Building & Rebuilding Relationships; A Fresh Start

Building relationships with students can be a difficult task.  Some years, you hit the jackpot and find that you are assigned that perfect class.   What happens when you don’t get that class?  What do you do then?  Even worse, just imagine you are the third teacher the class has had in that academic year and it’s only January! (yup, that has happened to me).

When I started teaching (many years ago), I spent my NQT year doing maternity cover at three different schools.  Consequently, this has given me the confidence to go into a new class and build relationships quickly.  In this short post I will impart some of the different approaches that I’ve taken and direct you to further sources of note (blogs, podcasts, etc.)

As a colleague of mine once said in a staff briefing;

I’m not here to teach you how to suck eggs…


True; I’m simply putting a few reminders out there and organising my thoughts so that I have a reference point when coaching and mentoring.

  • Say “Hi” – Or “Good morning”, “Good afternoon” or even a “Good day!”.  When you pass a student on a stairwell, when you are out doing lunch duty or when you enter a meeting with the student and a parent/carer.    High Five

Some students like the ‘fist bump’ others love a ‘high five’..woo! Students are human too.

  • Smile and invite – Always invite the students into the classroom.  It can be tricky when you do not have your own classroom but get the students into the habit of waiting outside if possible.
  • Names – It’s an obvious one and very simple (note that I did not say it’s easy) but learn your students’ names, maybe even give them a unique greeting (Coach has different handshake for each team player). How would you feel if someone kept calling you the wrong name?  I’ve been called Miss Portal, Miss Potter…
  • Be positive and give praise – Find a reason to praise students; good posture, nice writing, great response.  Make them feel good.  Watch the short 7 minute TedTalk by Rita Pierson “Every Kid Needs a Champion” and also look at this Positive Framing video clip (1 min 7 secs).  I just love the phrasing;

…you are showing me excellence right now, I’m really proud of you!

  • Be different – Every now and then, do something different.  It will be a surprise for the students and could be the making of a memorable lesson.  Having read the blog of @jamessturtevant I know he sometimes links his outfits to his lessons!  (Listen to James’ Connecting with Students podcast on Talks with Teachers).  You could share a photo, a story, a food item…this is one of those great stories that I have shared where I took an adventure bike ride and there was this really steep hill.  I didn’t have much water left in my bottle and all I could see was a narrowing lane with lots a trees; a forest some might say.  I was scared but felt the need to take a selfie and then…

This photo led me nicely into a lesson on gradients


  • Be passionate – If you are not interested in your subject, why should your students show an interest?  Be passionate!  Show them why yours, is the best subject to learn. (Definitely on point with this @AdamWilliamsRFA – that was a great CPD session!)
  • Don’t apologise – Do not be ‘Sorry but this isn’t going to be very interesting today; we just need to learn this” or “I know it’s Friday period 6 but…”.  DO NOT apologise for teaching your subject.
  • Be  firm but fair – You need to be consistent with your students.  Don’t change your rules from day-to-day or week-to-week.  Nor should you have favourites as this will undoubtedly lead to problems.  Listen to James’ talk at around 6mins 30secs, here he discusses how he dealt with a group of standoffish students –  Connecting with Students.
  • Listen – Really listen to your students.  You will find that by listening, you find out more about their successes and pick up on any problems that they may have.  Planning something of interest to them, in your lesson is providing students with evidence that you have listened and that you are interested in them.
  • Build relationships with non-teaching staff too! – It’s worth it for you and for your students.  I will not repeat the detail as this article says it all Building Relationships Campus-Wide

I can not guarantee that these will all work for you in your school but I’m just saying that at different times, the above have worked for me.   Albiet with different students and across different schools but they have worked.  Use your personality, quirky traits or hobbies to start building relationships.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

An inspirational scheme of work

How can I engage learners?  What can I do to make my lessons more interesting?  What resources can I use to challenge my classes?  How will this lesson link with what they already know and what I’m going to teach them next time?  I’m sure questions similar to these (and more!) pop into your minds when planning lessons and searching for inspiration.  How can we answer these questions quickly when planning?  There has to be an easy way.

