Top 10 Tips for Supply Teachers, Trainee Teachers and NQTs

Supply/substitute teaching can be really a tough job.

Managing the learning, relationships and behaviour of children that you’ve just met; deciphering another teachers’ plans and resources; learning routines, timings and procedures of the school (not to mention – where is the toilet?); and occasionally, dealing with with school staff, parents and students, who speak down to you because you’re not a permanent member of staff. Side-note: I was once in a secondary school, whereby the minute I’d finished my cup of tea, a teacher stormed over to ask if I’d finished and snatched her cup out of my hand. Apparently, I’d unknowingly drank from her cup. GASP!

With that said, supply teaching can also be rewarding, fulfilling, exciting and freeing, for you and the children you teach! It’s just about approaching it in the right way.

happy teacher

Here are my Top 10 tips to help you and your students get the most out of your day:

  1. Introduce yourself, and set out expectations at the beginning of the day. 

    Wherever I teach, I provide a little introduction for my students about who I am, what we’re going to cover that day (especially important if you have autistic children in class) and what my expectations are. I tell them that I’ll do my best to learn names and keep things as close to normality as possible, but remind them that I’m only human and may make mistakes or require support from them. I find that showing a little vulnerability – in primary supply at least – results in a lot of students wanting to guide you through the day. It makes them step-up.

  2. Learn names quickly.

    This was isn’t easy, but it’s so important.  Remember, to many students, you’re just a stranger, brought in to do a job. As far as they’re concerned, you have no real reason to get to know them, care about them, listen to them or understand them. Learning and using a child’s name, instantly creates more of a connection between you – and it’s a pretty handy tool for behaviour management too!

    Learn names in lightning speed by: 
    a) Trying to remember distinguishing facts/features – e.g. Josh has the wild hair. Ella has the mischievous grin. Clayton and Braydon and twins, and their names sound alike. Emily read out that incredible simile! Tom A has brown hair. Tom C loves Harry Potter.
    b) Using the information above, build up your memory bank through the day. Each time you hold class discussion, challenge yourself to use three more names. If you’re teaching multiple classes, then you’ll have to be realistic: unless you’re Derren Brown, you won’t remember 150+ names in a day. Just try and remember 6 names in each class, and make a conscious effort to remember names of some quiet, hardworking students, ensuring you’re not always just praising the super-confident or nagging the poorly behaved.
    c) Find some time early into the day, to jot down names on a seating plan. If it’s a tricky class, kindly ask support staff to do this, or a sensible child. When I say sensible, I mean someone who will write down accurate names in correct places, avoiding you dolling out a detention to a year 9 ‘Donald Trump.’ Clear handwriting is equally important, to avoid you giving a detention to a year 6 ‘Dynald Troompt.’ I have a pack full of these hideously scruffy plans so that when I go into a school and a class that I haven’t seen in months, I can go in armed with names. Using a child’s name, who you’ve met once two months ago when you were in on supply, will honestly light up their entire face. It’s priceless!

  3. If you have support staff, appreciate them for the god-send they are.

    If I wasn’t already convinced as to the value of TAs, I am now! Through the course of my adventures on supply, I’ve received different levels of support from TAs in class (when you have one); but the particularly amazing ones have helped me to understand work set, timings of the school, policies and procedures, and yes – where the toilet is! More importantly, where you have a member of staff attached to a specific child or class, they will give you vital information about the students which will help you pre-empt what may go wrong and take steps accordingly. Be kind of them – their support may make all the difference in how you feel at the end of the day.

    children reading

  4. Show genuine interest in your students.

    On supply, there are plenty of points in the day when you have opportunities to find out more about the class you’re teaching, and build up a rapport. In primary, most students perform quiet reading first-thing. I love to go around and listen to them read, while asking questions about books that they’re reading. Again – you’re showing them that you care and you’re interested. And it feels really good to get to know them. The major upside of this too, is that children are much more willing to work hard for people that they like. Just be sure that you really listen to the answer. If you’re just asking for the sake of it, while tallying up dinner orders in your head, they’ll know it’s fake interest.

