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Secondary

The new school year – How to give your students a great start (and keep it going)

Line drawing of young adults at the starting line of a sprint

Every teacher knows that in September, incoming cohorts need to settle in and swiftly learn what your expectations are – but it’s a process that can easily go awry, notes Bhamika Bhudia…

Bhamika Bhudia
by Bhamika Bhudia
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Secondary

There’s little argument when it comes to the importance of setting the right foot forward and establishing routines and relationships during those first few lessons in September.

However, there continues to be debate over what this should actually consist of, and how it ought to be delivered. Given the variety of approaches and options available to us, how we can make the best of it?

Breaking the ice

Getting things right from the offset involves quickly establishing routines and expectations, and minimising any disruption caused by behavioural problems, as students and staff adjust to being back in school after six weeks out of schedule.

Some argue that a standalone lesson on rules, expectations, class contracts and getting-to-know-you icebreaker activities is ideal for this. The irony of that, however, is that the delivery of this lesson will contradict the consistency you’re trying to establish in the first place.

Yes, rules and expectations must be set, whether in relation to seating, health and safety, behaviour or general admin – but spending an entire lesson on this will convey the opposite message.

Lead through your curriculum

If the aim is to set high expectations of your students, then instead of talking about these expectations, demonstrate them.

Delivering the curriculum is fundamental to the role of the class teacher. With so much content to get through, why waste time talking about your expectations, rather than actually showing them? Also, those ‘fun’ ice-breaker lessons will not only give a false impression of what your lessons and you as a teacher are like, but will actively undermine your subject.

The curriculum and content itself should be engaging and interesting, so lead with this and focus on imparting love of learning within your subject.

Consistency is key

That old cliché, ‘Don’t smile before Christmas!’ is inherently contradictory. Good relationships are hugely important, particularly in subjects where debate and personal responses will be required. Deliberately withholding expression or warmth is counterproductive to what you’re trying to achieve, and frankly make your lessons far less enjoyable.

Boundaries need to be set not just up to Christmas, but throughout the entire year – so lay the groundwork from the start. Be consistent with the behaviour policy, pull up students when they don’t get it right, chase the homeworks and detentions, make the phonecalls and set the detentions where necessary, but build those relationships as well. Fairness and consistency is exactly what students need.

Celebrate the positive

On the flipside, while it’s important to sweat the small stuff when students aren’t getting it right, it’s just as important to celebrate the little wins.

Praise when students are getting things right. Remember that readjusting to regimented school routines after being away from them for a month and a half is tough for everyone involved, so when things are going well, acknowledge it.

Postcards, reward stickers and positive phone calls are all vital parts of any teacher’s toolkit, and should be used effectively. Again, consistency is key here – don’t just do it for a month and then let everything fall by the wayside. Start as you mean to go on. Your students will only meet the expectations you continue to set, and if you slack, so will they.

Watch the pressure

It’s easy to forget that our new Y7s, Y10s and Y12s are simply Y6s, Y9s and Y11s plus an extra six weeks, so don’t expect any magical transformations.

Moving school or up a Key Stage can be an overwhelming transition for many students. While the stakes are much higher on the other side of summer, remember that yours isn’t their only ‘first’ lesson of the week. The coming year will doubtless be one that’s important and consequential for them, but experiencing that same messaging from teachers over the course of ten lessons within the same week can be overwhelming for many.

Once again, setting high expectations through your teaching is far more effective than hammering this point through words alone. Give your Y7s reminders before they get things wrong; don’t expect your Y10s to have matured overnight; and don’t throw your Y12s in at the deep end.

High challenge and high expectations are necessary, but be ready to guide them to where they need to be through your teaching.

Bhamika Bhudia (@MissMika_Eng) is a head of English at a mixed comprehensive secondary school in London

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