I’ve had the opportunity to work in a number of schools over the past few years and have found that their Schemes Of Work (SOW) have affected my approach to planning.  It has affected how I plan lessons at my home school and it can affect the advice that I give to NQT’s and other members of staff when they are planning their lessons (this is in my capacity as a Specialist Leader of Education – SLE).

Teachers can be constrained by SOW and as a result the quality of lessons and the level of engagement can drop.  So how can we resolve this problem of lacking creativity, needing inspiration, engaging our students?

“You’re creative, how would you teach the topic of…”
This is a question that I am asked on a regular basis. I am an SLE with a local teaching school and a Lead Practitioner for Mathematics in my home school but my creativity sometimes stems from others (teachers at schools that I support and my relatively new twitter network of educationalists) – I mean, why reinvent the wheel.

image from 'azilen'
image from ‘azilen’

Like others, I am sometimes limited by the ‘topics’ I teach and really have to root around to find a hook or a story to interest my young audience.  Imagine you are a student and you are told “this week we will be learning how to find the area of basic and compound/composite shapes”.  I don’t know about you but it wouldn’t fill me with joy and I enjoy Mathematics! There are ways to make this interesting but if you were an NQT faced with teaching this topic, a SOW stating Area & Perimeter is not all that inspiring.

On the flip side, imagine being given a question (or a problem) and being told “you will learn some techniques to help you answer this question by the end of the lesson or the end of the week”. This, would get me interested in pretty much any subject. “What am I going to learn?”, “What is this about?”, “How can that be right?”

Just teach them what they need to know.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times when we need to just teach the required content  instead of getting students to ‘derive Mathematical formula’, make ‘scientific discoveries’ or ‘search for historical facts’ on their own.  These are the times when you, as a teacher, need to find that hook, find that something to draw them in so that they really remember your lesson.   I mean, if they can remember psychological case studies, functions of an operating system for computing exams or any aspect of a topic that you have taught them, ready for recall, you my friend, have done an amazing job.

Carmine Gallo talks of having ‘jaw dropping moments’ when giving presentations; teaching a lesson is just the same, you are the presenter.  These moments can consist of pictures, unusual objects, short video clips or even personal stories.  Read An Ethic of Excellence; Building a Culture of Craftmanship with Students by Ron Berger for inspiration.

Now some of you will be saying that this all sounds very nice but should we really be changing our lessons with each teaching of the topic to make them more ‘jaw-dropping’?  Hold that thought for a moment…

When attending a Maths Hub meeting just this month, I got into a discussion with a Head of Teaching and Learning and a representative from the NCETM and we spoke of teachers who change what they are teaching from one year to the next.  The point being made was that…

…we shouldn’t change things too much as we are not teaching the same students each year. It’s always going to be new to that class.

Agreed…but we do need to tweak these lessons to make them even more engaging and jaw-dropping (if that’s at all possible!)

This idea of teaching students only what they need to know may seem, dare I say, tedious.  However, we need these ‘standard‘ lessons intertwined with the ‘all singing and all dancing‘ ones.  Why?

  • Because the out and out information giving lessons, allow students to grasp the fundamentals of the topic whilst perfecting their note taking and learning skills.
  • Because the lessons of exploration and intrigue give teachers to opportunity to wow their audience, allow students to develop resilience and hone their problem solving skills.

Working with other subject areas (…are you mad?!)
This cross curricular malarkey is often spoken of and many see this as a great idea, whilst some see it as a sort of elusive wizardry.  There is often the opportunity to link lessons or at least align parts of the SOW across subject areas, but this is rarely done.

Hogwarts Prof

This year, I have had quite a few conversations with a Science teacher whom I share some students with.  The majority of my year 9 Mathematics set is in his Science class.  It began with us discussing strategies for improving behaviour for learning but then led to us talking about the topics that we were teaching.  Quite coincidentally, I was teaching substitution and he was teaching the class how to use a formula that week – bonus!  The long and short of this was, my lesson on substitution was made easier because the students were able to ‘teach me’ the Pressure Formula and I was able to lead a lesson with a memorable hook (Ice Road Truckers – thank you @AlexJFirth – he has other such lessons on TES e.g. X-Men Selective Breeding). The lesson was great!  The students had the opportunity to consolidate what they had learned in Science and feel good about their work in Mathematics too.  There were even some amazing presentations from group; even the quiet ones.


