Planning for a great first day: How do good teachers do it?

In the first paper Peter Taylor and I wrote documenting findings from the ‘Establishing Enabling Routines’ project (McWilliam & Taylor, 2017), we argued that effective pedagogy must be planned for. Furthermore, we insisted that such planning is not to be conflated with decisions about what subject content would be ‘covered’ over the duration of a term or semester. We were also aware, that while videoing provides a visible record of teachers’ ‘first day first lesson’ activity, the planning process that preceded the pedagogical activity was not amenable to capture in the same way. Because, as we asserted in our initial paper, planning is the first step in a five step process of establishing enabling pedagogical routines (plan, communicate, initiate, establish and normalise), we needed to know more about how the 17 teachers videoed in our study understood and planned for their ‘first day, first class’ practices.  In order to understand their planning processes we invited all teachers to reflect on and respond to a set of questions, and to join a face-to-face conversation about their responses.

The four central questions discussed were:

  1. When did you start planning for the class?
  2. When you do this sort of planning, what are the main issues you considered?
  3. Across that suite of issues, what are the essential issues, ie, your priorities to consider and to communicate in ‘day 1, lesson 1’?
  4. How/when did you learn to do this sort of planning? Were there particular experiences or individuals that influenced you?

Our analysis of the written and oral reflections of these teachers indicated that they shared a number of core beliefs about the key messages they needed to give their students in their first encounter with their new classes. However, these accounts also revealed divergent beliefs and assumptions about what they saw as priorities.

Shared messages

Teachers in the study seemed to be united in their ‘Day One’ planning objective to give three key messages to their students: ‘You are safe in my classroom’; ‘You can learn in my classroom’; ‘You can grow in my classroom’. The communication of these messages was clearly not seen as a simple matter of ‘telling their students’, but involved other considerations such as the relevance of the age and maturity of the boys, their history of experience with the subject matter, and so on.

‘You are safe in my classroom’

While ‘safety’ is certainly a matter that needs addressing in laboratory work and where sharp tools are to be used, the message ‘You are safe in my room’ connoted much more than this in the comments provided by these teachers. They planned for the psychic needs of their students – their emotional and intellectual ‘safety’ – pre-empting their needs as young learners. The following is typical:

(T1): I like to energise the kids with my love of [my subject]….  I also want to make them feel at ease in the sense that this is a safe inclusive classroom…. I tend not to lay down the law at the beginning, but when things arise I gently discuss with the students why a particular attitude/behaviour is not ok or how I would like the classroom to run.

This message of safety and inclusivity was particularly evident in the reflections of teachers of Mathematics and Foreign Languages, two disciplinary domains that require of students that they have sufficient confidence to learn from the instructive complications of making mistakes. As one senior Mathematics teacher puts it:

(T2): [The students need]… reassurance about the content of the subject being relevant and accessible to all members of the class. You can do Maths A and achieve an OP1. This is based on my experiences with previous Maths A classes and the issues the students have had….There are no dumb questions; we all have skills and abilities in differing areas, maths ability should not define you.

Another Mathematics teacher spoke of planning to introduce some self-deprecating talk as a tactic for inviting student engagement:

(T3): I want engagement, I want them to want to learn and to feel it is worthwhile, fun and achievable to succeed. Lots of jokes, lots of self-deprecation and lots of reminding them to ask for help and all the ways they can ask for help. 

Foreign language teachers, too, sought to ensure that “the first impression” was that the learning would be “of value” and that it would also be “fun” while building “self-belief… confidence that ‘I’m improving’” (T4).  In one foreign language class, the teacher (T14) had planned to address the matter of student anxiety head-on, by asking the Year 11 boys in her first class to express their level of anxiety as a number of fingers on one hand, from zero to five. She joined in by rating herself as a ‘two’ on the anxiety scale, and then expressing her pleasure that no-one self-rated as a zero. In doing so, she signalled that it was ‘ok’ to feel less than confident on day one. By rating herself as no less anxious than many of her students, she adopted a similar strategy to that of the self-deprecating teacher of maths, framing herself as an approachable ‘equal’ rather than an all-knowing instructor.

‘You can learn in my classroom’

The ‘you can learn’ message was nuanced in a range of ways in teacher reflections on planning, as they planned for sort of culture that would be likely to engage a particular cohort of boys in a particular subject area. One teacher of a senior cohort explained that she planned for student productivity through learning. This involved:

(T5): find[ing] out about them as learners (their strengths, how they work with others; their concerns and their ‘classroom defaults’ that may be comfortable, but unproductive for them). [The message I want to give is] … be the learner you want to be … don’t slip into a role that is unproductive or mediocre … take charge of your learning … find out what you need to help you learn/improve and get it. 

