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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Originally posted on August 18th 2019. Updated on September 3rd 2022.
Getting back into the swing of things can be a challenge: especially after a long summer vacation. Our body clocks are normally out of sync and we’ve probably been taking life a bit easy for a while (and rightly so).
The new academic year pounces on us like a monkey from a tree.
In order to be prepared for the craziness ahead I’ve devised a list of ten things to do prior to the first day back at school. Follow these magic tips and you’ll be energized, prepared and ahead of the game.
Tip #1: Create a regular sleeping pattern
Get up at your normal ‘work day’ time each day for at least a week before school starts. This will calibrate your body clock so that it’s easier to get up when school begins.
It’ll be hard at first – if you’re like me then you’ll be exhausted at 6am. Just try it – force yourself to get used to getting up early.
Tip #2: Set up a morning ritual
Come up with a sequence of events that will inspire, empower and energize you each morning. For me, my morning routine looks like this:
Get up at 4.30am
Go to the gym (it opens at 5am)
Work out at the gym
Shower at the gym
Have coffee and breakfast at the gym lounge
Read over e-mails and lesson plans for the day ahead
Leave the gym and be at school by 7am
Getting the hardest things done in the morning (e.g. exercising) is a very empowering way to start the day. This ritual of mine also serves to give me energy – I’m not rushing to school and I’m fully breakfasted, coffee’d-up and mentally prepared before the school day even starts!
Tip #3: Learn about the A.C.E. method of post-pandemic teaching
The best way that we can re-integrate our students after so much disruption due to lockdowns is by facilitating the following:
Action: Include lots of kinesthetic activities in your lessons.
Collaboration: Get students working together in groups (see my blog post here for more advice about how to do this).
Exploration: Encourage deep learning through problem-solving and research-based tasks.
I’ve a quick video all about the A.C.E. strategy here:
Tip #4: Read ahead
Whether you’re teaching the same subjects again this year, or if you’re teaching something totally new – it always helps to read ahead.
Go over the textbook material, watch out for subtle syllabus changes and make sure you read over the material you’ll actually give to the kids (PPTs, worksheets, etc.).
Tip #5: Prepare ahead
Linked to reading ahead but involves the logistics of lesson delivery – make sure your resources are prepared.
Don’t forget – every teacher will be scrambling for the photocopier on the first day back. Prepare your paper resources in advance, or plan to do photocopying at ‘off-peak’ times (e.g. late after school one day).
Tip #6: Set personal targets
Is there anything that you could have done better last year?
If you’re a new teacher, then what are some life-challenges that have held you back in the past? Procrastination? Lack of organization?
We all have things that we could do better. Think about what those things are for you and write down a set of personal targets in your teacher’s planner. Read them every day.
One of my targets, for example, is not to set too much homework but to instead select homework that achieves my aims most efficiently.
Tip #7: Get to know your new students
Spend time talking with your new students and take an interest in their hobbies, skills and attributes.
Look at previous school reports if possible and find out if any of your new students have any weaknesses in any subject or behavioral areas. Talk with members of staff at your school about ways to accommodate and target such needs if necessary.
I’ve made the point before that parent’s are our allies, not our enemies. It’s important to foster productive relationships with the parents of our students so that our learners feel fully supported in their education. How exactly do we foster those relationships, though? This week, I’ve invited Kat Sarmiento to share her thoughts on how to keep parents on our side.
Parents and teachers share the same goal: to ensure that students have the most excellent educational experience possible. In a study by the National Committee for Citizens in Education, one of the best approaches to creating a positive learning environment is encouraging parents’ engagement in their children’s school lives.
Teachers who focus on involving parents see a profound change in their classrooms. Parental involvement begins at home, with the parents providing a safe and conducive environment for learning, experiences, support, and a positive outlook about the importance of education.
Parents actively involved in their child’s education provide the home support and knowledge that their children need—not just to accomplish assignments—but also to develop a lifelong love for learning.
Given that the importance of parents’ help in a child’s learning is beyond dispute, how can teachers work effectively with parents to help their students?
#1: Open reliable channels for communication
In a parent-teacher relationship, frequent two-way communication is essential so parents can stay updated on what is happening at school. At the same time, inform teachers about the important things concerning the child.
A common mistake amongst teachers is not communicating enough or only getting in touch when there’s already a problem. It is best not to wait for situations to arise before reaching out. Teachers need to interact frequently and positively with parents to build a relationship before facing any roadblocks. Especially with today’s technology, teachers can do weekly reviews and quickly update parents on what’s going on in the classroom.
It is critical to identify the best communication tools, develop messaging plans early in the year, and maintain consistent communication throughout the year. Maximize video conferencing apps, messaging boards, emails, social media, memos, newsletters, phone calls and find out what works best.
