice your sensitivity to other people’s emotions increasing.
Now it’s time for the most important step: bringing it into the classroom!
What better group of people to practice empathy and emotional intelligence with than your students? You start looking for root causes of misbehavior, and the emotions that underlie them. You teach your students to become aware of their own emotions, and the emotions of their classmates. Most importantly, you provide an example of how to do this.
Congratulations, you have not only become a better teacher, but you’ve also become a true leader. You are now impacting your students not only through what you teach them, but how you teach them.
You’re no longer just teaching them about English, now you’re teaching them about life.
Becoming a great leader, and a great teacher, takes time. It isn’t something that can be done in one semester: it’s an ongoing process of self-discovery and self-improvement.
However, as people teaching abroad, we’re no strangers to this process. Living and working abroad is a journey of self-discovery, finding new and exciting pieces of yourself in different contexts and cultures, growing in ways you never thought possible.
Leadership in the classroom is another one of those ways, and it’s an area of self-improvement that will end up changing not only your own life but the lives of others.
At the end of the day, that’s what teaching is all about!
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When I look back over the past 16 years of my life as a high school Science Teacher I realize that there are some foundational habits I have adopted which have led to my success in the classroom. Small things, done regularly, which snowball to create a massive impact over time.
One such habit is the Weekly Review.
Just this Sunday gone, as I was finally sitting down again at my favorite Bangkok Starbucks after lockdown restrictions were recently lifted, I realised that the time I was spending reading over my lesson plans was absolutely priceless. You see, a weekly review is just that: time spent reading over the week just gone, planning the week ahead and checking through assignments and work that may have been submitted electronically.
For me, I like to find a quiet place on a Sunday morning to do my Weekly Review – somewhere where I can focus and not be distracted. Some teachers reading this may scoff at the thought of giving up a sacred Sunday morning for school work – after all, this is my free time, right?
You may be surprised to learn, however, that this time I invest every Sunday morning is so valuable because it actually saves me a ton of headaches and stress in the ensuing week of teaching. For me, Sunday works well. For you, this might not be the case, and that’s fine! Choose a day and time that works for you each week, if you can – a free double lesson in your timetable may be suitable, for example.
One question you might now be asking is “Why is a weekly review so useful, anyway?”. Well, get ready because I’m about to describe four ways in which a weekly review can solve so many day-to-day teacher problems.
Weekly Review benefit #1: It allows me to see where I am with my classes, and think about the pace I’m going at
It’s so important to consistently look at where we’re at right now with our students, and where we need to go. Questions I ask myself during this part of the Weekly Review are:
Are my students at the right place in the curriculum map? Am I behind schedule, or am I ahead of schedule?
If my students are not where they should be in terms of topics covered to-date, then why is that?
Am I going too slow, or do I need to speed up with this class?
There’s a correlation between effective pacing and student engagement, so it’s crucial to consider the speed at which you move through a lesson and the rate of delivery for different parts of the lesson. When pacing is too slow, students often become bored and disengaged. When it’s too fast, some may not grasp what’s being taught and get lost—or discouraged.
From this we see that the regular consideration of pace is crucial to not only ensuring that content is covered on-time, but also to ensuring that student engagement is maintained. For me, I need a weekly check-up when it comes to pace, and my Weekly Review works on this like a treat.
Weekly Review benefit #2: It allows me to see if I am lacking variety in my teaching
One of the very first things I learned on my PGCE teacher-training course way back in 2005 was that each and every lesson should contain a variety of activities. 16 years later, and I have come to the conclusion that this is true.
Students generally become disengaged and disinterested when the same types of activities are used over and over again. Whilst it may not be possible to include more that two or three types of activity within each individual lesson, it is possible to introduce variety over a series of lessons – such as those taught within a week. My Weekly Review allows me to answer the following key questions about variety:
Have I been giving my students the same kinds of activities all week, or did I make my lessons varied and fun?
What kinds of useful activities have my students not done yet, and would therefore benefit from next week?
Which activities worked well, and could be repeated in the future? Which activities did not work well, and should be avoided next week?
Did my students do too much writing or copying, and not enough active engagement? How could I fix this next week?
Am I expecting too much from my students?
Am I boring my students?
Are my activities suitable and relevant?
Sometimes I think, as teachers, we all have our own favourite ‘menu’ of techniques that have consistently worked well for us time and time again. For me, for example, I use a lot of past-exam paper questions because I know that they are every effective at getting students familiar with key vocabulary and the rigors of the real exam. However, my personal list of favourite techniques is still fairly limited in scope, even after 16 years of refinement, and I recognise that I must go outside of my comfort zone again and again to try out new ideas, activities, apps and systems.
