10 FAQs about the challenges teachers face.

When I visit schools to deliver CPD or work alongside teachers and leaders as part of their improvement process, lots of the same questions come up. Here’s a selection from recent discussions with NQTs/RQTs as well as more experienced teachers. I’ve written this as a kind of interview with myself:

1. What do you do if some people are still struggling but you have to get through the syllabus?

  • There’s a need to embrace this as one of the inherent imperfections of teaching. You rarely feel entirely happy that something has been nailed. You move on to cover topics C and D, while still embedding topics A and B and, yes, most students will need you to cover the whole syllabus.
  • Make sure students are being trained for independent study; they should have a good overview of the whole course and good study materials so they all can see what they’re meant to have covered and what is still to be done. Get them to practise how they’ll study when they’re at home.
  • Build in plenty of practice tasks from earlier topics or synoptic questions that fold in earlier material into the current material to keep that practice going.
  • Sometimes a few short 1:1 sessions with individuals powers them forward; if you can manage it, try doing this.
  • In some cases where students really struggle, you do sometimes need to make a tactical decision to select which bits of the full syllabus to leave out – but make sure that’s a team decision informed by an assessment of realistic best-bets for students to succeed on the reduced syllabus.

2. There’s such a wide ability range in my class – how so I challenge some and support others at the same time? If I find they don’t have the prior knowledge – even basics – how do I find time to teach them that as well as everything else?

  • Anticipate this situation and plan for it explicitly. Identify what the essential prior knowledge is and make sure you’re re-teaching/consolidating the basics in a planned fashion rather than assuming the knowledge is there. Everyone benefits from consolidation. Design practice tasks that consolidate the basic knowledge and issue them to students who need them.
  • Design tiered questions sets and tasks that allow students to continually move forward if they’re ready to. Don’t let anyone ‘finish’ so they are waiting around for others to catch up. Even if we’re aiming for the same end point with everyone, anticipate that students will diverge in how quickly they arrive and design routines around task completion so there’s always a continuum of next steps or a way to go ever deeper.

3. What do you think of knowledge organisers? What’s the best way to use them?

  • Knowledge organisers are really useful if and only if students know how to use them for self-assessment. They can give a useful overview of some key elements of factual knowledge that students can refer to a basis for self-quizzing. I always say a good KO is one you can give to your friend, your mum or your brother and they can use it to quiz you at home, without knowing anything about the subject. Don’t waste time making them look pretty but be sure to organise the information in ways that help to understand it or remember it: tables, categories, flow charts, diagrams etc.
  • Use the knowledge organisers in lessons so that students learn how to use them to check their knowledge with various forms of retrieval practice. Train them! Don’t assume students just know what to do with them. Unless you do this, there’s not much point having them.
  • Don’t treat knowledge organisers as any kind of substitute for a textbook or other detailed resource. They explicitly present just a summary and a subset: the most quizzable knowledge needed. Not all knowledge lends itself to being presented on a knowledge organiser.

4. My class is so chatty, it’s difficult to get them to stop. And some people just call out all the time. They’re keen – I don’t want to put them off. What should I do?

  • First of all, don’t attribute a characteristic to a group as if it’s inherent and can’t be changed. All students and groups can learn not to be ‘chatty’ in a way that isn’t helpful for their learning.
  • Make a deliberate choice to address the issue of their chattiness and the calling out by talking to the class about expectations. Run through the whole process of setting out your expectations (again!), be clear what they are and then set about reinforcing them. Make it clear that there is time for talking during structured pair-share work but, otherwise, we have ‘one voice’ and general chatting isn’t acceptable.
  • Be assertive about this. Insist. If you’re not happy; stop, re-establish what you want using positive framing (I need everyone focused and listening, thanks) and don’t let chatting become a de facto accepted norm of what goes on in your lessons.
  • Embrace the keenness by involving those students in cold-call questions – inviting them to share their ideas and celebrating their contributions but make it clear that calling out isn’t fair to others and isn’t ok. Again, be assertive in insisting on it. Engage the school consequences system as needed.

