I love teaching “that class”. I’m not sure if it is the challenge, a form of pedagogical masochism or something else but I do genuinely love teaching “those classes”. You know the one I mean. The one with the rag tag collection of off task, under motivated, probably quite challenging, disengaged, patchy attending vagabonds who always seem to have English during Period 5 on a friday. The ones who in the right light can be seen as rough diamonds, loveable rogues and actually quite good at English.
Now in my 4th school and 7th year of teaching I find myself with an entire timetable of “those classes” and I have never enjoyed a timetable more. This week however I was struck by the fact that for some staff the teaching of “that group” is a blight upon their timetable, it takes the spring out of their step all day and can become such a serious issue that they genuinely dread opening up their classroom to let “that class” in. I had forgotten what that was like and then I felt bad because by enjoying mine I was belittling the struggle so many staff have with “that class”.
So here is how I approach the teaching of “that class” … YMMV
- “That Class” should never be referred to as a “bottom set” even if it is. Use its class code “Set 6″ “9B3″. I’ve even trialled calling it the AP (Accelerated Progress) class. It may seem like pointless semantics but the label given to a group becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Don’t give them a negative label.
- “That class” is not the dumping ground for naughty children, difficult to manage or challenging pupils of any ability. In my opinion behaviour should not be a factor when setting pupils. Whoever is in charge of creating the groups should not pile the “unteachables” together unless they have similar learning needs and attainment records.
- “That Class” deserves the best teacher, and teaching assistants, available to them. Take as much care selecting the right member of staff for them as you would for the blossoming brilliance of set 1.
- “That Class” needs to be kept as small as you can manage within the constraints of your timetable. I keep mine to about 15 ish pupils.
In my experience the majority of pupils in ”that class” are low attaining due to a factor other than ability. Of course ability has become a factor now but what lies behind that are other things that need to be understood. These are fairly predictable: attendance, behaviour, attitude, support from home, special (often manifold) learning needs and the most important of all self fulfilling prophesy. Of course you will also have pupils who have brilliant attitudes, high attendance, supportive homes and no specialised learning needs who are still low attaining. They shouldn’t be in “that class” they should be around awesome role models in a different class and be supported by differentiation. That kind of pupil will act like a sponge and suck up the positivity or negativity that surrounds them. Well that is my belief anyway.
So where do you start?
Attitude & Self Belief
“Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act.” Howard Zinn,
If you don’t win these pupils over it doesn’t matter how amazing you are as a teacher, how outstandingly white hot your lessons are, how forward thinking, up to the minute, planned until your eyeballs pop out your activities are because they will not engage. It isn’t them who has to prove themselves, its you. First and foremost you need to win them over to the idea that teaching is something you are going to do WITH and FOR them not AT and TO them. Get to know them and find out what they really want out of school. Let’s face it you are the one (or your boss/linemanager/Head/SIP) is the one that wants the 3 levels of progress (at least) and C grade at GCSE (at least) out of them, they probably aren’t that fussed. One of my boys seriously, hand on heart, aspires to be the guy in Gregs who works the oven and pulls out the golden steak bake goodness when the buzzer goes. Fine. Good lad. I’m going to help you become the best Oven Operative Gregs has ever known. What you then do is covertly engineer situations where they discover that they actually could be pretty good at English too, you know, if they wanted, up to them really, just an option.
If you get “that group” in KS4 like myself then you also have to undo several years of negative self image. I cannot count the number of times I have been greeted with “I’m shit at English Miss. I can’t read” delivered by a set chin, crossed arms and an “I dare you to disagree” expression. Often by Y10 their confidence has been blown and they have learned to be bad at English. They can’t spell, they can’t write and they can’t read. My usual reply to this is “Well you’ve come to the right place then!”. So how do you change this? How do you get them onside enough to engage?
- Build a relationship with them that isn’t based upon their academic outputs.
- Give them a success every lesson which they believe in and is worth something to them.
- Praise Praise Praise
- Help them to learn how to be frustrated, to struggle, to fail but never to give up.
- Praise Praise Praise
- Choose your battles. Give them a pen if they don’t have one. Accept that the pen may not come back. Life and lessons are too short to enact World War 3 over a pen.