  5. Win over tricky students as early as possible.

    Every class has its own, unique mix of personalities, often sprinkled with a few trouble-makers, lovable rouges and occasionally, straight-up psychopaths. It’s really important to get these children on-side as quickly as possible. Use their names, show an interest, give them jobs to do, ask them questions about school routines. I know that at times, you might feel like you shouldn’t have to go the extra-mile for students who choose to behave poorly, but in reality you’re just trying to get the best out of a child and class that you’ve just met. Failing to at least attempt to build up a relationship with these characters could lead to a very frustrating day for you, the student in question and the rest of the class.

  6. Act like you’re SUPER-CHILL, even if you’re not.

    Naturally, my tendency towards panic means that I’m probably one of the people you’d least like to have with you in an emergency  – but after years of practice, I’ve developed a teaching persona of a calm, relaxed and laid-back teacher. Basically, I’ve learnt over time – after many mistakes – that nothing is ever gained from shouting at students and escalating problems. A lot of students who behave poorly crave attention, so by reacting loudly or emotionally, you’re just adding fuel to the fire. Certain things can be tactically ignored, and in instances where action is required; a look, a firm tone of voice, a hand placed on someone’s desk, a name written on the board mid-class discussion (without explanation) can work wonders. If a break-time argument threatens to spill into your literacy lesson, assure students that you’ll absolutely deal with this right before lunch, but you’d be so impressed if they could put their argument on hold for the lesson, so you can fully investigate at lunch. This way, your students feel like they’ve been listened to, you haven’t fallen into the trap of reacting too quickly, based on limited information or assumptions, and you can get on your lesson!

  7. Uphold rules and routines fairly, as a professional.

    As a supply teacher, behaviour is usually your biggest challenge. Most children relish the challenge of seeing what they can get away with saying, doing or not doing, when a stranger is in charge. To maintain the class’s trust, you uphold rules and apply them fairly. In this respect, I’ve found that being a new face also has its perks! For one – you’re without any emotional baggage that some children might use against you i.e. You always blame me for talking, or you never tell her! And for another, when a child reacts badly to something like a warning on the board, you can really push the point that you’re just an outsider, who has a job to do, and you have to follow the school rules. It’s nothing personal – it’s just that this student has chosen to demonstrate behaviour that doesn’t fit with the school rules, so you’ve had to follow procedure (it’s even better if you can link this in to what the students themselves told you at the beginning of the day.) This should de-escalate their reaction, along with the fact that your tone of voice and attitude remains nonchalant, telling them that with any luck, it’s just a blip and you’ll look forward to seeing their behaviour return to the excellent standard that you’re sure they’re normally capable of.

    Recognise that some children will be stuck in a pattern of poor behaviour, spending most days ‘in bother’ and having a set image of themselves as a ‘naughty’ child. As a new face, the actions you take and the words that you use, could provide a clean slate for this pupil; a chance to be earn rewards, complete work you’re proud of and show what you’re capable of, if even just for one day.

    child maths.jpeg

  8. Provide feedback for the teacher and the class.

    As part of my introduction, I always tell the class that of course, I’ll be leaving notes for their class teacher to say who had behaved exceptionally well and of course, anyone who really lets themselves down. I always make sure I do this, sometimes adding suggestions for class or school-specific rewards. I do this because I want children to receive praise for behaviour or effort the following day, or consequences for poor behaviour so that they learn from their mistakes, and because I said I would. I also mark their books. Ok – so I know that some schools now have Oftead-ready marking expectations that would make even the robust supply teachers shudder in horror, but this aside, it isn’t a big ask that you mark the work that you’ve taught. Do what you can within a reasonable time-frame, focusing less on the highlighting and whatever hieroglyphic-like codes you’ve been asked to write, and more on giving quick, effective, specific feedback for the students. Knowing that you noticed that amazing word they used in literacy, or that they actually managed to solve that Maths challenge they’d struggled over, will only continue the good feelings even after you’ve gone.

    happy balloon face.jpeg

  9. Learn to think on your feet.

    Just as I’ve had to work on the act of appearing laid-back, I’ve also had to work on thinking on my feet. Working as a short-term supply teacher forces even the most rigid of people to become more spontaneous, because often you don’t know what’s going to happen until minutes before it actually happens!