A teacher in the middle school expressed a similar view, but with the accent on building a positive learning climate:

(T6): I consider firstly the classroom culture and climate that I hope to establish. To me, my relationship with the students and having them feel valued, happy and cared about is what I believe underpins my teaching and helps early on to establish a classroom culture and love of learning. I then consider the needs of the boys at this age, and particularly the needs of the boys who are new to the school.

Planning that anticipated the learning needs of their students means, for some teachers, time-consuming preparation of new resources over their own ‘holiday’ period, as they look back on the previous teaching year in order to devise precise strategies for better addressing the interests of boys in early adolescence:

(T7): From my reflection on 2016 notes, I realised that the main learning strategy I wanted … was an opportunity for the boys to read a wider range of texts…. Many boys do not read ‘for fun’, so I devised a game (Inspectors and Detective) that would allow them to read ‘for purpose’…. I workshopped this activity in the holidays and developed the resource. Then I sequenced and linked activities, aiming to improve each resource to maximise learning opportunities, with this specific goal (exposure and practice) as the base.

The above reflection underlines that, for effective teachers, planning is part of an organic process of professional learning, the ‘unfinished business’ of looking back on past practice in order to look forward to better practice. Thus it challenges ‘best practice’ as a focus for improving the effectiveness of teaching – we strongly endorse this focus on ‘better practice’.

‘You can grow in my classroom’

The value of a “growth mindset” as a learning disposition is now well-established in progressive educational circles. This is due in no small measure to the long-term social psychological research of Carol Dweck (1999; 2002; 2012), who indicates how important it is to ensure that young people see themselves as potentially capable of learning in any domain of knowledge, rather than seeing themselves as ‘fixed’ or defined by a narrow or limited range of abilities. This understanding permeated the texts of a number of our respondents, with one (T8) insisting that, for her, a “growth mindset” meant giving the message to her students that “I need you to be prepared to publicly fail”, by “establish[ing] that it is okay to get it wrong”. Another elaborated on her planning for a ‘growth mindset’ more fully, indicating what she sees as the pedagogical implications that flow from Dweck’s work:

(T3): I am planning to create a climate in which they talk to each other, ask lots of questions and are willing to fail – this last one especially in the context of Dweck and growth mindsets – mathematical failure is good and helpful and hard to get from Maths C students. I explicitly talk about how failure is hard, how I have set them up for failure but how they can plough on regardless…. Failure, the achievability of success and my credibility are difficult [issues] to balance and while I don’t spend a lot of time explicitly planning for these they are something that I take the opportunity to reinforce whenever it comes up early in the year.

The classroom as a learning space

Not only do effective teachers now know about the social psychology of learning, but they also know more about the importance of environmental aesthetics in mobilising and enhancing learning as a cognitive activity. They understand that our capacity to learn is inevitably enhanced by the multi-sensory experiences that encoding-rich environmental design make possible (see McWilliam, Sweet & Bythe, 2013). This understanding becomes apparent in the planning of a number of these teachers in the way they anticipate utilising the classroom environment to enhance student learning. One who knew in well advance the actual room they would be teaching in was proactive in this respect:

(T5):  I knew the room well and aim to prepare visual stimulus on the walls that’s purposeful and interesting. I plan to begin the year with us using the walls as records of our thinking (also helps them to physically shift eyes to “up and out”). We continue to use the wall during the unit, and right now, are challenging where our thinking began four weeks ago and reflecting on the “simplicity” of our early answers compared to the depth of understanding later (at least that’s the aim!).

Others who may not have as much prior knowledge about their classroom space nevertheless acknowledge the importance of the layout: “[w]here possible… predetermin[ing] the groups and arrang[ing] the desks as I wish” (T4); or “try[ing] to use my room to enrol the boys in a 2-year team effort that we can hopefully build (eg my display of past class photos)” (T9); or “insist[ing] that the class sit at the tables around the teacher’s desk [because]…  maintaining the interest and focus of Maths A students is a big challenge, [and] proximity makes it easier” (T2).

Most classrooms, even in well-resourced schools, still owe something to Joseph Lancaster’s original Hints and Directions for Building, Fitting Up, and Arranging School Rooms, published in 1809. Yet while its nineteenth century industrial design has proven to be resilient as a classroom template, there are some learning domains, in particular art and design, where classroom aesthetics are quite different. While this can make for more pleasurable learning, a non-traditional classroom does have its challenges for young learners on day one:

(T10): The young ones get easily distracted by the new things and different layout to an artroom. So I provide them the time observe and absorb the room so they can focus on the class content more effectively.  