One tip I would recommend is to always write out brief lesson plans in a custom-made teachers’ planner each week, rather than relying on looking back through your week on Google Classroom, Moodle, Firefly, etc. When you have your whole week mapped-out on a double-page spread, it makes the Weekly Review process straightforward and efficient.
Weekly Review benefit #3: It allows me to see what student work is missing, and if students need to catch-up
I personally have always found it quite a challenge to assess or mark student work on a day-to-day basis. Instead, a dedicated weekly slot, such as my Weekly Review time, works wonders when it comes to managing my workload and stress levels. By checking through all of my assignments on Google Classroom, or any system I am using, I can see which students are behind with their work and which students are up-to-speed. Whilst it may be necessary to chase students up on the day an assignment is due in, the Weekly Review allows me to see which students have ‘slipped-through the net’, so to speak, and which students have still not submitted work despite being given a reminder.
Nowadays we do not need to take home piles and piles of notebooks home to mark like we did in the early days of teaching – we can check assignments submitted electronically and, I would suggest, use some of the Weekly Review time for marking and assessment.In addition, this time allows us to reward those students who are consistently putting forth good effort – perhaps by giving plus points, merits or whatever our school’s rewards’ system happens to be.
With students who are identified as being behind on their work, we can issue reminders or deploy sanctions in the ensuing week. In addition, if a whole class has been flagged as being behind on a task (sometimes we underestimate how long an activity can take), then that class can be given time to catch-up at some point the following week (if enough curriculum time is available – otherwise this can be set as homework).
Weekly Review benefit #4: It allows me to plan ahead intelligently
Planning ahead intelligently is not quite the same as just planning ahead. Based on the information gathered during the Weekly Review about the stages the students are at in their courses, the pace I’m going at, the level of variety I’m including in lessons and student status regarding missed work or partially complete assignments, I can now plan my week ahead with much better clarity and purpose than if I were not to consider all of these factors.
This is probably the main objective of the Weekly Review – the opportunity to figure out what I’m going to teach the following week (and how I’m going to do it). However, as I hope you’ve seen from the previous points raised, a lot of information must be gathered before effective planning can take place.
Based on my observations and communications over the past 16 years, I have come to the conclusion that there is still a significant minority of teachers in the profession who are planning lessons on a day-to-day basis. This holds especially true for trainee teachers and those who are new to teaching. I’ve been there myself – life gets busy and often we can fall into a ‘survival’ mode of teaching whereby we only focus on short-term goals and getting through the day ahead. This strategy, however, is not only inefficient – it’s stressful and ineffective. Students undoubtedly suffer when the teacher doesn’t plan ahead intelligently: considering long-term and medium-term goals, as lessons are never as optimal as they could be when real thought, time, effort and professional intelligence have gone into the planning process.
Planning ahead intelligently via the Weekly Review process has had a dramatic and positive effect on my teaching over time:
I start each day in a much better frame of mind than when my week of teaching has not been planned intelligently.
I can set work via electronic means in a much more timely manner: often scheduling assignments in advance (with Google Classroom, for example, assignments can be scheduled to post at any point in future). This leaves me free to just turn up and deliver great lessons without the hassle and stress of setting assignments, posting materials and creating announcements on a daily basis.
I feel much more confident every day when I’ve done a Weekly Review, as my resources, ideas, activities and direction are already mapped-out fully.
A comprehensive Weekly Review allows us, as teachers, to:
Check whether we’re on-schedule, behind-schedule or ahead of schedule with different classes.
Consider our pacing.
Evaluate the level of variety and stimulation we are providing to our students within our lessons.
Figure out what student work is missing, and who needs to catch up.
Plan ahead intelligently.
Act on those plans, and review everything again the following week.
I’ll finish by stating a key principle of teaching that I was taught on my PGCE course at Bangor University way back in 2005: Be a reflective practitioner. A Weekly Review is an excellent way to do just that.
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Resilience is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “the ability to be happy, successful, etc. again after something difficult or bad has happened”. Resilience is an important life-skill for children to acquire whilst at school. Reach Out Australia, for example, states that “When students feel like the outcome won’t affect them negatively, they are more likely to try new and more challenging things in the classroom. Being able to learn from mistakes and challenges in a place where they feel supported and encouraged will build their confidence, self-belief and resilience.“Today, I’ve invited Jessica Robinson, educational writer at The Speaking Polymath, to write thisexcellent blog post describing seven ways to cultivate student resilience in the classroom. Enjoy!
“When we learn how to become resilient, we learn how to embrace the beautifully broad spectrum of the human experience.”