- With the exception of pens (see above) set out clear expectations of what you require from them – punctuality, doing homework, . I am assuming your expectations are fair, reasonable and achievable (if not, why not?) and therefore can be upheld ruthlessly.
- Accept that expectations will occasionally not be met. Have a plan for this. Act shocked and appalled (you won’t be really because you planned for this!) that it has happened, enforce some form of sanction and then deploy your Plan B.
- Remind them often of their progress. “Remember when you couldn’t … How easy is that now?!” Remind them all the time of how far they have come. Send them to look at work in their book from before they mastered something. Never stop pointing out their progress.
Also … try praise.
Effort & Resilience
“When I was young, I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work.” ~George Bernard Shaw
Usually “that class” will be behind where it needs to be in terms of academic progress. That means they have to not only catch up with their peers but then also keep pace with them as well. You, as their teacher, could not and should not drag them along the learning journey. You need to be truthful about how much harder you have to work when something is difficult. You need to show them that the greatest failure is giving up. Failure is not just about a lack of success it is mostly about a lack of endeavour. They will also need to learn resilience. “That class” have got their own expectations about what success is and that may not be achievable in the immediate future. This will upset them and send them back to their old habits of negative self image. You will need to teach them to weather that storm when it comes.
How do you build an ethos of effort and resilience? You expect one. I have high standards about what I expect within my classroom regardless of the group of people that happen to be gathered there. I don’t change these expectations just because “that group” are in the room. For example I never, ever, give out spellings to a pupil that asks. I might refer them to another pupil, I might ask the class, I might point to the pile of dictionaries, I might hand them a dictionary and give them the first few letters to get started and I’ll always double check for them to be sure later on. This is a small thing but it builds effort and signals an end to their learned helplessness. Another classic with “that group” is that they want you to check every tiny thing they do because they are paranoid about failure. Wean them off of this by allowing them a limited number of check ins with you per task. Most staff would never set “that group” homework because of all the time they would then waste chasing it when it isn’t done. Terrible plan for obvious reasons. Set them up to win with a homework they will obviously do. Swamp them with reward.
Marking & Feedback
We didn’t need the Sutton report to tell us that accurate and effective feedback is the single most useful form of intervention. It is also the biggest form of PR you have with “that class”. I mark their books weekly and make sure that every key assessment is returned to them within two lessons. If I expect them to perform for me, I perform for them. “That group” are often the most ferocious grade hunters and want to know what everything they do would be graded as. Accept that and give it to them – remember the “whatever it takes” mentality. I give them “Quick Targets” to improve technical written accuracy which are dated and I expect those to be actioned within a week of being given out. I stamp those targets as having been met – when they are not they get them as extra (groan) homework. It’s all about flagging the progress they make, no matter how small so that when they get under motivated or have a bad day you can show them every step forward they made this year. The quick targets also build resilience as self editors. If they misspell a word and I pick it up they have to copy it 10 times correctly. If they use the dictionary they don’t get it wrong in the first place. If they misuse capital letters they have to copy the entire text out again correctly. If they checked their work for it themselves then they don’t misuse them in the first place. See also paragraphs. See also homophones. See also all of those careless mistakes which cost marks and are made more from a lack of attention to detail than a lack of understanding.
The key thing is that nothing negative from me ever goes inside their book. It is a heaven of positivity. If I have to deliver a negative comment it is done by me in person. If I have to nag about something (finishing the work, not wiping foundation on your book, not doodling) it goes on a post it note on the front cover and is dealt with, note thrown away, before the book gets opened.
The Greatest Asset: You
You will be the making of “that class”. Be proud of them, enjoy their success and share in their disappointments. Greet them in a corridor and make a public comment about how well they did at X. Call home often but twice as often for positives. Stand up for them when other teachers trash them as a group. Be pleased to see them when they arrive. Miss them over holidays and welcome them back. Brag about them to other pupils. Show them with everything that you do that you consider them “that class” for all the right reasons.
But now I am conscious that I have run on for ages and my pile of marking is looking balefully at me. “That group” did a first draft of a story for me this week that needs the rest of my afternoon. I hope at least one thing in here makes marking “that group” a little easier for someone this week.