Digital technology is playing a more important role in classroom activities. However, it continues to be a source of some frustration for teachers if and when it is less than totally reliable. Despite all the assurances from software companies, and the growth in technical support staff in many schools, unstable platforms and ‘bugs in the system’ can detract from an optimal day one, class one learning experience. For many of these teachers, planning must take technology[1] into account:

 (T3): I absolutely make sure that all the technology is working before I start…. Why do I check the tech is working? So that the students won’t have to tediously wait while I fix stuff and because I am in 5 different rooms I have no control. No quicker way to lose engagement than a boring wait for me to fix tech.

How teacher planning diverges

While there is much that teachers have in common when planning for their first class, we did find some points on which teachers express divergent intentions. For example, in response to the question: ‘When did you start planning for the class?’, responses ranged from just a few days before the event ie, “as soon as timetable is out” (T1), “Monday on the student free day when [we] have timetable; class lists” (T11), “as soon as it was timetabled in mid-January” (T12) – to “during the final days of the holidays” (T8) or even “many years ago” (T4). For some, planning began early and intensified as day one drew closer:

(T6): I started planning over the holidays – classroom set up, routines, how I want them to manage their work, books, lockers, organisation, computers etc. More intense planning was done during staff week, and again things were refined after the first few days of school once I met my class.

We also noted that not all teachers value knowing who their students are in advance of their first class.  While some did want to “[k]now the class and individuals; talk and meet with form teacher (Middle School) and HOY[2] (Middle School and Senior School); check for special needs, special circumstances and “usual suspects” (T12), others took a different view:

(T13): I deliberately have always avoided entering into a new year with a new class with too much prior knowledge/history of my students (as I also hope they would do with me) to allow each member of our class community the chance to start afresh.

We also noted the wide range of divergent responses when indicating how and when they learned to do their planning. Moreover, their responses did not appear, overall, to attach great significance to their initial teacher training, and this might seem to some to be counterintuitive, given the extent to which initial teacher education may be presumed to be the foundation on which teachers build their pedagogical practices.

Some prior learning experience about the value of planning came from a different previous career, from “coaching martial art” (T4) to “McDonalds crew trainer and manager(T10).  One teacher elaborated on the skill sets acquired in this way that he found to be highly applicable to his pedagogical work:

(T12): Primarily, a lot of the learning came from my previous career.  This included the knowledge and valuing of project management, human relations, collaboration, open-mindedness, flexibility and the ability to improve through experimentation and reflection.

Perhaps more predictably, some teachers identified a previous teacher as highly influential:

(T3):  Honestly the most influential person was my senior Maths teacher who was called Carol Smith and she maintained a “I’m quite stupid and I can do this so I am damn sure you, who are all much cleverer than me, can do this” approach to teaching.

However, a number looked no further than their colleagues as the providing models of support and direction for the revisions they made to their planning.

(T9): I don’t identify one or two major influences or mentors… so much as a wide range of capable, committed and generous colleagues with whom I have had the great privilege of working throughout my career.

(T7): I … learn from my peers – I take notice of what is working in other classrooms and talk to the teachers I admire.

(T2): based on proformas quickly modified and refined through personal experience and the influence of my Maths colleagues…[4 named].. in particular.  

These reflections are a strong indication that effective teachers are increasingly looking sideways to build and sustain collaborative learning-oriented cultures with their peers, in the same way that they want their students to do in their classrooms. In doing so, they eschew what one long-term observer of schooling calls “the entrenched norms that prevail among teachers [which] … have always been those of autonomy and privacy”, and embrace “those of open exchange, cooperation, and growth” (Evans, 2012).

Conclusion

In summary, then, we found that planning for a culture of learning is a key ‘front-end’ to the work that these effective teachers do. We now know too, when we combine the above findings with those of our ‘day one, class one’ observations, that effective teachers prioritise pedagogical planning over planning for content ‘delivery’, then follow through by messaging their ‘culture of learning’ intentions from the first encounter with their students. In so doing, they translate planning intentions into robust and sustainable pedagogical realities.

References

Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset: How you can fulfill your potential. Constable & Robinson Limited.

Evans, R. (2012). Getting To No: Building True Collegiality in Schools, Independent School Magazine, Winter, http://www.nais.org/Magazines-Newsletters/ISMagazine/Pages/Getting-To-No.aspx, accessed 29 Oct, 2013.

McWilliam, E., Sweet, C. & Blythe, H. (2013). Re/membering Pedagogical Spaces, in R.G. Carpenter (Ed.) Cases on Higher Education Spaces: Innovation, Collaboration, and Technology, Noel Studio for Academic Creativity, Eastern Kentucky University, USA: IGI Global, pp.1-13.

McWilliam, E. and Taylor, P.G. (2017). Establishing enabling routines: How do highly effective teachers do it?  Australian Education Leader 39(1): 54-56.

[1] BGS classrooms include a ‘smart board’ or a digital projector, and 1:1 computing is integral to all teaching above Year 7.

[2] HOY – Head of Year, the year-level student well-being leader.

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