    It’s always a good idea to have a few lessons up your sleeve
    – preferably ones that can be adapted to suit different age groups – for the times when the planning has gone walkabout. In this sense, you can prepare to be quick-thinking. Honestly though, I think that when it comes to supply work, preparing to just take things as they come, preferably with a sense of humour, is the best you can do. After all, that’s all part of your super-chill persona.

  10. Enjoy yourself. 

    If you act like you enjoy your job and the company of your students, they’ll notice. Remember, you’re an unknown entity, so they will watch you closely. If you model positive behaviour, enthusiasm and cheerfulness, your class will respond well. Of course, sometimes you’ll feel that you’d rather be at home, bingeing on ‘Stranger Things’ as you devour your weight in ice-cream, but on these days I set myself a challenge. I tell myself, “Today, I’m going to be the best supply teacher these kids have ever seen.” It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth trying.

    Are you currently working as a supply/substitute teacher? Do you agree/disagree with my points here? Have you anything to add that other supply teachers might benefit from? Comments welcome:

Role model: Nick Vujicic

If you’re looking to inspire students with a positive role model – someone who showcases a can-do attitude and resilience through times of hardship; someone that makes other people’s lives better just by being there; someone who inspires others to be the best possible version of themselves – you’d be hard pressed to find better than Nick Vujicic.

I’ve come across Nick’s story a few times and it never loses its impact. Born with a rare condition called Phocomelia syndrome, he is a man without arms or legs, earning a living as a motivational speaker.

He is the human equivalent to Ghandi’s quote, “My life is my message.”

He travels the globe, selling his message of hope and faith in times of hopelessness, ‘changing obstacles into opportunities’ and using words to build rather than break others down. What I really like about Nick is that he often speaks in schools, reminding angst-ridden adolescents that they ought to be kinder to each other and themselves; that they’re not worthless and nor do they need completing or improving in some way; and that any negative situation, no matter how dire it seems, can be turned around with the right attitude.

I’ve shown the clip above to various classes across year groups. I follow this up with a few key questions: ‘Why do you think I’ve chosen to show you Nick’s story? Is there anything that you found interesting about this? If you were in that situation, do you think you would feel the same way? Would things work out differently for you…why? What can we learn from this man?’  

When I have students in detention – specifically those who make endless excuses for their poor work/effort/behaviour – I like to set them off on the ipad or PC, researching Nick’s story and answering questions, under the guise of completing a comprehension task.

Many kids who struggle to behave in school have home lives that are the opposite of what a supportive, steady and nurturing home life should be, and it’s easy to understand why they make excuses for themselves. They feel ‘hard done by’ – and many truly are.

But in order for their negative home environment not to become ‘their story’ for life, we need to expose them to inspirational people like Nick Vujicic, who remind us all that anything is possible.

From their perspective, they see someone who is ‘worse off’ than them, but somehow still perseveres, achieves, inspires and conquers.    

You can follow Nick on Twitter @nickvujicic or visit https://www.attitudeisaltitude.com/ for more information. I’ve included a link at the top of the page to a 4 minute highlight clip from YouTube – this is just the right length to throw into lessons and prompt discussion – but there are a range of lengthier clips to choose from if you feel like delving deeper.

 

 

Creating a culture of kindness in your classroom

When you’ve been teaching for a few years, you’re bound to come across a class or three that threaten to drive you to madness; not necessarily because they don’t work hard or don’t behave well, but more often than not, because they just can’t get along with each other. Personally, I’ve experienced this in primary and secondary teaching; in small special needs groups of 6 students; in individual classes and in numerous classes over a year group. When your students display a distinct lack of patience, empathy or kindness; when they’re ‘all up in each other’s business’ and salivating at the thought of getting a classmate in trouble, what do you do? You have to explicitly encourage kindness.

Remember a while back I wrote about blaming students for skills they hadn’t even been taught or shown? Sad as it is, we can’t take it for granted that children have had kindness taught or modeled at home.

