The right climate can allow students to blossom

First published in TES Magazine 22/09/16

Follow these tips to create the perfect ‘weather’ in your classroom and help your budding learners thrive.

It’s reached that time of the year when FE educators up and down the country are filled with anticipation, and it’s not the endless form-filling that we’re looking forward to. It’s something far better than that.

Our college buildings are once more opening up their joyless classrooms, silent workshops and lifeless corridors to fresh faces for us to learn from, laugh with and grow alongside. With this change comes a great responsibility, though: from day one, we must establish the kind of weather in our learning environment that will lead to fruit on trees and lush green grass. So how can this can be achieved?

Great expectations

Early in my teaching career, I scrapped the notion that students set the rules. Negotiated ground rules were soon replaced by “great expectations”, written by me and discussed with my students.

As a result, what used to be an endless process of students persuading me to accept their suggestion of a “rule” became a more civilised affair of sharing the expectations I had of their professional behaviour and learning. I expected their punctual attendance; they could also expect mine. I expected their engagement with our online spaces, designed to build a sense of community; they could expect me to use them to share resources and contribute to conversations.

Mind your language

While “expectations” implies to my students that I have the belief that each of them can succeed, the other words I use also carry great power.

I realised early on that my words could demotivate and disengage, so I became more careful about how I introduced certain topics. “This aspect of the subject can be a bit difficult, but we’ll see how it goes” evolved into “There are some challenging aspects to this subject but what you’ve shown me so far fills me with confidence that you can do it”.

Once I realised my praise was being thrown around too freely, “That’s a great idea” was replaced by ‘That’s a really creative solution. How could we build on it?” It’s far from easy, but I work hard to ensure that my praise is always specific as well as challenging, and I use my words carefully to fill each student with confidence, rather than uncertainty, about what lies ahead.

Establish routines

The classroom “weather” can be changeable, and I have found that it’s important to establish routines to counter this. These are some of the most important ones:

  • Try to develop a sense of responsibility in students by giving them a special role, whether it’s as PC technician, plenary ninja or Post-it administrator (more exciting than it sounds!)
  • Pose challenging questions to develop students’ skills of reflection and self-assessment at the end of lessons.
  • Set up access to staple technologies at the start of lessons and only gradually introduce others as the students’ digital skills for learning grow.
  • Distribute name cards to indicate groupings in order to vary the mix of skills, knowledge and attributes they are required to make use of in one another.

Each of these routines involves a change designed to take students outside their comfort zone, while retaining enough that’s familiar to ensure they feel safe.

Reward and recognition

It soon became apparent that, although students responded to clear consequences for bad behaviour, such an approach was admin-heavy and time-consuming: from writing letters to making phone calls home and attending disciplinary meetings.

While those processes have their place, it is reward and recognition – reinforcing desirable behaviours – that result in increased self-esteem. Work on the wall, a personalised note or a message passed via a student’s course leader can all serve to motivate and engage. Once you get to know your students, these rewards can also help you to build on established rapport – allowing them to select the music at the start of the lesson to suit the topic, for example, or incorporating a quote from their favourite film in a presentation.

The sky’s the limit

Ask any student at the start of the course what grade they would like to achieve by the end of the year and it will never be a “fail” or an E. My favourite part of lesson one is where we share interesting (and not so interesting) facts about ourselves.

I ask the students to write down the grade they want to achieve, the future career they envisage and the work they anticipate will be required to get them there. These pieces of paper are shaped like balloons, rockets or kites, and represent the reason they walked through the college doors in the first place, and the aspirations they began their course with.

As we enter a new academic year, I forecast a few clouds ahead but also bright sun casting its rays on the walls and a warm breeze flowing through the windows.

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