Another cross curricular link, inspired by @MrDayMaths was that of the Penrose Triangle.  We had Year 7 students draw the Penrose Triangle on Isometric paper as part of their Mathematics lesson.  With hindsight this could have been extended into Art and Technology; What other impossible constructions can we draw?  Is it even possible to build this impossible construction?  Take a moment and consider the consolidation of learning taking place, over the days and weeks.  The possibilities for cross curricular links, team teaching and learning are endless…

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“When will I ever use Algebra?”

Firstly, I would advise that a teacher doesn’t start the series of lesson by saying, “…today we will learn Algebra; the x’s and y’s…” or worse still, the a’s and b’s; “…a is for how many apples we have and b is for how many bananas, bugs, balls…” please don’t.  This leads to problems when teaching some students in year 10 and year 11, oh and this drives us teachers of Mathematics crazy!  Instead, consider introducing a problem by why of a question or real life scenario.  It will take a bit of preparation but will be well worth it.

The following is borrowed from an American school, where the teachers (D., & K. O’Connor) are introducing Algebra to 11 year olds.  This is an excellent example of introducing a topic by why of a problem and drawing out what the students already know.  It is also a challenge for many students in that age bracket;

You are a professional basketball team’s (WNBA or NBA) leading foul shooter.  You make an average of 50 foul shots per season.  Your manager has been presented with two contract scenarios for your season bonus.  One is a flat bonus for each player (B = $5000).  The other is given in the form of an algebraic equation, B = $3000 + $100(x), where x is # of foul shots made in the season.  Your manager claims he can’t do math and is freaked out by seeing the letter in an equation.  Because he doesn’t understand the algebraic equation, he is not sure which scenario earns you more money.  Since he is intimidated to discuss the formula with the letter, he plans to go into your negotiation to accept the flat bonus.  He wants to know if this is OK with you.

This is just the start of a problem that runs over two weeks (click here for details of the full project; Intro to Algebraic Thinking – Patterns & Variables).  It involves the use of Sports, Mathematics and English to clearly communicate the best option for the W/NBA player to earn more money.  Students need to justify their answer to the aforementioned problem in different ways:

  • in words
  • using tables
  • and graphical representation

Even if students are not sports fans, it is an accessible problem, it engages most, enables the teacher to stretch the more able and allows for a slightly different take on what most students see as a confusing/boring topic.  A learner tends to be engaged in interesting lessons and as such, these interesting lessons should sprout from a creative and inspirational scheme of work.

With the changes to the new curriculum and more emphasis on students being able to apply their learned skills, we need to look at what we can do to improve our SOW.  We must ensure that it is fit for purpose, that it contains well thought out (& planned) links with other subject areas and is full of resources that stretch and challenge all students.  Most importantly, it has to be a document that inspires us as teachers, to deliver the best lesson that we can teach.

It’s all well and good having a massive SOW for each year group but don’t let the pages and pages of words, limit the lessons that your teachers plan and deliver.  If you are really struggling for ideas, have a look on the internet, attend Teachmeets, visit other schools, enlist a consultant, speak to someone at your local teaching school.  I would suggest the first port of call always being a conversation with a colleague.  Speak to your trusty and enthusiastic PGCE students (&/or NQTs) who have come out of university with fresh ideas and ‘new’ resources that they may have acquired on recent placements.  They may have an amazing set of resources that you haven’t seen before.

So yes, get that long term plan sorted, make sure your scheme of work is clear and give your teachers the opportunity to be creative.  It will be hard work but you will not be disappointed with the results.

Teachers of numeracy and Mathematics, if you need a scheme of work or ways to improve your own, take a look at Kennys Pouch.  It’s free, covers KS1 to KS5 and has links to suggested activities for many topics.

