Be happy and welcome in the new year with your learners.
My timeline is full of teachers who are anxious about returning to work on Monday. There has been a flurry of planning, marking and general knot-tying of stomachs about the demands and responsibilities that may face us in the New Year. I sympathise, but my concern is with my own learners. Often after a long holiday, behaviour and motivation can diminish and students can feel disaffected (not too far off mirroring the feelings of some staff who dread rather than relish the challenge of a new term). For many children, it is school and not home that provides the clear boundaries and routine in their lives, and a long period of absence from a structured environment, with caring adults can be harmful. Returning to school can be for many, traumatic and even bring to the front feelings of shame in a culture that celebrates material consumption, something that many children can not revel in due to the economic conditions at home. I want to welcome in the New Year with my learners creating a feeling of genuine feeling of belonging for students, where they can achieve in a positive climate that celebrates their individual successes, be them academic or not.
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In some schools teachers report that the children return to lessons almost ‘feral’ and it can take weeks to renegotiate boundaries of behaviour that have been exacerbated by lack or sleep and poor diet. A firm and consistent approach to discipline is required to reenforce existing boundaries. This will not work in the isolation of one classroom, but has to be a whole school in its approach. It is worth in your staff room or department agreeing a consistent and patient approach. You are going to need it. Remember; in many cases, times of year like Christmas can be trigger points for family and individual crisis, and the pressure cooker of being in an unhappy family home will have taken its toll on many of our learners. Be ready and willing to give the time to listen and be forearmed with places of expert help that you can signpost your learners to if they need this. Remember, you are not a qualified counsellor and you will serve your learners best by passing them on, with love and concern, to those that are best qualified to help them.
This aside, you can work to create a culture that celebrates the fresh start, and values each individual as a member of that learning community. In tutor groups one technique that can work well is the appreciation game. Bare with me; I know this sounds a bit new-age-ish. Everyone takes a piece of paper and writes their name at the top, even you the teacher. You then pass your paper to the person on your left, and they write something nice about the person whose name it at the top. You then fold over the paper so that the name is visible, but not the comment, and repeat the process until everyone in the class has written something nice about everyone else. Stress to your students that they do need to be nice, and if they don’t know the person well, they can always say something relatively superficial. The end of the process will be that every student has a lovely page of positive comments, from peers whose opinions matter, which can be a real boost to those who are feeling vulnerable.
Another powerful, more teacher directed approach is to send home a card, or letter to welcome students and parents to the new term. You might want to design a post card for your class/subject, and take the time to handwrite a welcome. This can have significant impact, not only on learners feeling less anxious, but can also do wonders for showing that *you* their teacher, really cares about them. Pastoral care has a direct impact on engagement and participation in the learning process, and thus can directly impact on results. You are doing the right thing by your students not by seeing them as data, but as caring for them as individuals and letting the data take care of itself. An extension of this is Goodwill Friday where you take the time to call home a maximum of 5 parents (you have a home to go to too) of students who have tried particularly hard that week or have done something worthy of note. I’ve mentioned it before but it’s a great way of starting your weekend. Reminding yourself of the great week you’ve had – like your own personal Pedagoo Friday.
In your classroom, take the time to reestablish classroom rules. Many of us do this in September, but now is the perfect time to take stock of how far you have come. It can often be a cause for congratulations. In September, behaviour may have been high on the agenda, but now maybe with the past few months under the belt, the focus has moved on to other things. Celebrate this progress with your class, show them their progress matters to you. Bonding classes together is important. Rarely is a class successful as a group that has disruptive elements, and an ethos of ‘We succeed together,’ will serve to bolster and support learners who need extra academic or peer support.
A New Year is also an excellent time to provide extra opportunities for more able students. It is a privilege of teachers all over the country that our learners often exceed our expectations; make sure you give them chance to do this. Some projects you set up for your students might be things like becoming involved in the school community as a Digital Leader, where they can give back to their school through peer and teacher support in ICT. How about encouraging sixth form students to become moderators for the 100 Word Challenge run by Julia Skinner @theheadsoffice, which would look excellent on any UCAS application form. Many students would thrive with involvement with local charities. You could arrange for your tutor group to do a collection for the local food bank, and know that your school is truly a positive force in your local community. These opportunities are ones that students will often not make for themselves. You need to boost their self esteem and let them know that they are good enough to make a real difference. This has so many positive benefits, not only in terms of giving learners a sense of purpose, but also in shaping positive behaviour patterns that will also ultimately affect exam performance. There is a big potential pay back here for a relatively small investment of your time.
In groups, or pairs a really positive thing to do to welcome the new year is to write a list of 100 things each student would like to accomplish this year, or maybe look at the positives they have achieved already last term. Encourage your learners to engage in the language of positive learner characteristics. Do they know what resilience is and how to demonstrate it? Do they understand why making mistakes is a positive thing to do? There is a good chance they might not, and here is an idea chance to introduce or reinforce this language. Celebrate effort as well as perfection, make sure that every child feels included. A wonderful start to the year. You could follow this up by creating a ‘Success Jar’. At the end of every lesson with you, the children take turns on post-it notes to celebrate an individual or class success. They then put it in a glass jar all folded up and at the end of the year you can either read them together, or *sneaky teacher* have a look in advance and make a video that chronicles your success. This video, put to the right music, can be really moving and is well worth the effort that you put in.
Another really positive thing to do with your tutor group or class is to become involved in the life of the school as a whole. Think about encouraging each child to be involved in some sort of enrichment, or maybe you could even start a project to improve the school environment. I have seen students digging ponds, planting sensory gardens and even raising money to improve the school library. In the short term they are feeling involved which will have impact, but it will also send out a clear message. ‘I care that you are involved in school life. It matters that you participate. You matter.’ There is nothing more powerful in being welcomed back into a community that really makes you feel as though you belong and that your actions matter. Schools are not sausage factories, run by data or Ofsted, they are places where our young people can flourish. Let’s show our learners that they have a place they belong, and where they are safe to have high aspirations, feel supported but where we have high expectations too.
Let’s not forget that at the heart of this is teachers. Us. You and Me. If you are in SLT, take the time to email your staff and welcome them back. No one wants their first email communication they open after Christmas to be an invitation to a meeting or a demand to complete paperwork… Take the time to treat your staff as valued human beings. You could even go the extra mile and bring in a cake or muffin, for goodness sake though, remember no one wants a left over mince pie! If you are not in SLT you can still do you part to make the return to work less difficult. Try, (and yes it is hard) to not bemoan returning to work, especially to colleagues and more importantly students! Try to face the new term as an exciting challenge; positive thought will have more positive impact than using your office or staff room as a public moaning place. I used to work with a lovely teacher who took the time to write little positive notes to everyone in our department, or leaving fortune cookies on everyone’s desks. It was a bit cheesy, (she knew this too) but it did make us all smile, and feel part of a team rather than isolated individuals, which teachers can all too often easily become. If you have had difficult relations with anyone in particular, being mindful of them and their individual trials might help you to work anew at improving your professional relationships. You don’t have to be friends with everyone you work with, but you do have to be an effective and supportive colleague. You deserve nothing less and neither does anyone else.
So with all this in mind, let’s try not to stumble back to work feeling familiar dread. Remember for many children you are the light in their world. You will never know the impact that you have, but trust me; through your small acts of kindness and welcome, you are making a difference to someone who needs it, be them student or staff.
What do you think? I would love to hear how else we can make the return to work a positive experience.