A new year, a new begin

Gert Verbrugghen and Paul A. Kirschner

This blog was originally published on https://excel.thomasmore.be/2022/08/de-gouden-weken/

And off we go! A new school year is about to start for both students AND teachers. For novice teachers this is often a nerve-wracking moment, because it suddenly hits them: “What if they don’t listen to me?”. But they’re not the only ones. Quite a lot of experienced teachers also have, to a certain degree healthy, or even unhealthy stress when they start a new school year.

As a teacher and (student mentor), I’ll try to help you to get off to a good start this year. And even if it doesn’t work out quite the way you planned it, you can still use the tips in this blog to make a good start the very next day.

May Tulips in My Garden / Happy Flower's Day !
Swetlana Hasenjäger under Creative Commons License

Take care of your garden

This blog will try to kill two birds with one stone. You’ll learn both about taking care of your garden and taking care of your class.

When people visit my garden during summer vacation, I always get praise because it looks stunning. There are flowers everywhere, everything is green and you’d get the idea it had always looked like that. The same thing applies when you visit some teachers halfway through the school year. Students are focused, it looks like everything is going smoothly and just like every plant in the garden, students are able to flourish.

But what you don’t see, is all the work that was done at the very start of the year. That beautiful garden isn’t the result of my extremely developed gardening skills (or magic). To be honest, eight years ago I barely knew what gardening was. And the same goes for the atmosphere in the class you’re observing midway through the year. There aren’t many people who are born with a natural talent for teaching (I dare say, there are none). Teachers have to invest in deliberate practice for multiple years before they really have mastered that skill (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Kirschner, Hendrick, & Heal 2022; Van de Grift & colleagues, 2011). The most important moment for your garden isn’t the summer, it’s the moment when the growing season is about to start.

Thorough preparation is half the job

imageWhen spring is just around the corner, I start preparing my garden. I add compost to the soil, spread it out over my flower beds, move some plants or split them and think about what I want my beds to look like. I consider how I want my plants to grow, I make sure they have space to grow, and I think about good and bad combinations. I’ll call this garden management.

The similarity with classroom management is striking, because the preparation for the optimal learning environment starts before you teach your first lessons. That’s about…now.

Create the right conditions

Just like I try to create the perfect conditions for every single plant in the garden, I also try to do this for my students. What kind of behaviour do I expect from them in my class? What does that look like, exactly? How do I start my lessons? How do I finish them?

If I randomly put my plants in the garden, there’ll be some that really flourish and others that will barely survive, plants that start to crowd out other plants and plants will die because of this. And weeds will probably grow everywhere in between. BTW: Weeds don’t really exist, they’re just the wrong plants in the wrong space.

When I start my first lesson with my students without thorough preparation, there will be students who don’t feel comfortable. They expect a teacher who will run the room and who shows that they have control over what happens (and doesn’t happen) in the class. There will be students who really stand out and who possibly start to crowd out other students and set the tone in your lesson. garden-2Weeds (for you as a teacher that’s misbehaviour) get every opportunity to flourish. Is everything lost then? No, of course not! When my garden explodes with weeds (e.g., after a period of rain…which is rare these days…) it just means that I have to put in extra work to make sure that the weeds don’t spread and take over my garden. But when my garden turns into a jungle, because I haven’t made proper preparations and taken proper measures, I have to invest a lot more time to restore order (a lesson I’ve learned in gardening and in classroom management).

When my garden explodes with weeds (e.g., after a period of rain…which is rare these days…) it just means that I have to put in extra work to make sure that the weeds don’t spread and take over my garden. But when my garden turns into a jungle, because I haven’t made proper preparations and taken proper measures, I have to invest a lot more time to restore order (a lesson I’ve learned in gardening and in classroom management).