You do this for your students, because however high-flying a child may be academically, if they’re selfish and cruel then they’re going to struggle to find happiness in later life. You also do it for your own sanity. The daily wear and tear of dealing with constant squabbling and bickering can be soul-destroying for even the most positive teachers, and it has a massive impact on the pace of learning and attitudes in your classroom.

Really, I think the foundation blocks of this need to be – and usually are – laid in early education and then reiterated in secondary education. Although there are ways around it, teenagers are harder to get through to and you just can’t be anywhere near as ‘cheesy’ if you’re trying to encourage year 9 to be kind, as you can with year 3.   Kindness

In secondary teaching, I found that short, sharp chunks thrown into other subjects or tutor time served well as reminders to be good people.

Following a fantastic assembly about ‘Random Act of Kindness,’ I was inspired to buy Danny Wallace’s book of the same name, and used this to regularly inspire or at least remind my form of practical ways that they could be kind towards others.

It’s a great book to dip in and out of once a week, and make a suggestion like, ‘swap places behind you in a queue,’ ‘share your lunch with someone’ or ‘give someone a genuine complement.’ Even if the ideas aren’t acted upon, at least there’s a dialogue in the classroom which is focused on helping others. Let’s face it: teenagers can be a pretty miserable and self-absorbed lot so it won’t do them any harm to consider other people for a couple of minutes and take the focus away from themselves.

One of the rather brilliant secondary teacher at my last school took this a step further. She asked children in her tutor group to fill in slips with their name and the act of kindness that they completed, and then picked out a name like a raffle every week and awarded them a little prize. I think she’s really onto something here. In many of the primaries I’ve visited, raffle tickets are awarded for good behaviour, along with house points and individual awards. It would take no extra effort, just a little specific language, to really praise acts of kindness along with good effort and behaviour.

“Well done Daniel! Your name is going into the raffle now because I heard that when Jacob and Elkie were arguing, you tried really hard to resolve this.” 

“Amy – you’ve earned a point for your house because you chose to ignore Will tapping the ruler next to you and didn’t interrupt your learning by telling tales.”

“Everyone on the Red table gains a team point because although they did have a difference of opinion, they managed to listen to each other and sort this out without any adult help, so they didn’t waste any learning time!”

Furthermore, overt references to kindness and awareness of others should be part of a whole-school ethos and not simply the responsibility of the class teacher. I was in a junior school not long ago which held a termly ‘positive psychology’ week. Each class throughout school had their own activities to complete and half an hour at the end of each day to do this – year 5 for example, had booklets for each child in the class that were passed to all classmates who wrote specific, positive comments about that person. Activities from all classes were then shared in a positive psychology assembly in front of parents.

Another primary school I know has embedded ‘Building Learning Power’ in to the teaching and rewards system of their school. Every Friday, students would vote for two students in their class who had shown certain learning skills, including that of effective listening, empathy and collaboration, qualities linked to kindness. It was lovely to see children, especially the youngest, reading out such specific praise about their classmates. Additionally, because this was something that happened weekly, and because it came from the children rather than the adults, noticing and describing things your classmates had done well was just part of the school code.

When all is said and done, it’s remarkably easy to create a culture of warmth and kindness in your classroom and school. This will spare you stress, save you time and hopefully foster a sense of care, support and encouragement between your students.

Talk about terrorism… or someone else will.

Editor’s update (20.11.17): When I wrote this less than a year and a half ago, I had no idea that this terrorist attack would become one of many. As I review this now in November, 2017, I’m incredibly saddened to think that tragic events such as these have almost become ‘the norm.’ At the same time, I am ever more resolved that schools need to tackle this head-on so that students are properly informed. I was reminded a few days ago of a quote from Maya Angelou that rings true here: “Hate: It was caused a lot of the problems in the world, but has not yet solved one.”

Waking up to news of the latest terror attack in Nice, France is so sad. For BBC live news, click here.

The fact that these attacks are becoming more frequent; that we’ve all woken up to different terror attacks more and more often over the last few years, doesn’t make it any less shocking.

Or sad.