#2: Be collaborative
If communication is frequent, then collaboration will be easier.
A collaborative approach means that parents participate in the school’s decisions and work together to enhance the students’ learning and development.
Parents are well aware of their child’s lifestyle, developmental history, and interests. At the same time, teachers know how they can best guide and help their students perform in school.
Parents and teachers collaboratively sharing knowledge will go a long way to support a child’s growth and academic success. It includes relating what a child learns at school with what they learn at home.
The goal is to create a partnership in which teachers and parents share expertise to provide the best education for the students. Reciprocal respect, sharing of planning, and decision-making responsibilities are the essential components for true partnerships between parents and teachers.
#3: Encourage learning at home
Parents should support after-school learning by talking positively about school and teachers, creating a supportive home environment.
This form of involvement includes parents assisting their children with homework or taking them to a museum. These activities foster a school-oriented family and encourage parents to be involved in the school curriculum.
Activities that encourage learning at home provide parents with information on what children are doing in the classroom and how to help them. Research shows that parental engagement is associated with increased productivity and academic achievement in many ways.
Participating in a child’s education shows that parents values their learning. The more help and guidance a child feels at home, the more effectively they will learn at school.
#4: Build a trusting relationship
In many respects, the first interaction between a teacher and a parent is the most crucial. During this time, a rapport is established, and trust can begin to develop.
Trust is a crucial component of any successful partnership. Teachers must maintain a trusting, private, open, and honest relationship with parents and ensure they always have the students’ best interest at heart. At the same time, parents should be confident in the competency of the teachers who are professionally involved in their children’s education.
#5: Make the curriculum transparent
Part of keeping parents informed is letting them know what their children are learning, how they are processing it, and how it will help their child succeed.
One way to do this is by conducting workshops for parents to inform them of the school curriculum and remind them that they are still their child’s most important teachers.
The bottom line is that education is a critical stage in a child’s growth and development. When parents and teachers collaborate as a team, children learn more effectively. And like any team, parents and teachers have one goal: provide the most incredible learning environment for children to promote their physical, emotional, and intellectual well-being.
Kat is a Molecular Biology Scientist turned Growth Marketing Scientist. During her free time, she loves to write articles that will bring delight, empower women, and spark the business mind. She loves to bake but unfortunately, baking doesn’t love her back. She has many things in her arsenal and writing is one of her passion projects.
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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
Is it possible to rekindle our students’ interest in their subjects and a generate a love of learning when they finally return to school? Jessica Robinson of The Speaking Polymath believes so, and today I’ve invited her to share some expert tips on how to get our learners stimulated, on-task and determined to succeed. Enjoy!
As the number of active Covid cases has started declining globally and the vaccination processes have begun, lockdowns and other restrictions are slowly being lifted in various countries. As a result, educational institutions have also started reopening and again blooming with students’ presence. Although it is immensely joyous for us teachers to have our students back with us in schools, somewhere in our minds, there is a distant alarm that tries to draw our attention towards some impending challenges which we are likely to face. The loss of our students’ interest in learning is a major one of those potential challenges.
No doubt online learning has helped us keep the flow of education somehow uninterrupted during the pandemic, but it has also led to many students losing their sincerity towards studies. Now that our students are back with us in school, we have a vast new responsibility to reignite their learning interest. We have to direct our efforts only towards effective teaching and ensure that our students get back on track and start learning efficiently. Yes, I know it will be challenging, but believe me, we, the teachers, have all the willpower and enthusiasm required to reestablish our students’ curiosity for learning despite all the hardships.
So, ardent teachers, let’s embark on this new mission with courage and gaiety. Now, here are four tips to support you in the mission of reigniting your students’ interest in learning as they get back to school.
#1: Gamifying the learning process
The first tip we have here is to gamify the learning process. It involves converting the learning process into play for the students. This tip works well! The reason is the same as is already in your mind that children of all age groups love playing. You ask them to play a game at any time; they are always ready! So, if you gamify learning for your students, you’ll take a big step of success towards reigniting their interest in learning. Now, you may be wondering how you can add the play element to studies? It will just need a little bit of searching the internet and thinking. To help make things more transparent, let us consider an example.
Suppose you are a Social Studies teacher and you have to make your students learn about the location of different countries on the world map. You can then search the internet for popular games to play with students and then find one such game that can help you gamify world map learning. One example is Pictionary.