Life is a beautiful adventure that has its ups and downs. Unexpected things happen in this world and within moments your life turns upside down. Take the example of the pandemic: one day, suddenly, we got to know about a virus that had infected masses of people in China and within days the virus spread to multiple countries of the world. It caused wide-scale casualties, governments imposed lockdowns and the sad ‘new normal’ began.
Sudden events that happen in life can make you realize how important it is to be resilient. If we are resilient, we can withstand the storms that come our way and emerge victorious. During our days in quarantine, as I spent this trying time with my kids who were feeling anxious, I realized that the pandemic is a big challenge, especially for children. They are facing such difficulties at a very young age in their lives. This experience motivated me to start cultivating resilience in my kids. Every day, I make them engage in different activities that can empower their resilience. Watching them become emotionally and mentally stronger has motivated me to also work on cultivating student resilience in the classroom.
Here, I am going to share some effective strategies that have helped me turn my kids into more resilient beings. I have started using these strategies with my students too and I hope that you’ll also use them to help your students cultivate strong resilience.
#1: Make children engage in activities that challenge them physically
This is one of the best ways that have helped me cultivate resilience in my kids. Anything that challenges them physically, helps them gain confidence in themselves, their abilities, and their body. This self-confidence gives them the strength to bear difficulties in life with courage. So, you should try to make your students engage in activities that challenge them physically. You can make them play new games that require more physical as well as mental efforts and help them develop confidence in their physical and mental capabilities. As far as I am concerned, I make my students participate in different kinds of races to challenge their physical capabilities and scavenger hunts with challenging quizzes to help them develop confidence in their mental capabilities. Moreover, I also tell them to not compete with each other but strive to become a better version of themselves. Believe me, this tactic really works.
#2: Help them inculcate confident and influential body language
Do you know that your body language and your feelings are interconnected? Yes, this is true.That is why, whenever you are sad, you sit or stand with a hunched back, look down and your smile fades away. This is an example of how your emotions impact your body language. In the same way, your body language also impacts your emotions. You can use this connection between emotions and body language to help your students become more resilient. You can help them learn body language techniques to regulate their emotions. For example, power posing in a confident way can help your students face challenges with courage. To know more about power posing and the benefits of influential body language, you can watch the Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy. Further, you can also read different books and watch videos on Body Language to help your students inculcate confident and influential body language.
#3: Make them engage in creative pursuits
According to one study published by Colin G. Deyoung and Paul J. Silvia in the Journal of PositivePsychology, creativity encourages positive emotions that can unlock our inner resources for dealing with stress and uncertainty. This implies that we can help kids develop a strong resilience in an interesting way by making them engage in creative pursuits. If a child loves painting, you can let him express his creative self through painting for some time every day. If a child loves dancing, you can let him express his creative endeavors through dancing. By engaging in their favorite creative pursuits, your students will develop strong resilience over time. Along with this, they’ll also become happier and calmer versions of themselves which will ultimately help them become more resilient in life.
#4: Create a gratitude ritual and practice it together
‘Gratitude’, we have heard this word a lot and we have also received the advice to expressgratitude from many influential people. But, we often feel that expressing gratitude cannot do us enough good as it is a very simple practice. We think that we need to look for something better and so on. But, believe me, we have been wrong whenever we have thought this way. I have seen tremendous positive changes in myself and my kids by following a gratitude ritual for the past two months regularly. We are happier, more optimistic, and therefore, more resilient too. Moreover, research also shows that gratitude can help us rewire our brains towards positivity. So, you should try to create a gratitude ritual and practice it with your students. A simple gratitude ritual is to write down three things that you are grateful for every day. You can try this one or create your own gratitude ritual.
#5: Help them build meaningful social connections
The American Psychological Association wrote in its resilience report, “Many studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family.” When you have supportive relationships in your life, you feel safe and protected. You know that there are always people you can count on whenever you get faced with any problems in life. This knowingness gives you the strength to withstand the challenges that come in your life. This implies that we can help our students build strong resilience by encouraging them to cultivate meaningful social relationships with others. We can help our students build strong friendships with each other and cultivate good relationships with us as well as other people from the school staff. This way, we can teach our students to form meaningful connections with people and boost their resilience.
#6: Make them engage in healthy risk-taking
The development of self-confidence is crucial for us to cultivate strong resilience. You can help your students become self-confident by making them engage in healthy risk-taking. For example, if your students are afraid of dogs, you can bring a little puppy and encourage them to play with it. No doubt, they’ll feel a little afraid in the beginning but then, after playing safely with the puppy, their confidence level in their abilities to take risks will increase. As a result, they’ll cultivate a strong resilience over time.