Differentiated Homework

The Never Stop Learning Hub Teach Meet, took place on Thursday 20th March 2014.  It was the first to be run by the inspirational @MrOCallaghanEdu and took place at Bristol Brunel Academy.

There were ten workshops and I led one of them with Tom Leahy (@MrTLeahy a fellow Maths teacher).  The idea for running our workshop on Differentiated Homework came about due to us considering the differentiated lesson.  “We differentiate in lessons so we should differentiate homework…right?” Right!

How can we as teachers insist upon differentiating our classwork and feel justified in giving the entire class the same piece of homework?  It can become boring for the more able, consistently annoying for those who are finding the work challenging and it can be boring for the teacher too!  To an outsider, it may seem strange that we are not differentiating homework, so what’s happening?  Why are we all giving our students the same homework?  Let’s consider the “Why? How? & What?” of this homework scenario…

Why do you want students to complete homework?

How do you want them do it?

  • On paper – Will the students (claim to) lose their paper work?
  • On-line – Do students have access to the internet at home or at school?

What are the next steps?

  • How can you maintain this level of homework?
  • How much effort are you putting in when setting and marking the homework?
  • How can you ensure that your students learn from the homework and not end up with lots of pretty displays? What level of feedback/marking is the most effective (#Takeawayhmk – how can you fairly assess the homework…see Marking #TakeawayHmk part 1; part 2 coming soom.)

Differentiated Homework

Knowing the current approaches that are taken with homework and the completion rates, the following is a list of different homework that can be tried with classes (examples of these items can also be found here).

Poetry Concept Card by @Zedagogy
Top right ‘Poetry’ Concept Card by @Zedagogy

Examples of Concept Cards on Concept Walls can be found here & here

Rick Wormeli: 'Homework' versus 'Practice'
Rick Wormeli: ‘Homework’ versus ‘Practice’

Another aspect of homework to consider is how you talk about homework to your students.  Some teachers refer to this as practice as opposed to homework and as such, this can affect the quality and quantity of homework that is received.  For a slightly different perspective, watch this video clip of Rick Wormeli talking about Homework vs. Practice.

Conclusion This workshop was a challenge to prepare but fun to run and differentiated homework will be an ongoing project for me.  I intend to trial more approaches to differentiated homework (see Marking #TakeawayHmk) but in the meantime I will try to convince other teachers to do the same.  With this in mind, I expect differentiated homework to be a way that students can experience an appropriate level of challenge in their work outside of the classroom…practice or homework; what ever you choose to call it!

Thanks for reading @SPorterEdu

Lesson Checklists…for Students

As Lead Practitioner, part of my remit is to share resources/ideas and generally help raise standards of Teaching and Learning in the Mathematics department (ultimately, I’d like to do this school wide but hey ho…one step at a time).

I’ve been toying with the idea of having a check list for students in lower ability classes and when it was mentioned at our last Maths meeting, the team seemed to like the idea.  Not just for lower ability but for all classes; laminate, stick on tables in Maths classrooms, the usual stuff.  This is something that we are looking to do to help our students be responsible for their attitude to learning (ATL) and ensure they remain focused in lessons.

Below is a draft, version 1, the bones of the idea (I promise I will make it pretty!)…

To have an outstanding lesson, I need to;

  • Get my Maths equipment ready (including my planner)
  • Complete the starter (if I’m stuck I need to ask someone near me)
  • Listen carefully to instructions
  • Write the TWWL and the date (underline them)
  • Copy important notes and highlight key words
  • Attempt all parts of the question (get involved in the activity/task)
  • Check that my answers make sense
  • Keep listening for any new instructions
  • Ask questions (this will show that you are listening and thinking!)
  • Review my work (or review my friends work)

It would be great to know if anyone is already doing this (or something similar) and what impact this is having.  I think it is something that can be used across subjects and not simply limited to Mathematics.  I will update this post once the check list has been trialled and I will share what has happened in our classrooms in the New Year.

Watch this space…