It breaks my heart to listen to a teenage girl from Nice, describing the horrific scene on Bastille Day, and going on to say that she will have to think before she goes out now.

As a teacher, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand in front of my students and discuss events such as these, both initially as things happen but also the follow-up when the hate-speak begins.

I’m so sad that this generation of children have to play out their childhood to a chorus of mass shootings, death, hatred and horror.

Even worse, I know a lot of teachers won’t even mention this, because they don’t know how to, without stirring up discussion that they’re unwilling to confront. They don’t understand it themselves.

The result of this though, is that pupils will develop their own uninformed opinion about these attacks and those behind them, or more likely, just pick up someone else’s, allowing terror, hate and fear to grow on both sides.

Though many schools have worked hard to include chunks of information about ‘British Values,’ holding assemblies about refugees and racism and bigotry… I just don’t think it’s enough.  I’m thinking we need some explicit teaching based on these attacks; as difficult and unpleasant that might be; as much as it might bring out the worst in some children; as much as it might even lead to upset. To ignore the topic is far worse.

Those encouraging hatred have upped their game: so then must we.

At the end of the day, week or term? Make that positive call home!

Before any term ends, as you see your colleagues Facebook status’ (and possibly your own?!) begin to eagerly count down the number of ‘get ups’ left until the Summer break, we all begin to lower our expectations a little.

Whether it’s wrong or right, we just do.  We’re really, really tired.

And so are the kids. Behaviour can be really tricky to manage, particularly if you’re not as flexible with your last week expectations as your students think you should be. But you don’t want to spend your last week running around after kids and arranging meetings with Heads of Year. So Don’t!

Instead, focus on the really positive behaviour in these last days and make some phone calls home.

Even better, rather than calling up about the kids who always misbehave apart from that one time it was a perfect topic, perfect day, their horrid friend wasn’t there and you bribed them with Snickers bar (I am a big fan of these phone calls at other times – they really help!); instead, call home about the average Joe who has plodded along all year long nicely, and although never sensational, has always maintained their manners and hasn’t argued even once about sitting next to that girl that everyone suspects has knits.

Selfishly, this will make you feel amazing.

Parents, carers and relatives love to get these calls and the way they gush over the phone and express genuine thanks that you’ve taken the time to call them…well it will leave you feeling more satisfied that a TGI’s Jack Daniel’s double bacon cheeseburger with sweet potato fries and mayo. (You might feel so good that you want to treat yourself to one of these afterwards – good people deserve good food.)

At this time of year, it’s an even better feeling. You’re leaving both the parents and children with a lovely feeling as their school year ends; making them happy and proud; showing them that their teachers notice and care for them; and no doubt, lessening that ‘back to school dread’ a little too when it comes around.

 

Teachers: are you paying attention to your own body language?

Body language: It’s one of those things that you learn about when you’re mid-way through teacher-training, in between crying over your lesson reviews, future plans and endless piles of marking. And while we all find it very interesting, for many staff, it’s often one of those things that we just never make time to come back to and review.

At least, not in respect to ourselves.

We’re absolute pros at analysing, commenting on and correcting the body language of our students. I can tell you what pupils X, Y and Z will be doing in each of my classes, depending on the time of day and topic covered, before they even know themselves they’re going to do it. Like many, I even have a bag of tricks complete with stress balls, doodle pads and blue tack for some of my more attentionally-challenged students.

And I know I’m not alone. For many teachers, assessing body language of pupils is a fundamental aspect of teaching a good lesson. Aside from a way of maintaining listening, it’s incredibly useful in assessing the mood of the class, their levels of interest/curiosity in the topic and task, and of course, actually judging whether you’ve pitched the lesson right and they’re actually going to be able to understand and complete what you’re asking of them.

But what about our own body language? Personally, I think I did have to put a lot of thought into my own body language when I started out, mainly because I was a nervous wreck. By the end of my PGCE year, I could barely hold a conversation without having a panic attack – I was fully in the midst of ‘Social Anxiety’ and seriously re-considering if teaching was really the right vocation for a frail little flower like me. But after a course of CBT(Cognitive Behaviour Therapy), I was willing to think of body language as something that I actually had control over. More importantly, I realised that just as I would tend to think and feel a certain way, and unconsciously hold my body in a way that demonstrated and enhanced this feeling; equally, I could adopt a positive stance and hold my body in a confident position, and actually trick my brain into feeling the positive emotions associated with this.