You can first help your students identify different countries’ outlines as depicted on the world map. You can then give them around 5 to 10 minutes to remember the outlines of different countries and move towards playing Pictionary with them. For this, you can divide your students into two or three groups. Turn by Turn, one group will draw the outline of a country on the board, and the rest two groups will discuss among themselves, guess and write the name of the respective country on a sheet of paper. The team which gives the maximum number of correct answers will win the game.
This way, you can gamify the learning process and make studies interesting for them. This gamification technique will, over time, enhance your students’ academic performance.
#2: Making things appear more effortless
Simple and easy things always attract us more. This is because the nature of our mind is like that only. For example, if given a choice to solve a word puzzle or a mathematical problem, most of us are likely to go with the form one as most find mathematics problematic. If we go with this basic understanding of the human mind, students are likely to be more interested in learning more straightforward concepts than complex ones.
One effective way to reignite the students’ curiosity for learning is to make things appear more effortless. For example, in the initial days after schools reopen, we can start teaching more straightforward concepts. Along with this, we cannot spend the entire session on teaching. Instead, we can teach for some time and then indulge in interacting with our students. This will help them feel relaxed and not much burdened. Further, assigning less and more comfortable homework can also motivate them to learn effectively. This is again because students are more likely to do their homework with sincerity when they find it easy. Later on, as the flow becomes continuous, we can teach complex concepts to our students.
#3: Extend regular appreciation and rewards to your students
Appreciation and recognition are two of the biggest motivation boosters. If you appreciate a student for his class performance, you motivate him to perform even better and kindle in the rest of the students a wish to be appreciated. This wish further inspires them to start paying more attention towards studies.
Here we have another effective way to rekindle our students’ interest in learning and extend regular appreciation and rewards to them. Whenever a student appears to be attentive in class, submits his homework in time, or gives the right answers to the questions you pose in class and does anything like that, you can try to shower words of praise on him.
Moreover, you can also give rewards to the most receptive students weekly or fortnightly. To find out the most receptive students, all you’ll have to do is ask some questions regarding what you have taught on a particular day in class. The students who give the maximum number of correct answers during the decided period, maybe weekly or fortnightly, will be eligible to receive the reward.
#4: Reconnecting with the students at an emotional level
Students are more likely to exhibit a greater interest in learning when their favorite teacher teaches them. This implies that our emotional bonding is also a factor that impacts their curiosity towards studies. As a long period of physical separation during the pandemic might have caused damage to our emotional connection with our students, we’ll have to reconnect with them. For this, we can do two critical things.
The first is to portray open and cordial body language. It includes having a smile on our face, a relaxed body posture without much stiffness, and covering up more space with hand gestures. When we have open body language, we are perceived as friendly. This brings our students closer to us and makes them feel more comfortable.
The second is to have regular interactions with them. We can try to spend 5 to 10 minutes on alternative days, having informal conversations with our students regarding life, the problems they are facing, their life stories, etc. Such conversations are useful in making a way to children’s hearts. You can also share your childhood stories with them. As you keep having these interactions with your students, they’ll develop a strong emotional connection with you over time. This connection will be of great help in rekindling their interest in learning.
Our students might have lost their interest in learning while staying back in the comforting ambiance of their homes for such a long period. As they start coming back to school, we’ll have to direct our efforts to rekindle their interest in learning. Otherwise, we won’t teach effectively despite giving our best. Further, we can utilize the different tips given above to make our students curious about studying again. I wish you All the very best and a good time with your lovely students.
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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!
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.
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.)
Drawing or writing about Winter break
“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!
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 thefirst 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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I had this crazy idea, some years ago, to offer a Computer Games Coding after-school club for the students to take part in. I had absolutely no idea how to code, but I thought it would be pretty cool.
I was rather the maverick back then.
I picked up a book about coding withScratch(check it out by the way – it’s brilliant) to read up on the basics, but I didn’t have the self-discipline to actually read that book.
I stopped after the first few pages.
Around 20 students signed up for this club, making it one of the most popular in the school. I was two days away from teaching my first coding lesson and I was panicking – how could I teach this stuff if I didn’t even know how to do it?
I decided on Emergency Plan B – I would share extracts from Scratch textbooks for kids (and my book that I’d bought) with the students through our school’s online learning platform. There were a number of games that the students could decide to build: Ghost Hunter, Boat Race, Space Mission, Chat Bot, etc. I decided to let them choose and build the games in pairs or small groups
It worked like an absolute treat!
The teacher explores with the students
In those early days I would call students to my desk one-at-a-time and I would ask them: “How’s the coding going? What have you done so far? Show me the blocks you’ve created.” – Guess what: the kids were teaching me how to code!
As each lesson went by I picked up more and more tips and knowledge and I was able to help the students out with more complex problems. The club culminated at the end of the year with a big assembly in which my best coders shown the whole school the games they created.