#7: Teach them some coping mechanisms to calm themselves under overwhelming situations
If you have the ability to help yourself calm down even under challenging times, you naturally have strong resilience. You feel confident about yourself and know that you can handle yourself even in difficult situations. So, you can help your students develop a strong resilience by teaching them some coping mechanisms to calm themselves under overwhelming situations. Belly breathing, focusing on the sounds that are happening around us, and feeling deeply are some simple coping mechanisms that help us calm our nervous system under challenging situations. Furthermore, you can watch YouTube videos to learn about belly breathing and then you can teach this calming technique to your students.
The pandemic has taught us that we should help children develop a strong resilience right from their childhood. It is only in the presence of a strong resilience that they can face any challenges that life throws at them and emerge victoriously. Furthermore, as teachers, we can help our students cultivate a strong resilience through the different ways mentioned above. Now, I wish you all the best, and may your efforts to help your students develop a strong resilience bear fruits.
An ardent writer, Jessica Robinson, works for ‘The Speaking Polymath’. She uses this platform to weave her magical words into powerful strands of content and share with her readers.
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Sometimes, the simplest of materials can offer the greatest opportunities for creative exploration. This week, I’ve invited Rose-Anne Turner of Destination TEFL to share her expert tips on how to use everyday items as stimulating props within your lessons.
In our last blog post, we discussed using technology in the classroom to engage your students. Oftentimes, this just isn’t possible, and we need to look at other low cost and easy to source props for the classroom that not only get the students involved, but create a fun learning environment for the teacher and students.
Here we have a few suggestions that you can easily pick up in a $1 store (20 baht shop for those of you in Thailand!) and how to use them successfully in the classroom.
Balls: The options are endless here! Those cheap plastic ball-pit balls can be used for so many different games. They can also be used as a way to pair or group students for groupwork (put the coloured balls in a black plastic bag, the students pull out a ball and join the group with the same colour balls). You can also use a ball to throw at a ‘dart board’ drawn on the whiteboard to allocate points to questions answered correctly. The games for using balls in the classroom are endless! Just make sure to use lightweight ones so you don’t end up with broken windows…
Plastic fly swotters:This is one of our all-time favourite props at Destination TEFL. A great go-to game for a consolidation activity is ‘slam’. The teacher splits the class into two teams and calls up two students at a time to the board, one from each team. Flashcards with images from the words learnt in the lesson are stuck to the board (lower level students, just 2 words to choose from, higher level, you can put up more options). When the teacher calls out the word, the two students have to ‘slam’ the correct flashcard. The one who slams the correct card first is the winner and gets a point for their team. For more advanced students, this could be changed into a grammar exercise: put parts of speech words to the board such as noun, proposition etc. Call out a word and the student who slams the correct part of speech is the winner. We have had equal success with slam across all age levels, from kindergarten to adult lessons. Warning: you’ll need a pacemaker activity to calm down the class afterwards as the noise and excitement level can become quite high!
Funny hats and glasses or puppets: Sometimes students are shy to speak. If they take on another ‘persona’ in the form of a puppet or dress up, then it can encourage them to participate in a fun way with a speaking activity, as they are not being themselves but the character of the puppet or prop.
Stickers or ink stamps: children respond well to the positive reinforcement of receiving a ‘reward’ for correct work or even just participation. They love being able to show their parents a sticker of praise in their workbook or even on their hand. TIP: stickers can get expensive for a teacher, but a rubber stamp with an inkpad is a cheap way of rewarding students.
Dice: These can be used in so many ways. Here are a few examples: Use it for dividing students into groups – you land on a 4 and you divide the class into groups of 4. Or students roll the dice and line up in order of the number they rolled. When answering questions, students roll the dice to determine which question to answer. Think of 6 topics, students roll the dice to determine which topic they will speak on for quick oral practice.
Scrabble tiles: Again, the opportunities to use this simple prop are endless. Use them to line up students (in alphabetical or reverse alphabetical order) after the students pick a tile from a bag. Use them to group students according to letters selected, or in groups according to vowel and consonant. Select a category (perhaps topics you have recently covered in class) and students take turn to draw letters and name a word from the category which starts with that letter (you can remove any letters that won’t work for a topic). Let teams draw 10 letters each, and they should come up with as many English words with those letters in a specific time.
Beanbag or soft toy: Use this to throw to the students to determine who will be next in answering a question or participating in the task. Rather than the teacher always being the one to throw the toy, give them a chance to throw it to the next student after answering the question or drilling the word. This keeps them on their toes as they don’t know who will be called on next, as you are not going by order of seating.
