Choosing Your Students

Each year a full-time teacher receives in the region of 250-300 students who they will deliver quality learning and teaching. As teaching professionals we don’t get to choose our students, of course not, our middle leaders and the Assistant Head in charge of time-tabling will organise what classes we teach. But, can we in fact have a say in what sort of students we eventually get to mould into independent thinkers?

I came across a brief post by Seth Godin who exclaimed that businesses and companies choose their customers:

Yes, you get to choose them, not the other way around. You choose them with your pricing, your content, your promotion, your outreach and your product line…

In many respects Seth Godin’s quote echoes many truths about education and how teachers must think carefully about what students they would like in their classrooms. If we breakdown Godin’s quote and rewrite it to fit schools it could sound something like this:

Choosing your students:

Yes, you get to choose them, not the other way around. You choose them with your lesson planning, your creative skills to engage, your offer of challenge and progress, your subject and professional expertise and your respect for them…

Let’s look at each element briefly.

1. Planning:

Purposeful planning and careful lesson design will help making students want to learn and see that skills progression matters both to life as a student but also beyond the classroom. Planning takes time, particularly if you’re recently new to teaching, but this time is worth every minute. Good planning leads to good learning but this is not to say it is easy to achieve as structuring an outstanding lesson is difficult. I have written extensively about lesson planning and design in my books and in recent posts which are also worth taking a look at: Planning GCSE with a Smile, Creativity in Teaching: start designing lessons and Educational Mashups part three: creative ideas from the ‘Industry’.

2. Creativity and Engagement

Thinking carefully about the outcome(s) of the lesson is crucial so that students learn and their skills develop. Creative and engaging lesson activities will help you and them to meet those outcomes. For example, how can you make a difficult concept easier to understand or in what ways can you help them find a topic more enjoyable? As teachers we know very well that if we plan good lessons with engaging and creative ideas students are more likely to enjoy it which means they stand a greater chance of learning and not behaving in such a way that would be detrimental to their and others’ learning. I have devoted a lot of time to developing creative and engaging lesson activities which will help you to plan effective lessons that are packed with learning, take a look at these posts: Educational Mashups Part four: creativity boosts from the wiseSimplicity at its best and Handheld Learning beyond the Classroom.

3. Challenge and Progress

I once heard a student talk about their options and they were to select them depending on how ‘easy’ they were. I later taught this student and in one conversation she explained that the easy subjects had become boring and that those that made her think were more enjoyable. Even if a student asks to watch a film it is unlikely they will enjoy that as much as having to work hard at solving a problem, collaborating on a project or receiving positive feedback on a piece of writing. This is why it is important to produce activities that not only challenge them to think but also moves their thinking forward. Purposeful feedback will help here. Take a look at these posts for further ideas about challenging students and motivating them through good feedback: Shred Their Work: or Reflections on Student Motivation and Using ‘The Ten Faces of Innovation ‘ in the classroom.

4. Subject and Professional Expertise

Terry Haydn, Senior Reader at the University of East Anglia and my old mentor (well, he’s not really old just very experienced!), always said that sound subject knowledge contributes to sound lesson content and that the power of good exposition should not be forgotten. Indeed, good story telling can enliven topics and give structure and a road-map to the ‘bigger picture’ that the class to follow. I also strongly believe that a broad understanding of our profession is key to becoming an excellent teacher and that this should never end. However, I urge you to read books that may not directly link with our profession, so not books about teaching but to cross-pollinate ideas from other fields like marketing, design, music, art and business. In return for reading, listening, watching and discussing with people from other industries other than education you will be rewarded with a myriad of stimulating and creative ideas. I have written a series of posts on cross-pollination called Educational Mashups which could be used as a starting point: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 .

5. Respect

When I used to work as county Advisor I used to get the opportunity to receive training on lesson observations. One thing that always cropped up both during lesson debriefs and in whole school feedback was the relationships between students and their teachers. Those teachers that have strong relations with their classes rarely have many behavioural problems compared to those who do not. However, this type of relationship does not happen quickly and involves more than jokes and understanding students backgrounds. Strong relationships between the teacher and their class happen when there is a clear and continued dialogue as well as exchange of thoughts. This is where good feedback, Assessment for Learning, Student Voice and just plain politeness are needed in order for this dialogue and exchange to occur. This post deals with how relationships can be solidified via purposeful feedback and enhanced student involvement:  Shred Their Work: or Reflections on Student Motivation.

The correct ingredients in making the perfect class is of course variable and the list provided above is by no means exhaustive, but will hopefully give some insight into what we as teachers try to do. In this respect, perhaps Seth Godin’s advice works in education as in business – we do get a say in choosing what sort of customers/students we get to work with or teach…eventually?

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