Go on the journey together
My message in this article is that it’s not always necessary to know everything about your subject, especially if you’re new to teaching it. When I first came to Thailand in 2008, I was much less knowledgeable about Chemistry than I am now (I was a Biology Teacher in the UK). The strategy I took was this – I will learn with the students.
So, get some fundamentals under your belt and think of ways to get your students to explore the topics they are learning. Get your students to use source material to:
CreateGoogle Slidespresentations (these are great, by the way, as multiple students can work on the slides in real-time)
Create infographics (don’t go with ‘posters’ – they’ve been done to death)
Create a website or blog (Google Sites is brilliant for this, and is yet another reason why schools should take on Google Suite)
Create models of the concepts (simple materials are all that’s needed – bottle caps, plastic bags, cardboard boxes, etc)
Create a table display (e.g. for a Science Fair)
Don’t forget to reward the effort in some way: house points, merits, certificates, etc.
Try the I.E.S. Method
Introduce the topic to the students via some kind of engaging starter activity (see my blog post on starter activities for some ideas to get you started). Use the three As (Assign, Analyse and Ask) where possible.
Give the students a ‘menu’ of different ways in which they can choose to explore the topic in a creative way (e.g. by creating a collaborative Google Slides presentation, making a Kahoot! quiz for the class to complete, designing an infographic, etc.)
Showcase the work to the class (or allow students to showcase their own work) so as to provide acknowledgement. a sense of accomplishment and a useful opportunity for class reflection. Do this important step the next lesson if time runs out, Do not skip this vital step.
Subject Knowledge Does Help
It is worth pointing out that it is always better to actually know the intricacies of the topics you are teaching. This always gives the teacher more confidence and more ability to help the kids.
The point I’d like to make, however, is that it’s not essential.
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I have always loved mathematics, but I’ve not always been ‘good’ at maths. I got a grade A for GCSE Mathematics when I was 16 years old (a grade I worked really, really hard for) but I struggled with mathematics at ‘AS’ and ‘A’ – Level (the UK’s pre-university qualifications).
It just so happened that mathematics wasn’t a subject I needed as a prerequisite for my university course anyway. So, in a sense, I committed the cardinal sin of thinking that it ‘didn’t matter’. I was planning to study molecular biology at university, and my admissions tutors were mainly interested in my biology and chemistry grades.
I achieved my goal of going to uni and doing my PGCE in order to become a fully qualified Science teacher in 2006. I was happy for several years, but my failure to complete my mathematics education at school kept gnawing at me like an annoying itch. I needed to do something about it.
I decided to complete the Certificate in Mathematics course with the Open University in 2009, after three years of being a full-time science teacher. This course covered everything in my ‘A’-Level syllabus with some extra, university-level topics thrown in. It was challenging and offered me just what I needed: closure. As a distance-learning course, it also offered me the chance to study and work as a teacher at the same time.
As I started studying the course and handing in assignments (which had to be snail mailed to the UK – I was living in Thailand at the time), I began to realise how much I had become disconnected from the student experience as a teacher. It had been around three years since I had ever studied anything seriously, and this mathematics course was teaching me how difficult it was to:
Seek help when in doubt
Have the self-discipline needed to study at a regular time-slot each day
These skills were, of course, things I had to do whilst completing my degree course and schooling earlier in life, but it had been a few years since I had been immersed in serious study like this. I was slowly losing empathy for my students: that was until this course gave me a wake-up call.
Another big thing I took from this experience was just how stressful it can be to prepare for a difficult exam (and to complete it). I had to fly to the UK to take the end of course mathematics exam (a three hour beast), and along with the intense revision that came in the few days running up to the exam I had the misfortune of not sleeping so well the night before the big day. And then, once sat down and actually completing the paper, three hours felt like it went by in an instant.
I guess I’m trying to make a number of points in this trip down Memory Lane – namely that by immersing ourselves in the ‘student experience’ we can, as teachers:
Regain, or enhance, our true understanding of just how many hurdles await our students on their race to the exam finish-line.
Learn new skills and concepts that can be applied to our roles as classroom managers, leaders and ‘purveyors’ of specialist knowledge.
Build self-discipline, and pass on the lessons learned to our students in our roles as mentors, homeroom teachers, form tutors and coaches.
One final point to stress is that, whilst we can study almost any subject we want via online platforms like EdX and Coursera these days, it’s also important that we take the time to thoroughly reflect on a regular basis. Keeping a journal of things we’ve done well, and things we messed up, can be a great way to have a written record to read over when we want to celebrate successes and remind ourselves of lessons we have learned on our journeys as educators. This video I made a few years ago goes into this in more detail:
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