This TED talk is one of my favourites – I’ve watched it again and again, especially if I’m feeling a little apprehensive about an upcoming meeting or presentation. Amy Cuddy completely reinforces the idea that you can control and use your body language to ‘fake it until you become it.’

As she reports, her team have tested people in a lab, asking them to strike either low-power poses or high-power poses for 2 minutes, before giving them a series of tasks to complete. Remarkably, her results showed that the power posers averaged a 20% chemical increase in testosterone as well as a 25% cortisol drop. On the contrary, the low-power posers, saw a testosterone drop of 10% and an increase in cortisol of 15%. As a social anxious teacher, facing ‘the mob’ in the classroom along with a series of fairly stressful adult-interactions, I really found this information to be invaluable.

As Amy says, this information would probably prove most useful to people in ‘threat situations’ like when you’re about to give a presentation, or go to a job interview.  Whether facing difficult classes, unpleasant conversations with staff, parents or school leaders, or giving presentations to adults, for many school staff, ‘threat situations’ can be a regular part of school life. And whilst I prefer to think of them as ‘charm challenges’ rather than ‘threat situations’ myself, a good high-power pose certainly doesn’t hurt either way (I’d just suggest doing the ‘Wonder Woman’ in the disabled loo to avoid strange looks!)

For me, when I’m lined up on ‘death row’ at the front of staff INSET training in the hall, waiting to speak to a sea of tired, cynical faces, I just do a quick body-scan and ensure that I’m sitting like I’m a really relaxed, confident person. And I’ve got to say, it really works for me in this situation, and I feel much less nervous, particularly at the beginning of the presentation which is when the real anxiety always used to hit; I loosen up much more quickly and find my body language really opens up and flows throughout; I actually genuinely enjoy presenting to adults much more than I did previously, something that I previously would have never thought possible.

In a classroom situation, it’s a little different. Though there are peaks and dips throughout the lesson depending on if you’re speaking to one student, one rebellious student, lots of students, or lots of rebellious students… really, you need some solid body-language skills to get you through the lesson.

Thankfully, Ofsted have long-since moved away from the idea that teachers has to be some kind of loud, tap-dancing narcissist in order to get a good lesson grading, allowing the more introverted  of us to rely on exciting planning and solid behaviour management strategies instead. But still, researchers argue that over 90% of our communication is apparently based on non-verbals; thus whether you’re naturally a lion tamer or shrinking violet, you can’t afford to ignore this aspect of your teaching if you want engaged, well-behaved pupils.

So whether you’re a struggling teacher in training or an experienced staff member facing the toughest class of your career; or anyone, in any profession or role that deal with these ‘charm challenges’ on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to take half an hour out of your day to watch this TED talk and have a really good think about your body language.

Ask yourself – are you consciously controlling your posture/expressions/movement? Are you using your body effectively to support successful teaching? Does your body language help you to manage behaviour, or does it send mixed messages? Does it encourage interest in the lesson, or boredom?

Be honest – if you were one of your own students, would you be one of the engaged or the disengaged? If your school has any capacity to film lessons and watch them back (it only needs to be you watching!) this is a fantastic way to take note of what your body is unconsciously doing, albeit horrifying when you hear your voice/see your hair from the back/realise that you say ‘Okaaayyyyy’ every few minutes like a deranged parrot.

To this day, I swear that the reason I ended up doing A levels and eventually a degree in History, despite being much better at other subjects, was the passion and curiosity instilled in me by my high-school History teacher. That man had crazy hair and was constantly scratching his privates; but he also leapt – physically leapt– around the room with excitement for his subject. And as a result, my rather attention-challenged mind soaked up every single word that he said.

Ultimately, if you want your students, colleagues and people to listen to the words coming out of your mouth, then you need to have a serious think about the message your body is sending out as well. 

Focus on behaviour: ask your class to watch someone else.