Ball of string: a length of string or rope can be used in so many ways. Use it to line up students as a timeline to teach tenses (they can peg words to the string in order of tense). Use it as a ‘washing line’ activity. Students pick the words of a sentence out of a bag and need to peg it to the line in the correct word order. Have two washing lines and two teams so that there’s a winning team based on time and accuracy.
Remember that for all games, there MUST be a purpose. The purpose for the teacher is for the students to learn and practice the language by playing the consolidation activity or production game. The purpose for the student is to complete the task or win the game. A game or activity that has no outcome or result (usually in the form of a winner) will not be as engaging for your students. Do keep games and outcomes age appropriate. For example, at kindergarten level, we don’t want to focus on winning quite as much, with participation being the main goal at that level.
What props do you use in your ESL classroom?
Guest blog written for Richard James Rogers by Rose-Anne Turner – Destination TEFL
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The ability to read is possibly the most important skill that students should master whilst at school. It is so important, in fact, that a simple Google search of the phrase “The importance of reading for students” brings up hundreds of millions of hits (around 717 million at the time of writing this article, to be exact).
There are numerous benefits of reading: for adults and children alike. I could choose to spend the rest of this article describing those benefits, but I fear that I would be preaching to the converted. As teachers, we already know that reading is important. I hope you will permit me, however, to at least include my favourite quote about reading from one of my favourite actors:
For reading: there have been gazillions of people that have lived before all of us. There’s no new problem you could have–with your parents, with school, with a bully. There’s no new problem that someone hasn’t already had and written about it in a book.
So, we know that our students must learn to read. However, what’s equally important is that our students learn to love reading. And this is what I want to explore with you today: How do we get our students, or our children, to enjoy reading? How do we prevent reading from becoming a laborious, dull part of their schooling and instead turn it into to a relaxing and, dare I say it, exciting past-time?
Tip #1: Turn reading into a collaborative task (with a creative output)
Reading is all-to-often seen as a solitary activity, which is most unfortunate. Set up times, or clubs, where students can read to each other and perhaps generate some kind of creative output – perhaps building a model of what they’ve read (Design Technology), calculating and mapping the frequency of different words (Mathematics) or even creating the costumes the characters might be wearing (Textiles). When reading becomes an active process, students realize that there’s actually a lot of ‘juice’ one can squeeze from a book, or even a short segment of text.
Perhaps you could couple collaborative reading with a technological task too – such as creating a Minecraft landscape of the setting for the story, or even setting up a Google Site online journal of learning.
The possibilities for collaboration in reading, coupled with creative outputs, really are limited only by one’s imagination. In fact, you may wish to ‘crowdsource’ ideas from the children themselves, perhaps by using a worksheet/prompt like the one below:
If you like the above tool, then you can download it as a pdfhere.
#2: Host reading and reading-related competitions and events
Some ideas to consider are:
Celebrate World Book Day by allowing students to come into school dressed as their favourite book characters. Perhaps offer special prizes for the best costumes, or even run a fashion show on the day. Award plus points/merits/whatever your school’s ‘reward tokens’ are for students who bring in their favourite books on the day.
Invite a local author to come into school to talk about their work. As an author myself, I know for a fact that the author will love the opportunity to gain some exposure, and if you ask politely you may even get some free, signed books for school out of it.
Run book clubs or events by genre – specialization can generate more interest in reading. Have a day for self-help books, one for non-fiction, one for animals – anything that the students are interested in.
Take the students to a reading-related place, such as a local library or actual location from a book. Students will often be unaware that these places exist in the first place, and their discovery may set in-motion some profound changes that result in a love of reading. My primary school took me to my local library as child, for example, and that place became my study-hangout in my teens. I just loved being surrounded by all of those books. It’s a feeling that’s very unique.
#3: Read with your students, and to your students, with passion
Get involved in all of the activities listed above. Join the collaboration groups, for example, even if only for 10 minutes at a time. Read topical news articles, extracts from books, quotes of the day or any materials that provide positive messages for students. Have a sign outside your door that tells students what you are reading at that time.
Bottom line – get stuck in yourself! Never underestimate the subliminal messages that students pick up on when they see us model positive behaviors.
Parents and teachers have long been concerned about the mental health effects of excessive screen time on the children we care for, and teach. Oftentimes, we compare the lived experiences of modern day teens and young adults with what we went through at that age. Legitimate worries are attributed to questions surrounding disproportionate tech use – questions such as:
Are students today less fit and healthy than they were before the World Wide Web became mainstream?
What are the negative mental health effects of social media on adolescents?
Is there a causal link between tech use and mental health issues in teens?