TIP

Think about what kind of behaviour you want to see. Be specific. “Being respectful” is vague, because every student (and their parents/guardians) has a different picture of what being respectful is. Open the door for your classmate, say “good morning” to your teacher when they enter the classroom, that’s specific. Communicate and demonstrate this from the first moment. There’s nothing wrong with explicitly saying what you expect and practicing it with students.


Practice in your first lesson how your lessons start, for example that students enter the classroom silently (no talking) and that they immediately take their book and pen from their book-bag. Explain and practice how you want them to switch from one activity to the other. Choose a signal you’ll always use when you ask for their attention; avoid sending mixed signals like clapping your hands, then counting down, and then “Be quiet, please.”

Don’t forget maintenance

garden-3When the schoolyear starts, or the growing season in the garden, it’s really important to stay on top of things. In my garden I make sure everything gets water, I remove weeds the moment I spot them and I cut back plants that are getting too big.

I have to do the same thing in my class and it’s wise to think about that beforehand. I can’t be prepared for everything that will happen in my classroom (as I can’t do that in my garden as I have no idea how much sun or rain or heat the growing season will bring), but I can expect certain types of misbehaviour. I can expect students to forget something, or talk (whisper) when I’m talking, or don’t get to work when I ask them to. How will I react then? I make sure that I don’t have to think about that when the behaviour occurs.

I have to do the same thing in my class and it’s wise to think about that beforehand. I can’t be prepared for everything that will happen in my classroom (as I can’t do that in my garden as I have no idea how much sun or rain or heat the growing season will bring), but I can expect certain types of misbehaviour. I can expect students to forget something, or talk (whisper) when I’m talking, or don’t get to work when I ask them to. How will I react then? I make sure that I don’t have to think about that when the behaviour occurs.

TIP

Think in advance about how you’re going to react to misbehaviour. Are you going to warn them first? And how often will you do that? What are the consequences you’re going to implement? How will you escalate? When you communicate this with your students beforehand, you’ll be less inclined to follow your feelings of that moment. If you don’t, after an exhausting day, the sanction that you give will probably be heavier than necessary and seem random to them (or even worse, that you have something against them). The certainty and consistency of a consequence is far more important than its size.

Focus on the positive things

Weeding is almost unavoidable in my garden, but I try to take care of the plants around it, so the plants that should grow there take away the sunlight of potential weeds.

In my class I do the same thing by concentrating primarily on what they’re doing correctly. Instead of telling Bryan he’s still not working, I comment on the positive things. “I see the people in the back are already at work, good job. Thanks. In the front I’m still waiting for two people,…”. Whatever gets my attention, will increase, so I make sure my attention goes to the positive behaviour by saying it out loud.

Make sure your students are successful

Whenever someone visits my garden and I get praised for it, it motivates me to work harder next spring and create something that’s even better.

I make sure my students experience success quickly, so they notice that good behaviour is rewarding. Once I’ve started and class management is no longer a problem, I have the perfect growing conditions for what it’s really about: excellent teaching and learning. When my students notice they’re learning, that I care about them (so I use mastery learning and make sure I take everyone with me), they’ll get motivated (and we know that success leads to motivation to learn more and not the other way around), their behaviour will get even better, they’ll learn more, etc. This is crucial! Class management is just the beginning! When you simply enjoy the fact they’re quiet so you can talk for an hour, without asking them any questions, don’t expect that they’ll keep behaving well. That’s like planting bamboo on five square feet, when I know it needs at least ten. At a certain time I’m going to regret that, because the bamboo will keep growing and overgrow the limits I had in mind.

Your plants grow better when the soil is fertile

garden-4Gardening becomes very difficult when the soil is poor, when there’s little water, and when there are no proper tools to prune, dig, etc…  Unfortunately this not something that’s always within your control as a teacher. You can give the soil a bit of a boost by adding compost, but there are limits of course.

