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Surviving and succeeding in the first year of teaching: The weeks before starting work (2)

surviving-teachingAlex Galvin, Senior Education Lead, SSAT, writes…

In this series we are sharing advice for new teachers from Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School on how to make a success of your early months in teaching. We began with the first part of how to prepare for your first day back in school and we continue below with part two…


How do I create a classroom environment that makes a powerful first impression?

First impressions count. Your students will start to make judgements about you before you formally begin the lesson. This is inevitable. So the way you greet them, where you stand, and the appearance of your classroom – all of these will signal what your expectations are.

We will cover the ‘micro-skills’ (where to stand, how to stand, and so on) later on in the series. But the climate or learning portrayed by the room you teach in is also important. It may be that you do not have a single, fixed base for all of your lessons; but if you do, make time to prepare the room before the start of term.

At this early stage of your career, impressions count more than at any other, and a few hours organising your classroom will bring significant rewards.

Four practical tips on creating a climate for learning

1: Organisation matters. A cluttered, untidy room creates a poor first impression. Show that you are organised, authoritative and know your stuff. Aim therefore for a clear desk, a small number of bold, eye-catching displays, and a visual sense of clarity.

2: Displays are opportunities for learning: they aren’t just cosmetic. Therefore try to have a large central image or collage that grabs visual attention. Have a question that draws the reader in eg “Why do the Tudors have such a nasty reputation?” Make text large and clear so that it is visible from the other side of the room.

3: Be literacy-friendly. What are the key words needed for a student to be successful in your subject? Choose the 20 essential words and phrases, print each one out large enough to see from across the room, and display them. Ideally, highlight any part of the word which a student might struggle to spell accurately eg “Gover-n-ment.”

4: Set aside part of the room for your tutor group notices. Put the name of the group and your name on the board to signal that you take being a tutor seriously. You will use this specifically for information aimed at your tutor group and, as you get to know them, encourage them to bring in tacky postcards, funny signs and other similar items to be displayed there. All will help to create a sense of group identity.

How do I plan effective lessons?

You will have had lots of experience of planning lessons during your teaching practice. Now comes the reality of the job when there simply won’t be the time to plan every lesson in the same level of detail you would when you were training.

Nevertheless, planning is an essential element in teaching well. Each school will have its own expectations in terms of the format of lessons plans, but here are some suggestions for key ingredients.

Five tips for planning effective lessons

1: Your starting-point should be visualising what students should have learnt by the end of the lesson. This doesn’t mean “learning objectives” but – more importantly – “learning outcomes” What do you expect students to be able to do or say by the end of the lesson that shows that they have made progress?

2: Once you have a broad sense of what the learning outcomes are (and we recommended that there aren’t too many – one or two), then you need to think in terms of differentiation. Even in a setted class, you will have students with a wide range of abilities. So think in terms of what you might expect those at the top, middle and lower end to achieve: what should they be able to demonstrate by the end of the lesson? Once you have taught the group, personalise this question by thinking of specific students and what you want them to know or do as a result of your teaching.

3: There are lots of theories about what constitutes effective teaching. We tend to think there are three key ingredients: pace, variety and challenge. So as you plan your lesson, remember Mike Hughes’ suggestions that a student’s attention span cannot exceed their chronological age plus two: so a 14 year-old will concentrate for a maximum of 16 minutes. The maximum time that anyone will concentrate, he says, is 20 minutes. So plan your lesson with pace and variety in mind.

4: Remember that literacy matters. What are the key words for your subject? How are you going to help students to hear and then use them so that they are comfortable speaking, reading and writing? In your lesson plans, build in the key words you will use, repeat them regularly and display them in your room.

5: It is well-known that too much time is spent on marking books. As part of your planning think of the key questions you need to ask which will demonstrate whether or not students are making progress. Ask a few well-honed, open questions to check systematically that students are on track towards the desired learning outcomes.

Lesson planning checklist:

1 – Clear aim for the lesson/learning outcome
2 – Variety of tasks/activities
3 – Brief outline of timings
4 – Extension tasks available/support materials where appropriate
5 – Resources prepared and organised.



What are your experiences of your first year in teaching? What worked for you? What didn’t work? Let us know via Twitter with the hashtag #SSATsurvive or in the comments below.

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