Getting the new school year right

Margaret Longstaffe

Margaret is an independent Early Years and Primary consultant and director of Maths School Improvement Ltd, a company originally set up by her husband Jonathan. She has worked in education in a variety of settings for over 25 years, having been a very successful Early Years & Primary teacher and headteacher. She has also worked as a senior lecturer in EYFS & Primary Education, and is presently involved in a number of exciting projects, including supporting a newly established school in London and working with Kunskapsskolan on a new English Curriculum for Swedish schools.

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Image credit: Flickr // usaghumphreys // Originally published on 9th September 2015. Image credit: Flickr // usaghumphreys // Originally published on 9th September 2015.

As teachers we are notoriously hard on ourselves. It’s a common trait amongst the profession. After all, how often do you hear a colleague say they are “really good” at something? More often than not they will be playing down what a great job they do, often in challenging and changeable circumstances. This feeling of “can I really get it right again this year?” often creeps into the consciousness towards the end of the summer term and can lead to sleepless nights during the summer break.

At this stage in the year we’ve all got our class lists, information from end of year reports, data, projected grades, reading ages, pen portraits and much, much more (including well-meaning, off the cuff comments by colleagues, TAs, lunchtime supervisors and other members of the school community). We have met our new class, hopefully on more than one occasion, spent some time getting to know them and setting the scene for the start of a new year.

But this was always the issue for me, and has continued to be for as long as I can remember: What if I can’t get it right for this class? What if I fail spectacularly and get everything wrong! Sometimes, if I’m honest, I didn’t want to have masses of information about my new class and children. I didn’t want to have my opinion coloured by the views, relationships and experiences of other teachers with these children who would spend 30+ hours a week with me and be my sole responsibility. I wanted to build the relationship from scratch without having that nagging comment ringing in my ears about Sam, Taylor or Sophie. I didn’t want to plan my first lessons with set ideas about who could or couldn’t write confidently/hated reading/was brilliant at number. I wanted to “get it right” for every single child and not limit my expectations due to the views of others, assessments and test scores.

In my awkwardness I was lucky.

Long before Carol Dweck and Growth Mindset I was lucky enough to work with a fabulously gifted set of teachers who all knew so much more than me. They inspired me every single day with their tireless enthusiasm, dedication and nous. These lovely people instilled in me the kind of understanding regarding teaching & learning that I’ve since spent the last 25 years reading about and researching in books, journals and research “Sometimes, if I’m honest, I didn’t want to have masses of information about my new class and children.”papers and then reproducing in my own classrooms and when involved in CPD courses, working in schools and lecturing ITT students. They made me into the teacher I am today.

So what was the crucial thing that these inspirational colleagues got so right? Well it’s both simple and complicated, as most valuable things are, but as I think about the start of another school year I really feel it boils down to two things: 1) attitude, and 2) doing it for the children. In a nutshell, they boiled down the Growth Mindset theory long before it was established by Dweck and lived and breathed a philosophy that their children “Could do it”. They spent their entire days, weeks and months reinforcing this and building a school and educational experience round it. And it worked.

1. Attitude

By attitude I mean a can-do attitude, both personally and with every single child. In so many ways we forget to be good to ourselves. We often forget to be true to what we believe in as a teaching professional. If we forget this we are in danger of never getting it right for the children in our class and school. So ‘Plan the Plan’ for you and your class and make it special. If we are going to spend such a huge amount of time in school with these wonderful, unique children then we all deserve to have a fantastic time.

  • Plan the classroom space and other areas you are responsible for: cloakrooms, toilets, outdoor areas.

  • Do something different with your furniture; change the table layout, create new areas where children can learn independently, have fun. It will stimulate you and the children (look at Pinterest for ideas).

  • Make the room special for your class. It shouldn’t be a carbon copy of every other classroom in school. It has to say something about you and your pupils.    

  • Use your knowledge of the children to create a space that is theirs; developing ownership and a shared culture of “we can do it”. Include photographs, display boards of “If Minions are your class’ thing, have a Minions theme!”work or activities they have done with you on visit days, make book displays of favourite authors, books and characters from films, comics etc. Have a section all about you; children love to know more about their teacher and it helps to builds fantastic relationships.

  • Create interactive areas that change frequently during the first few weeks so that you can gauge the children’s likes and interests. Use this to plan work for later in the term.

  • Ask the class to bring in things they love and have a growing display area to     stimulate discussion and create a feeling of it being their classroom.

  • Use soft furnishings and natural materials to soften the space. Create a quiet area for those children that need one and where you can go to have one to one time with children.

  • Create the WOW Factor whenever you can. So many classrooms have become one huge Learning Wall. They have their place but your room should be so much more than that. After all that isn’t going to create an environment that makes children want to run into school each morning. Your classroom should give children reason to want to be there.

Once your room is right other things can follow. At the start of term, plan with the children’s interests and any new topical, kid-cool subjects. This always helps to rapidly gain the class’s interest, sense of belonging, shared ownership and “this place is okay”.

2. Doing it for the children

If you’ve got a class full of dinosaur obsessives (and what Year 1 class hasn’t?), plan some work around discovering a hidden dinosaur in the school grounds. Start with an email from a Professor Jones (see if they’ve watched Raiders over the holidays). Every aspect of the English curriculum can be covered, IT, Maths, Science, Geography, History, Art, Photography I could go on.

  • If you are close enough to see the touring Rugby World Cup before the tournament starts in September, use this to start your work.

  • If Minions are your class’ thing, have a Minion theme!

  • Use local interest themes, events, festivals. We have a local Torchlight and Lantern Festival that is brilliant way to start a term.

  • Include every child in a roles-and-responsibility roster, and have this ready in the room on day one. Share this with everyone and use this to help with classroom organisation and management. It builds class ownership, teamwork and self-esteem. Catch the children doing their jobs during the first week, take photographs send them home with thank you cards for helping and use as another class display. Suddenly your room is becoming theirs.

  • Invite visitors in during the first few weeks to support the curriculum. Build excitement and the feeling that this year is going to be amazing.

  • Quickly establish your school ground rules and those in your class and reinforce constantly. Let children design their personal posters of the school rules but remember these cannot be changed just for your class. Consistency and continuity is key to enabling the very best for your class.

  • Set up an Our Class is Special Book, Blog and Twitter account. Record every good thing that happens. “Catch them being Good” was always a mantra in my first school and optimised the Growth Mindset philosophy.

  • Build a “This is our class and this is how we do it” ethos.

  • Reward what you want to see, always.

The wonderful Mick Waters talks about Limelight in his brilliant book Thinking Allowed on Schooling (2013, Independent Thinking Press). He discusses the importance of letting every child have a share of the Limelight whilst they are in school and enabling each child to succeed. This is exactly what my wonderful colleagues did and what I’ve been doing ever since in my own classrooms and schools. By giving every child a real chance to shine and to be recognised for something (no matter how small) they have their time in the Limelight, grow in confidence, self-belief and ultimately achieved in their education. Getting it right at the start of the year is crucial in enabling them to do this. So make it extraordinary for you and them.

How do you kick off a new school year? Let us know below!

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