When I moved from primary to secondary teaching, the biggest challenge I face was dealing with behaviour. Whilst class management is by no means a walk in the park in junior school, nothing can quite compare to the ordeal of teaching a year 9 class, foaming at the mouths at the idea of some boundary-pushing.

So, after a series of really difficult lessons with a notorious year 8 form, I came up with an idea for a one-off lesson. I planned to watch an episode of ‘Educating Yorkshire’ with my class. In this series, the cameras follow the lives of students, teachers and school leaders at ‘Thornhill Community Academy’ in Dewsbury, Yorkshire.

I told the class that we were focusing on our empathy skills, but secretly, I also wanted them to see other students from a school like theirs, displaying negative behaviour just as they were. I wanted them to see the impact that this would have on the school and the students’ futures. I wanted them to become by-standers, observing the poor life choices of others. I didn’t want them to feel like I was telling them what to do or not to do.

Throughout the program, we followed the stories of two year 11 pupils, on the cusp of their final exams, considering their future post-high school. I paused at relevant moments – skipping a few profanities! – as pupils discussed and completed grids in pairs, comparing the two central characters.

Musharaf (Mushy), who suffered dearly with a stutter from being the age of 5, was desperate to conquer the speaking element of his English exam and gain his C in English. We watched him battle with this, supported by an incredible English teacher, teaching assistant, learning mentor, head of year and Head teacher, all of whom showed genuine care for this boy and his journey to find a voice. Alongside this, we followed Hannah, a year 11 girl who referred to school as a ‘prison.’ We watched her turn up late to lessons and then run away from them. When she did attend class, she gave minimum effort and used the time to socialise instead. She admitted herself that she had come into year 7 with big ambitions, but had ‘fallen in with the wrong crowd’ and just stopped caring.

The comparison of these two students provoked some really interesting discussion. Students were quick to pick up on the fact that Hannah’s problem was her own choice; it was something that she could control, yet Mushy had no control over his stutter. “It’s about trying,” one pupil told us, “Musharaf is trying and trying so hard and only getting more frustrated and feeling like a failure… but Hannah doesn’t even try.” Another astute student commented that for Hannah, school was the prison, but for Mushy, it was almost like the prison was inside himself. He knew what he wanted to say, but the words just didn’t come out. Not bad for an 11 year old!

The end of the episode was a glorious triumph for Musharaf. English teacher and Assistant head, Mr. Burton, inspired by ‘The King’s Speech’, had Mushy reciting poems while listening to music, and feeling confident, and speaking, for the first time ever. He went on to complete his English speaking exam, and finally addressed his year group in the year 11 leaver’s assembly. It was emotional. My class watched – still; captivated. He left Thornhill with the grades that he needed to get into College, including a C in English. Similarly, Hannah had pulled it together enough at the end, realising that her friends were all leaving her behind, and finally buckling down to some hard work. She achieved 9 GCSEs from A to C.

As the credits rolled, we considered the end results; Musharaf’s glorious success as a result of both his own efforts and the incredible adults going above and beyond to ensure this victory; and Hannah, who had expressed a wish to start life over; whilst her last-minute change of attitude allowed for a better future for herself, we were left with the feeling that she could have been so much more if she had only made better choices. I was able to refer to this in the following lessons, not only in class but also in conversations outside the door with defiant wrongdoers. I asked them think about whether they wanted to leave school like Mushy or like Hannah; feeling like they’d given it their all and smashed goals they never thought possible, or wishing that they could do the last few years over again.

When it comes to poor behaviour, teenage hormones and ingrained bad habits, there is no ‘cure,’ but there is a lot to be said for learning about negative behaviour without directing it at your students. If nothing else, they always enjoy ‘watching telly’ and it’s never bad to be reminded that hard work pays off and bad choices come back to bite you.

*I’ve attached the sheet here – EDUCATING YORKSHIRE – different viewpoints – that students completed in case any teachers want to try this for themselves – honestly, I don’t think this is even necessary if you’d rather just ask key questions and discuss. The video is on YouTube: Educating Yorkshire – series 1 – episode 8.*