I have always had amazingly happy classes. Whatever school I have worked in. State, Independent, International, Primary, GCSE English, a term of Year 1 cover even – I may not have pushed them the absolute hardest towards far-off goals, been the fastest at turning around all the marking, or made much professional headway toward the desk-busy life of an SMT member – but I can say, after twenty something years in the classroom, that I have consistently excellent relationships with the students.
They love coming to class and I love seeing them. It’s not always easy; they are human beings with varied home lives and pressures and friendships – but I shall tell you what I think has worked and why I have managed to remain a ‘liked’ teacher, despite being a middle-aged woman (I would argue, the toughest group in terms of popularity; somehow it all seems SO much easier for men to get a laugh or seem ‘alright’ and the young staff are just universally loved for their shoes or hair.)
Greet Them Like Family (but family you like!)
Go to the door and say, “Hello Darlings!” as they come in. I do. “Morning lovely Year 8s”, “Come in my lovelies, it’s cold out there” – all of these little phrases tell the children that you like them (and EVEN IF YOU DON’T, you MUST keep on until you do, because you WILL begin to, it’s a magic thing)
Notice things and try really hard to say a few names out. “Amazing hair, Matt, you must have got up early”, “How was drama and the rehearsal, Sabina?” Just the act of showing that you are interested in their not-your-subject lives is incredibly powerful and any time that it takes up, time that you fear will be lost, is not lost at all. You are investing in your classroom relationships and making it all much easier by having a harmonious, positive feeling in the room.
I also call my kids ‘Weasels’ and ‘Darling Beans’. They love it. They feel belonging. It’s our thing. They get it. They have sent me cards from The Weasels, I have known International students return to Asia calling each other ‘Bad Animals’ in jest and I know that our silly and wonderful classroom terms of endearment are travelling the globe.
Big them up. There is so much power in believing that someone believes in you. Even if you are feeling secretly desperate about a child’s progress, find something, anything that is positive and go for it. “Look at how beautifully you have written the date on that line, what fabulous handwriting in that pen, Joanna, you are making that look gorgeous” saying things like this out loud as you walk around ALWAYS works. No one hates a compliment. They might hate attention, then you temper it down and allow for a more subtle finger-point at what you have spotted and a quiet, “fantastic” – There has never been a class brought down through praise. The act of bringing a child into your consciousness and deliberately going out and about to find something to praise, will change things for both of you. It’s a form of magic. Just as a spiral of negative behaviour can result from labelling a child as ‘naughty’ – a spiral of positivity will come if you look hard enough for the chink of light and you are consistent in showing that you see them. Tell their parents, post a card home, call home. Spread the happy feeling. It works absolute wonders.
Share Your World. Not in a creepy way – but with the right professional boundaries it is wonderful what sharing a few anecdotes about your life will do. The children, even secondary ones, are always amused that you exist outside of school. When they see you in Tesco they think it’s hilarious. My classes love hearing little things about my life at home with my teenager and my ten year old. I never talk about my partner, that’s not for them, but I do talk about parenting and funny things that they can relate to. It helps them to know their families are normal! We all argue about the same things, my kids are not magically perfect because they are teacher’s children. My classes give me such ultimate attention when I’m telling them about a moment from holidays when we lost our passports or missed a train; their eyes are huge and they are smiling uber-keen faces of delight at the teacher’s confession that life isn’t perfect for any of us. They feel trusted, respected, involved and normalised when you share snippets of your life. It’s a powerful tool.
Have a routine where you build in something they like. I have my Spotify account and if they have had a good session, it might be someone’s turn to select the clearing up song. Clean radio edits only! They adore this, you will get a super tidy classroom and they will love it that their 44 year old teacher is trying to learn all the words to Khalid’s track, or learning to ‘Braaaappp, brappppp’ along to ‘Man’s Not Hot’. Good Times. Oh, and then you get to educate them with some Groove Armada and ‘Superstylin”.
Underpinning all these ‘soft skills’ you need to show, will be the expectation that you are boundaried and clear. You have extremely high expectations of their behaviour because they deserve that. You will not let them be disruptive because you have a responsibility to them, their families and to yourself as a professional. You are not prepared to compromise and if they can’t be in the room, they have the choice to walk to the Head’s office – it’s just a choice. Say it calmly like that and I guarantee they will want to stay with you. Some might walk off for the ‘effect’ of going, but you know they will be so bored outside the Head’s office (already planned) that they will come back to you and won’t bother to try again.
Be a listener. They are never kicking off because they were born thinking, ‘I’m going to give that Year 7 History teacher hell when I am 12’ – It’s because of something else. If you can say, “Look, I know you’re really fed up, I hear that. I can see how angry xxxx is making you feel right now and I am sorry that you feel this dreadful, I really am. But we need to do this now and at break we can meet up and walk to Student Services if you want? I’d really like to help you get it sorted” – anything that shows you are not backing them into a corner and that you have heard, and acknowledged a feeling even if you do not understand it or have an instant solution, is an incredibly powerful strategy. Kids are like us after all; sometimes we just need to be heard, nothing more.
Maybe never becoming a member of SMT has been a good thing, I still get my whole day with the kids. When I was small and I practised being a teacher with my teddies and dolls, I never did practise meetings around desks, I was always a teacher. Being with kids. Those Marvellous Beans.