This is the last of a four-part series of articles from Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, about establishing a positive learning environment in the classroom. Here he shares some practical ways to minimise disruptions during classes.
What do you expect from your students? Sit down for a few moments and think about your classes. Think about where you are as the class begins. What are you doing? Where are the students? What are they doing? As you think about the class, note down anything you would like to improve. Don’t worry if it’s easy or difficult. Just note it down. Then, look back at your notes and decide on 3 to 5 points you want to work on immediately.
After reflecting on my classes of about 25 teenagers, these were the four aims I came up with:
- The classroom is in order.
- Students are ready for class.
- Classes begin more efficiently.
- Students participate actively during the lesson.
Remember, these are aims. I took them to my classes and wrote them on the board. I told my students this is what I expected from them. I got a lot of blank looks. They had heard this before. There was nothing they could really disagree with. But what do they mean? What does “the classroom is in order” mean? Can you picture it?
It is important to be able to visualise the difference between how things are now and how you expect them to be. Why is the classroom not in order? Define each aim so that students can see when it is not being met. For my classes, “the classroom is in order” meant that:
- The chairs are in their places.
- The desks are clean and in their place.
- The board is clean.
Anyone looking at the classroom can see if these 3 aims are being met.
Having the classroom in order based on these 3 aims may seem very simple and obvious. Let me explain why it was important. My students came into my class with the results of the previous class still evident. Having left in a hurry, there were fallen chairs, desks at different angles, books and other materials from previous lessons on their desks, notes still written on the board. This was affecting the beginning of my lessons, so it became important to begin the class with the classroom in order.
With the idea of making each aim visually clear, discuss each one with your students. These are the results of the discussion with my students:
Students are ready for class
- There are no materials on the desk, except those needed for the English lesson.
- The student has his class book, workbook, and notebook.
- The student has pen, pencil, and rubber.
The reason for these aims was the number of disruptions in class based on not having the materials they needed. Equally important, materials from other lessons meant that many students’ desks were disorganised. This was affecting their focus on the material in my lessons. My students already had a problem focussing on the lesson with these distractions.
Classes begin more efficiently
- The student is on time.
- The student enters in an orderly way.
- The student leaves in an orderly way.
What does “on time” mean? This greatly depends on the situation in your school. Some schools use a two-bell system and, in this case, being on time is being in class before the second bell rings. Many schools use the bell to call students (and the teacher) into class. Some schools do not use a bell system, at all. What is important is that you and your students agree and that it is obvious to all when a student is late. Based on the one bell system, my students arrived in the classroom at about the same time I did, walked in as I did, and went to their desks, as I did.
What does “in an orderly way” mean? Again, discuss this with your students. It could mean no running. It could mean going straight to their desks. It could even mean, not using their own language when they enter the English classroom.
Students participate actively during the lesson
- The student listens actively.
- The student works when necessary.
Initially, listening “actively” was difficult for my students to visualise. “How do you know we are listening actively?” they asked me. But based on the routine I wrote about here in a previous blog post, “A positive learning environment: the first 10 minutes (part 2)”, they quickly understood that they would need to listen to each other in order to participate in the class.
“when necessary” also became a point of discussion. Originally the aim was for students to be engaged in the lesson. This proved very difficult for larger classes with a greater degree of mixed abilities and learning preferences. My students felt they should not be punished if they had finished an exercise and were waiting for others. I accepted this, and so I took on the responsibility of keeping them all engaged. It was a challenge.
Rather than calling them classroom rules, I labelled them “responsibility skills”. I made a poster with the aims and put it up in my classrooms. By having the poster with the aims in the classroom, I did not need to repeat or remind. I could simply look at the poster, and then look at the student. They understood what was wrong, because they could see it as easily as I could.
Then, it was a matter of being patient as students adjusted to the new expectations. Over time, about 3 months for me, these became part of the class routine, for which I congratulated them.