When the soil at your school is exhausted, t’s a real challenge to create a beautiful garden. When the school leaders put all responsibility for behaviour on your shoulders, you’ve got a tough job and it’s even worse when they don’t support you with respect to other teachers in the school (school policy) but also with respect to parents who complain. When your neighbour doesn’t care a lot about weeds, they quickly spread to your garden. That doesn’t just give you more work, but it’s not really beneficial for your cooperation with your neighbour. Make sure you talk to your neighbours/ colleagues about those high standards, so you can limit the weeds. And try to make sure, if it’s a community plot that there are rules for all gardens.

When the soil at your school is exhausted, it’s a real challenge to create a beautiful garden. When the school leaders put all responsibility for behaviour on your shoulders, you’ve got a tough job and it’s even worse when they don’t support you with respect to other teachers in the school (school policy) but also with respect to parents who complain. When your neighbour doesn’t care a lot about weeds, they quickly spread to your garden. That doesn’t just give you more work, but it’s not really beneficial for your cooperation with your neighbour. Make sure you talk to your neighbours/ colleagues about those high standards, so you can limit the weeds. And try to make sure, if it’s a community plot that there are rules for all gardens.

TIP

Together you’re stronger. Try to make schoolwide agreements about routines, behaviour and if possible the consequences. As a school leader it’s your responsibility to create the circumstances in which all your teachers can teach. Visit lessons, be visible in the corridors and during breaktime, know your students, talk to them and make sure your teachers stick to the things you expect. Convince your teachers to work together. When you’re an experienced teacher and you have to give away some of your autonomy, you’re doing that for your team, to help your (younger) colleagues.

Final word

garden-5Once and a while I just sit down in my garden and have a look from a distance how everything grows and flowers. I enjoy the result of all the work I’ve put into it. Do the same thing as a teacher. Take a step back once and a while and see how you’re students are successful, how they flourish, and enjoy what you have created.

 

Some final tips for novice teachers:

  1. Make some basic agreements with you students on the first day of school and be very consistent about them. Choose things that you can uphold.(e.g. when the teacher or another student is talking, you’re quiet, you raise your hand when you have a question,…)
  2. NOW is the time to visit experienced teachers. Now you can observe what they’re doing to make sure their classes run smoothly throughout the year.
  3. Never try to be a “friend”. Be friendly, be clear, but you are the adult and you have to be an example to them (De Bruyckere& Kirschner, 2016, 2017).
  4. Misbehaviour is NEVER something personal. Students often misbehave because they want to acquire status, (sometimes) it’s because they’re frustrated, and there are many more reasons. But never take it personal.
  5. Everything is hard to begin with, you’ll get there. Don’t give up, (deliberate) practice makes perfect!

References

Bennett, T. (2020). Running The Room: The Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour. John Catt Educational Ltd.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). Teacher quality and student achievement: A review of state policy evidence. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8(1), 1–44.

Kirschner, P. A., Hendrick, C., & Heal, J. (2022). How teaching happens: Seminal works in teaching and teacher effectiveness and what they mean in practice. Routledge.

De Bruyckere, P., & Kirschner, P. A. (2016). Authentic teachers: Student criteria perceiving authenticity of teachers. Cogent Education, 3(1), 1247609.

De Bruyckere, P., & Kirschner, P. A. (2017). Measuring teacher authenticity: Criteria students use in their perception of teacher authenticity. Cogent Education, 4, 1354573.

Sprague, J. R. and Golly, A. (2009). Best behavior : Building positive behavior support in schools. Sopris West Educational Services.

Woolfolk, A. (2020). Educational Psychology, Global Edition (14th edition). Pearson Education Limited.

Van de Grift, W. J. C. M., Van der Wal, M., & Torenbeek, M. (2011). Ontwikkeling in de pedagogische didactische vaardigheid van leraren in het basisonderwijs [Developing the pedagocical instructional skills of teachers in elementary education]. Pedagogische Studiën, 88(6), 416-432.


[1] Alfrinkcollege, The Netherlands and Thomas More University of Applied Sciences, Belgium