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  • Writer's pictureAction Hero Teacher

Don’t Eat The Whole Elephant by Roma Dhameja

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

An elephant eating grass
Take It One Bite At A Time

Hot tears are streaming down my face and I’m embarrassed. Embarrassed that the feedback has brought me to tears even when I promised myself I wouldn’t let that happen, embarrassed that the observation went as badly as it did, embarrassed that in my first post as Head of Department I have had what I can only call the most abysmal observation I have ever experienced.

The observer is wonderful, kind, posing a strategy that will support me with the group with some high profile students. That was over 5 years ago but it still makes me shudder.

I was fine by the way, the observer, a Vice Principal at the school was a gift from God and helped me with the very challenging group in order to get them on track in a month (yes I said a month, that’s how long true change took in their attitude to learning).

I had worked in some pretty challenging schools before but after 3 years I thought I didn’t have to reestablish myself, explicitly teach behaviour, especially at an outstanding school right? I did.

The old saying is that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time and not bite off more than you can chew.

But yet, that’s what we try and do. I see PGCE students each year trying to make sure their lessons are perfect, staff who want their new classes to behave as their old classes did and somehow know by osmosis what the expectations are.

Just like we teach the curriculum, classroom behaviour has to be taught and insisted upon. Each year I ask staff not to eat the whole elephant, but to take a bite at a time.

What does this look like?

I have highlighted 4 things I have done to create classroom behaviour standards for effective teaching & learning.

We break the lesson down into 15-minute chunks and commit to getting that right with every single lesson, every single day, before focusing on the next 15-minute chunk. Here are some of the things we focus on.

The First 15 Minutes

I honestly believe this is the most important element of the lesson. How students enter, let you take the register and start their first task, sets the tone for the rest of the lesson.

· Entering the classroom - If you expect students to line up outside then expect them to do it well, a line not a huddle, quietly. If you expect them to come in, expect them to do that in a calm manner.

· Coats off, learning tools out, facing forward, ready to learn – I will repeat this over and over again until it becomes automatic.

· Silence during register – insist on it, give the students a moment of calm.

· If you expect student to give books out, select them as they walk in and ask them to do it quietly and quickly, be explicit about your instructions, reward them for it.

· Expect them to write the date ready in their books before you start teaching.

· Have a recall question up your sleeve – It’s not always possible to have a starter/recall task on the board when the students arrive, especially as teachers race from classroom to classroom during COVID. Make sure you have a few questions up your sleeve. Here’s some easy ones that can be applied to any subject.

  • In the back of your books Gimme 5 – keywords we have learnt in this topic, characters we need to explore, characteristics of X etc.

  • Keywords – Get students to explain in their own words three subject-specific key terms they have learnt in the topic. This will give you the opportunity to address misinterpretations.

  • Have a starter task for them to engage with immediately. Set a countdown for them ‘You have 7 minutes to get this starter done in your books let’s go.’ Then pick them at random to share answers.

None of this is rocket science, you probably do a lot of it if not all of it, but when re-establishing routines it’s important to be explicit about it, communicate it to your students and expect perfection in 15 minute chunks.

Second 15 Minutes

· This might involve feedback from your starter or getting stuck into your first bit of teaching.

· Taking responses for your starter – cold call! I love cold calling, my students found it hard at first when we completely switched to cold calling as some eager ones felt like their responses would go missed. Over time they have come to be reassured that they will get an opportunity to share their ideas.

· Do not accept any answers shouted out – this can be tough, especially when the kid who doesn’t normally engage is doing so! But trust me it never ends well, it sends a signal to the others that the only way to be heard is to shout and then you’re in trouble and should probably stock up on paracetamol for the headaches you’re about to experience!

· When explaining new content expect silence and check in regularly – select students to summarise what you have said so far. Once you do this a couple of times students will know they can be called upon any moment to summarise and their focus peaks.

Third 15 Minutes

  • Usually deep work – where they apply what they have learnt.

  • Group work – pick your groups! I always find that by selecting groups the students get more value out of the work. The first time you do that expect the group not to gel but over time they will learn to work with everyone. Kids are malleable!

  • Individual work – Do you expect silence? If you do, say so. DO NOT SAY BE QUIET! QUIET it subjective, what is quiet to one person is often loud whispering to our students. SILENCE is explicit to all.

Last 15 Minutes

  • Address misconceptions/identify misconceptions- do this by getting students to explain their thinking. For example, if I ask the question ‘How is Lady Macbeth portrayed’ students may say ‘devious.’ However if I ask ‘What’s the best piece of evidence that helps us decide what Lady Macbeth is like?’ Then the kids are thinking deeper and I’m getting to learn more about what they are focusing on.

  • Summarise – By asking what’s the key thing you have learnt today or what do you think we should move on to next? Some people use exit tickets which are wonderful, I’m just not disciplined enough to cut up bits of paper. If you are I salute you J

Now any of the above can be used in any order. However the key is not to expect to master the whole lesson straight away. Take 15 mins at a time and work your way through it. If you can master the first 15 mins the rest will be easier. It also gives you a clear focus and means you’re not trying to eat the whole elephant.

Roma Dhameja is a Vice Principal at a secondary school in Leicestershire, responsible for Teaching and Learning. She has worked in education for the past eight years joining the teaching profession as a business and economics teacher after working in industry. She firmly believes in the power of culture in the classroom and the impact this can have on academic achievement. You can find her blog at where she often discusses leadership challenges, teaching practice, CPD and school culture. Catch her on Twitter: @noonetoldmehow

Thank you Roma! As our 3rd AHT guestblogger, your detailed & honest advise is a fantastic addition to our blog! There must be a part 2!

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