Has technology usage increased the prevalence of mental health issues in teens?
The short answer to the last question is that there’s not enough evidence to suggest that tech use has increased mental health issues in teens – that, at least, is the conclusion of a recent Oxford Universitystudy. Unfortunately, however, the directness of this conclusion was lost on the BBC who made the unforgivable blunder of misrepresenting the study completely. Their headline shockingly reads‘Teens, tech and mental health: Oxford study finds no link’
To most professionals in education this BBC headline, and indeed the conclusions of the actual study itself, seem premature, inaccurate and potentially misleading given evidence that has arisen from other studies that aimed to investigate causal links between screen time and mental health issues in children, teens and young adults.
So, what was special about the Oxford study? Were the researchers even able to come to such a broad, valid conclusion in the first place? I will answer these questions via a series of bullet-points:
The sample size was large, with 430,561 teenagers and high school children being involved in the study
Only UK and US students were studied
Participants were aged 10 – 15 years old
The data was collected by MTF (since 1991), UndSoc (since 2009) and YRBS (since 1991). Only 40,000 out of the 430,561 students were from the UK.
Only 139,264 of of the participants were asked about their social media usage (because, of course, much of the data was collected before 2009, which is when social media became accessible via mobile devices).
So, basically, what have the Oxford team done? That’s right – they’ve taken legacy data, overwhelmingly biased towards the American demographic, and analyzed the results using some statistical tests. Apparently, this is enough for the esteemed academics at Oxford to come to the conclusion that “There Is No Evidence That Associations Between Adolescents’ Digital Technology Engagement and Mental Health Problems Have Increased”. The BBC takes this adulteration further by boldly stating that “There remains ‘little association’ between technology use and mental-health problems, a study of more than 430,000 10 to 15-year-olds suggests.“
A teacher’s perspective
I’m personally quite angry by the misleading messages that these inaccurate conclusions have transmitted to the masses. Anyone reading the BBC article, in particular, would think that there’s no need to be concerned about excessive screen time and social media usage in teens. The real story, however, is quite different:
ADutch studyinvolving 10,000 participants in Rotterdam concluded that smartphones are causing nearsightedness in children. This has also been backed up by studies and observations inCanada, AmericaandIreland.
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health caused shockwaves in 2016 with the conclusion of itsstudy: that smartphone and tablet use correlates strongly with obesity in teens. Similar findings have come from a number of respectable sources, including a massive,global joint studybetween Stanford University and the American National Institutes of Health which was concluded in 2015.
Sleep-deprivation is a common side-effect of smartphone and tablet addiction. Research from the Division of Cardiology at the University of California (San Francisco), for example, has found that the use of mobile devices near bedtime is connected with low-quality sleep.
However, these aforementioned studies focus on the physical effects of screen time on children: nearsightedness, obesity and sleep-deprivation. The Oxford ‘study’ focused on mental health issues, so what point am I am trying to make?
Do causal links exist between nearsightedness, obesity, sleep-deprivation and mental health in children and teens?
A number of studies have reported significant associations between obesity and poor psychological wellbeing in children but findings have been inconsistent. A 2007 study of 3,898 children from England concluded that “being overweight, rather than obese, had no impact on overall reported mental health.” However, “17% of children with obesity were above the suggested screening threshold for emotional problems“.
Perhaps the most obvious link occurs between sleep-deprivation and mental health, and numerous studies conclude that a causal relationship does exist. A 2013studyconcluded, for example, that “early sleep deprivation in childhood may result in long-term behaviour issues” and even that “sleep problems impact core symptoms of common neurodevelopmental disorders”.
Studies such as these seem to have been ignored by the Oxford team. Maybe, however, I’m making tentative links between mental health and physical problems, and then linking those tentatively to screen-time and social media usage?
Hold your horses, because there’s more.
Areportpublished by the Telegraph includes a headline is enough to stun any parent or teacher:
Children spend up to 10 hours a day ‘mindlessly swiping’ their mobiles, study finds
The article summarizes the findings of technological research into what young people actually do online. It’s thought to be the first time that technology has been used to analyse the mobile-device usage habits of children.
The findings are alarming:
Behavior is compulsive, with young people typically spending no longer than one-minute looking at any particular page of content before swiping to something else
Social media takes up hours and hours of teenagers’ free time
Children from ‘low-income’ households seem more prone to compulsive use of social media than others
Many children in the study admitted to falling asleep at night whilst on their phones
Many children admitted that they felt that their compulsions were “mindless” and “pointless”, but felt compelled to use their smartphones on a near-constant basis anyway because there’s a feeling of incompleteness or ‘losing out’ when the phone is not being checked.
