Early Career Teachers: Classroom rules and routines

This article was written for SecEd magazine.  

Aristotle once said that “excellence is not an act but a habit”, and so it is with teaching: the foundations of a successful classroom are built of routines, regularly repeated and reinforced.

Without this essential ground-work the edifice of learning would simply crumble. Let us take a look at some of the routines – the mechanics of the classroom – that trainee teachers may wish to establish or NQTs may wish to build on come September

Establishing the habit of cooperation

When setting and enforcing routines, it is often tempting to focus on the big things. After all, it is hard to ignore a flagrant flouting of the rules without losing face. But the silent killer in the classroom is low-level disruption – those seemingly minor distractions like tapping a pen, swinging on a chair, chewing gum, drawing graffiti in an exercise book, and so on.

Low-level disruption is what really stymies learning because it wages a war of attrition; it corrodes the edifice of good practice you have worked so hard to construct. The best way to deal with low-level disruption is to remember that it is not (usually) intended to undermine you, it is just a cheap form of entertainment.

So keep your cool. Quickly take the names of the perpetrators without making a scene or stemming the flow of learning, then sanction them after the lesson – but do not ignore it or it will spread like a virulent weed.

Most low-level disruption arises at the beginning and end of lessons and during transitions between tasks. It would follow, therefore, that to embed good routines for managing these transitions is – at least in part – to obviate low-level disruption.

The beginnings of lessons

You can make or break a lesson in the first few minutes. You need to establish your authority and show them that your classroom is your domain. Make pupils line-up outside – at least for the first lesson – and only enter once they are silent, attentive, and have removed their coats.

Once pupils have embedded the behaviours you expect for entering your classroom and sitting down, you might want to have tasks readily displayed on the board or on desks so that pupils can get started as soon as they enter. You should always greet pupils at the door where possible, and do so with a smile and quick greeting.

The best starter work is that which reviews, consolidates or builds on the work completed in the previous lesson or lessons, and that which requires pupils to revisit or revise work they had previously found difficult.

Whatever approach you decide upon for the start of your lessons, always try to be in your classroom before your pupils and have your resources ready to go. Have a lesson planned in advance (this might be in your head, a written lesson plan is not essential) and make sure you know what you are talking about. If pupils think you are more disorganised than they are, they will not respect you or trust you to help them make progress.

The ends of lessons

Set out clear expectations for the end of lessons, too, and manage them just as keenly as you do the beginning: you are in charge and only you can say when the lesson has finished and pupils can pack away.

Rehearse how to do this calmly and quietly until this becomes automatic. Establish routines for who leaves first in order to avoid having a mad rush out of the door. If you need to speak to pupils at the end, do so quickly so as not to impair the start of the lesson for their next teacher.

Handing out books

Explicitly teach your pupils how to pass out papers on the first day of school. Take a minute to explain the right way to do it (e.g. pass across rows, start on the teacher’s command, only the person passing papers can get out of his or her seat, do it in silence, etc) and allow pupils 10 to 15 minutes to practise.

t may distract you from the curriculum for half an hour at the start of the year, but it will pay dividends over time, saving you time and energy every lesson for the rest of the year and limiting the opportunity for pupils to engage in low-level disruption. Just think how much time you will save each term and each year, and how productively you could use that time. And just think how little time your pupils will now have to engage in low-level disruption.

So establish early on how you want books, papers and resources to be handed out and get your pupils to practise this exercise until they get it right.

Make this rehearsal a competition to see how quickly they can do it, setting a target time and praising them when they achieve it.

Classroom discussions and debate

As well as practising handing out work, it is worth rehearsing some of the other seemingly inconsequential activities that take place every lesson, such as transitioning from one task to another, engaging in paired talk and group work, taking part in questions-and-answers, and so on.

These activities are the glue that binds your classroom together and the oil that greases its wheels. As such, it is crucial you get them right, so you would be advised not to leave them to chance.

Establish rules and routines for paired talk such as how to take turns, make notes, give feedback to the class, comment on other pairs’ answers, and so on.

Likewise, practise how to work as part of a group, reinforcing what is expected of pupils – for example, any member of the group could be asked to give feedback so every pupil must be prepared.

Perhaps the most important routine to practise, however, is how to engage in whole-class question-and-answer sessions: make clear your rules around no-hands-up (questions will be targeted at named individuals and no-one must call out) and no-excuses (everyone must give an answer, “I don’t know” is not acceptable), and practise routines such as commenting on and adding to someone else’s answer in a polite and constructive manner.

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