How routines helped me to get to the heart of learning
Currently there seems to be quite a lot of discussion around behaviour in the profession. This might be related to the current covid situation, with uncertainty and changes in systems to try and create a safe environment adding to the pressure that all schools are feeling. It might just be, as I suspect, that there are still many challenges in terms of behaviour in schools and we are all looking for the best solutions. A recent conversation got me thinking about some of the challenges I had experienced and how I had overcome them in the context I was in.
As a head of Department I had always felt that the relationships built with our students were the linchpin to ensuring that they would make progress, and where progress was made, staff turnover allowing, we often tried to keep classes together as long as possible. This was also aided by the classes not being set, which meant that all teachers were teaching to the top and scaffolding as required for all to get there. This often yielded good results, with staff having a really good understanding of their class. One class in particular set me some challenges which encouraged me to reflect further on some of my approaches.
Year 8 were really struggling. The team were really struggling. It became apparent that if we were to move this year group forward and get them learning, grouping was going to have to be a consideration as all of the other approaches were yet to produce the desired result. Hence, my group was born. It was not a class of all of the students who had been displaying challenging behaviour, I had done that many times and potential ‘sink groups’, even with me leading with lots of experience, were not a feature we wanted to encourage. Nor did we want to set, as again this could potentially lead to a number of groups where there could be real difficulties.
Getting to know you
After lots of careful consideration of data (soft and hard), including looking at friendship groups and relationships, I took on a class which, without a doubt, I came to love. But it was not easy.
There were students in my group had a diagnosis of ADHD, a number of students who were dyslexic, some who were dealing with some horrendous family issues, some with anxiety and other mental health concerns, some who lacked so much confidence putting pen to paper could result in tears and some who could have regularly got up and taken the class as they were so knowledgeable (one went on a trip to Salam as we were studying the Crucible as she wanted to learn more). Of course, there was any imaginable configuration in between. Humans are complex. Groups of humans are complex. This group of humans were especially and wonderfully complex.
Much as they were generally keen to work with me from the start (I had already formed good relationships with a number of them and had taught older siblings too), it quickly became clear this would not be plain sailing. I ran a tight ship. I always had. But it would seem that this ship was going to have to run even more tightly is I was going to get this crew rowing in the same direction. This was where routines became our saviour.
Setting the tone
First, as always, I focused relentlessly on expectations. No, we would not talk when others were speaking, including me. No, we would not avoid tasks or pretend we were doing them. No, we would not arrive late as that would disturb people. I would reinforce this at any opportunity, praising those who were getting it right, giving quiet reminders to those who were not, and sterner consequences to those who made a choice not to (an important distinction to those who struggled and had reasonable adjustments). The focus of the class was always on learning and my expectations were there because it was important. They deserved to get the best teaching from me, and I could only do that with their cooperation. Uneasily they agreed.
The next part that was important here was having a clear timetable and pattern with them. I taught this group five hours a week, with a double each week, so two hours in a day, with either a short break or lunch break in between. We agreed that in the double we would focus on writing. That meant in the first session I would introduce a topic, we would then look at stimulus materials and exemplars, unpick what was effective and plan together for the writing process. In the next session, there would be a quick recap of the plan and some reminders of what we wanted to include and then they would write for 35 minutes. This would be followed with a self and peer assessment, with a clear criteria. The process was based on the excellent 200 word writing challenges and we would include a target around this too. That was adapted for some and those who found sustaining writing for a long period of time were given scaffolds and intervention. This was usually the most successful part of the week and they produced some excellent work and real progress could be seen. Importantly by them, not just me, although sometimes I had to point it out.
Breaking it down
As this had been successful, I of course reflected on what it was that had made it so. Of course, the use of models, the small steps, the element of reflection and having a peer audience, all fed into this, but most importantly it seemed to be the certainty they liked. They knew what would mainly happen in these lessons even if the topic changed. It made them feel calmer, they knew that they would be supported, and they knew that they wouldn’t suddenly be asked to do something wacky, although the more comfortable they became the more opportunities arose for us to go against the grain sometimes.
I borrowed the lessons I had learnt here and introduced them to other lessons. Outlining our focus for the week (Monday we will be looking at scenes 1 and 2 of Macbeth and then on Tuesday we will review our understanding contrast these to later scenes etc), keeping an eye on the big picture so they knew how the lessons fitted together in their curriculum and knowing where we had moved on from so they recognised progress.
They had a tray for homework and knew where resources were to minimize disruption if they arrived without something, and I always made sure their books were in a pile at the end of the row and collected back in the same way to ensure that things would be ready quickly. Homework was due on the same day and would form part of that learning so they knew if mattered.
The first task they did in the lesson, a retrieval or recap task, always appeared in the same place on the board and often used the same language, or at least question stem. Even if I was using an image, they knew the instructions would always be found in the same place. Instead of searching around or waiting for me to explain, this meant most could get on quickly with the task and I could direct those who needed further input. Even the date was always in the same place so that they weren’t searching for it.
They knew that when writing academically we would follow the ‘I, we, you’ approach, so again they didn’t have to wonder how they would be able to write something, and although I experimented with different scaffolds to get the right one, having sentence starters often seemed to be the most appropriate method for them. Again, this was just part of the routine.
Again, these routines were reinforced time and again, and eventually there was a real shift. Things were becoming automated, there were fewer questions about instructions and more focus on the nitty gritty of the texts or the task. Some of that came from maturity, but there was no doubt, especially if in a cover situation which didn’t know the exact routines or language or elsewhere around the school, where unfortunately many would still find themselves in hot water.
As we rowed in the same direction the students also grew in confidence and students who had struggled to put pen to paper, had fewer tears and more words to take away. Those who might still arrive to the class in an agitated state, calmed more quickly, as there were fewer people who would want to interact and fewer distractions for them as they settled. It also helped that the school had a clear system for behaviour generally, but it was very infrequently I had to use it with this group, despite things initially suggesting differently. Perhaps the biggest issue I had was the absence in the group, with some who frequently struggled to engage with school or were out of my lesson due to a consequence, but wherever possible I would talk them through the work, and make plans with summaries and recap to get them up to speed as soon as possible when they arrived.
It was never going to be a group where I could completely relax and still those expectations needed to be reinforced. The delicate balance could be upset if some of them had a tricky day before they arrived at my room, but they taught me a lot about the power of routine. The more the routines became embedded the more we were able to really focus on the learning and the complexities of Shakespeare or Priestley as opposed to housekeeping. We also laughed a lot and cried when I left. They were a class that really helped me to value routines.