Some children in the study felt the need to check their phones whilst actually being interviewed by the research panel
In many cases, children are spending up to 12 hours on their phones per day! Take this shocking example for instance (quoted from the Telegraph article):
Typical was Olympia, aged 17, who in one 24-hour period spent 3.3 hours on Snapchat, 2.5 hours on Instagram, 2 hours on Face Time, 2.4 hours on What’s App and 1.8 hours on Safari – a total of 12 hours.
I could go on to explore more sources to support the argument that social media usage, and screen-time, negatively affect the mental health of teens and children. I fear that this blog post would become a behemoth of statistics if I were to do that, however, so I’ll leave you with a few links to peruse yourself:
Ofcom 2017 ‘Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report‘. Amongst the key findings were the shocking revelation that 77% of 12-15 year olds play computer games for around 12 hours per week, and 99% go online for around 21 hours per week. The 2020 reportsuggests that screen-time has increased, with children using devices for a much wider-variety of purposes than in 2017.
A November 2020studyby the University of British Columbia found that “Longer screen time (more than two hours a day) was associated with lower levels of life satisfaction and optimism, and higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms.”
I think it was highly negligent of the University of Oxford to ignore the links that clearly exist between screen time and….
Lower levels of life satisfaction and optimism[UBC]
Higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms[UBC]
As an influential university, Oxford should really have done it’s due diligence before releasing the paper. The message that has been interpreted: that no causal link exists between tech use and poor mental health, is just plain wrong. The BBC, also, should be held to account for their blatant dilution of the study’s findings: from “There’s not enough evidence to suggest that mental health issues have increased as a result of tech” (the Oxford conclusion) to “No link exists between teens, tech and mental health”.
If anything, today’s blog post has been an interesting expose’ of big institutions, and their overwhelming negligence despite their good public standing.
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The bell rang at 12.30pm to the typical sigh of relief from students who’d been sat in lessons all morning. Bustling through the corridors towards the school canteen, library, school field or some other designated ‘turf’ were the majority of my classmates at St. Richard Gwyn R.C. High School. I, on the other hand, had an appointment with my favorite teacher.
It felt like an easy journey to the German classroom. I was excited because I would be practicing my German oral phrases and responses with my teacher, who had been giving up a good portion of her lunchtimes for the past few weeks to help me become more confident and competent. She was always patient, and always willing to help.
Then, there was that time when my Biology teacher talked me through an end-of-unit test I had completed, so that I could know exactly where I had lost marks. I still remember the conversation word-for-word, almost thirty years later. I finally grasped some important concepts that day.
At the core of my good fortune to attend an outstanding school as a teenager was one most important thing: outstanding teachers. All of my teachers really cared for my wellbeing, and they often went above-and-beyond to provide me with extra tuition, or even to have one-on-one conversations with me to put me on-track, or to reprimand me when I had slipped up. Great teachers, I found, were more important than great facilities.
There are other factors that make a school outstanding, however. Even the best efforts of a team of outstanding teachers can be thwarted by the subterfuge of negligence, bad policies or even school culture. In this blog post, I will explore all of the key factors that work together to make a school outstanding.
#1: The school’s vision and missionare the starting points
A well-crafted mission statement that infuses everything the school does as a community can have a massive and profound impact on students’ lives.
At Saint Richard Gwyn, for example, our slogan was “Learning Together In Christ“. This phrase was spoken at every assembly, written in many school publications (such as the school’s weekly newsletter) and was reinforced by teachers during some of our lessons. I don’t think I and my peers fully realized the power of this collective action by the school back then, but that statement was actually having a dramatic effect on the way we saw the world, and ourselves. Whether you are religious or not, you can appreciate that this statement sent home a bigger message than just those four words:
At our school we learn together. Our focus is serious, and we help each other.
We have faith in Christ at our school. We are expected to follow the moral principles outlined in the gospels.
Developing the school’s vision and mission are two of the most important steps toward creating a successful program. Done well, they give clarity and direction for a school. A muddy vision or mission can help lead to continuing conflicts, and a school that has difficulty identifying priorities.
Center for School Change
I like that last part about “identifying priorities”. What does your school’s vision and mission and say about your institution’s priorities, and how well-embedded are those priorities?
Over the years, many educational scholars have stressed the importance of the school’s vision and mission, and how well those ideas are communicated and transformed into expectations. A classic amongst these scholars is William Rutherford of the University of Texas who, as far back as 1985, stated that effective school leaders need to:
have clear, informed visions of what they want their schools to become; visions that focus on students and their needs
translate these visions into goals for their schools and expectations for their teachers, students and administrators
So it would seem that simply having a vision and mission for a school is not enough to make a school truly outstanding. That vision and mission must focus on students and their needs, be translated into workable goals and be formulated as expectations for teachers, students and all staff members.
#2: Outstanding teachers make an outstanding school
A school’s best resource, by far, is the body of staff that comprise that school. Get that right and a school will usually be able to cope with the ebb and flow of daily circumstance in an effective manner. However, still to this day, schools are focusing far too much on teachers’ qualifications rather than experience, references and reputations, in my opinion.
This is the point where I’m going to have to speak bluntly and directly: an advanced degree does not make someone an amazing teacher; nor does a degree or qualification from a top university. Those credentials, actually, are meaningless in the context of determining one’s ability to manage behaviour, plan lessons thoroughly, teach with clarity and teach at an appropriate pace. Those qualifications may, however, allow a school to better market itself to parents and potential clients/customers (particularly in the private sector), but those qualifications never, in my honest opinion, determine a person’s ability to teach properly.
Teaching is a vocation: plain and simple. It’s a profession that one has to be built for, and one has to be passionate about in order to succeed. Experience has taught me that qualifications alone are not enough to determine a teacher’s suitability to teach. I, for example, have worked with a number of Oxford, Cambridge and PhD graduates over the years who were awful teachers who couldn’t communicate effectively with students and, in a significant number of cases, couldn’t teach at an acceptable pace or keep students engaged for long periods of time. On the other hand, I’ve also worked many such high-level graduates who were excellent teachers and helpful team-players.
Have you experienced the same in your time as a teacher?
My message for schools is simple: Focus on what the students and colleagues think of the teacher you’re hiring. Place more emphasis on teacher-portfolios and references – evidence of actual teaching ability – rather than the quality of a candidate’s qualifications.
#3: Effective systems make a school outstanding
Systems are like the glue that holds everything together. When a school has a clear vision and mission that’s backed-up by outstanding teachers and effective systems, everything then falls into place and runs smoothly (most of the time).
The most essential systems that schools need to have in-place can be remembered by what I hope is a useful acronym:C.A.R.S. – Communication,Action,Rewards andSanctions.
Communication systems need to be easy to use, and suitable for purpose. Schools that use the same system to communicate with parents, students, teachers and other stakeholders tend to experience better overall harmony than those that do not. Many schools, for example, choose to use e-mail for these purposes as it is a professional system that everyone can access. However, some schools (e.g. those in China) prefer to use a more real-time system for staff (e.g. chat apps like QQ and WeChat) and more traditional systems, like e-mail, for communicating with parents. Systems like this can cause undue stress to teachers, however, as it can be easy to miss messages posted within a chat stream. Teachers can also feel under constant pressure to respond, even outside of official working hours.
Action systems need to be workable. Teachers need to do things every day in a timely manner. Printing and photocopying, for example, should never be problematic (massive headaches are caused when printers don’t work, or when teachers are restricted to quotas, for example). Reports need to written via systems that are shared, and easy to navigate and access. Mock exams and internal exams need to be delivered via systems that make it easy for everyone to get their papers printed and organized in a timely manner. Timetabling needs to be seamless. Student locker systems need to be accessible and workable. The role of the form tutor/homeroom teacher within the school, and the systems needed to fulfill that role, need to be easy-to-use (a house system can often help with this). Registration systems need to be workable. Assessment systems and instructional software need to be carefully chosen and subscriptions need to be renewed on-time.File-sharing systems need to be in-place so that teachers can share useful resources with one-another.
Which action systems do you use in your school, and how could they be made to be more workable and accessible?
Rewards and sanctions systems – with emphasis placed more on rewards than sanctions. The consensus on the approach that should be taken is pretty clear in educational circles, and has been for some time. The UK’sDepartment for Education and Skills summarizes the key components of such systems best in my opinion:
Rewards, or positive consequences, are likely to encourage pupils to repeat the associated behaviour. Systems that emphasise praise for positive behaviour or regular attendance are more effective in motivating pupils to make appropriate choices. These appropriate choices contribute to a positive ethos in the school, thereby creating an environment for effective teaching and learning. . . . [S]anctions might be used only as a last resort, because using every opportunity to reinforce positive behaviour will have a greater and longer lasting effect than the constant use of sanctions for negative behaviour.
In fact, it’s been known for some time that rewards work better than sanctions for promoting positive behaviour. The most notable foundational statement on this matter, for example, was made in the concluding text of The Elton Report (1989):
Schools which put too much faith in punishments to deter bad behaviour are likely to be disappointed