5. However often I explain it, they just don’t get it… what do I do?

  • The key to this is to examine the underlying reasons. Usually it’s a lack of knowledge, an incoherent foundational schema, a lack of fluency with basic ideas – something is missing that is needed for the new ideas to make sense or to stick. Probe the students’ schema – find out what they do know; what they do understand; work out where their solid ground is and where its limits are. Then build up again. Repeating an explanation that isn’t building on solid foundations will never work. Sometimes, you just need to take a deep breath and go all the way back to some very basic ideas and work harder at consolidating those for a period before returning to the material you were hoping to focus on.
  • Break the ideas down into even smaller steps than you did the first time and check for understanding at each stage. Time spent doing this will pay off in the longer term.
  • Use generative techniques such as students explaining ideas to each other (imagine you were explaining this to your younger siblings) to see where they stumble; to root out where misconceptions lie.

6.Even after I’ve modelled how to do things, they don’t seem to be able to do it without help. What do I do?

  • Think about what your students are actually doing while you are modelling. Are they actually just copying down what you write, without thinking, for example? If that’s the case, change things so students listen and engage in check-for-understanding routines during modelling – so they focus on thinking and link ideas to what they already know – not on getting a neat copy in their books.
  • Are you getting them to do too many things so they’re not really practising each step enough? Try modelling less at once and engage students in more repeated practice of fewer elements until they seem more confident and fluent before adding layers of difficulty. Make sure your worked examples are very similar to begin with – so the same things are explored in different ways, rather than adding more and more elements.
  • Avoid the ‘dream example’ type of modelling. Model outcomes of different standards so students can see the differences. Use some example with errors and imperfections that students can improve or correct.. this helps them to develop the ability to self-check their own examples.

7 My students can’t concentrate for long when I’m trying to explain things … how do I get them to listen?

  • Examine why this is happening. Are you making your explanations interactive? Are you pausing to secure attention, scanning the room and making eye contact? Are you checking for understanding and involving students with questions – cold calling individuals to bring them into the discussion and thinking? If students are routinely asked to reflect back what they’ve heard, to check for understanding, they pay more attention. If they can opt out, they are more likely to.
  • Some students need to build up their stamina for extended listening. Use a mix of pair-share, where they have to think in a structured way, cold calling and checking for understanding – as in this post: Top Three! High-impact, inclusive questioning strategies. This variety of thinking modes helps to keep a focus.
  • If needed address the issue through reinforcement of expectations with choices and consequences.

8. If I don’t mark all the work in their books, won’t that demotivate them or cause problems -eg with parents?

  • From the outset explain to students and parents what they should expect: that they will get some whole-class feedback based on you looking at samples of work and you will mark selected pieces of work and tests. That means much of their work isn’t directly marked by you – but you will do occasional book checks to keep standards up.
  • Avoid setting up the expectation that validation comes from marking: use other forms of validation such as highlighting excellent work verbally during lessons and generally being positive about completed homework and classwork. However, always make sure the focus is more on ‘learning’ rather than neat-looking books. Identify the few key pieces of work you will make a fuss of across the year and follow-through; this protects you from needing to do the same with everything else.
  • Establish a culture where students recognise their role in their learning: “you’re not doing it for me; you’re doing if for yourself”. But pick up on students with persistently poor work. You can’t check everything but you can have spot checks. I used to value half-termly ‘sort your life out’ lessons where students would address various gaps in their work as I supervised them and provided individual support.

9. Students give up – they say ‘I can’t do it’ and refuse to engage. Or they hate answering questions and always say ‘I don’t know’. How do I change that?

  • The main thing here is avoid saying things that validate that mindset or seek to provide comfort. eg. Don’t worry I was rubbish at French too. No! As far as possible, focus on strategies to move forward. OK, you’re finding it hard, you’re not sure, but let’s see what we can do about it.
  • Find the things students can do and then build their confidence from there. Sometimes students need more repeated practice with easier questions or problems as a warm up before you then crank things up: Go back to move forward.
  • Use the ‘no opt out’ strategy for reluctant responders. If they ‘don’t know’ then give answers or get other students to provide them – and return to the ‘don’t knows’ to check they heard and can now provide the responses themselves. Give them opportunities to say and do things correctly – in the safety of a pair if needed, before asking them in public.

10. What if I disagree with the school/team approach ? (eg on marking and feedback)

  • A surprisingly common question. People often express a sense of feeling that their needs or ideas are not the same as those identified by the collective. The main solution here is to recognise that ideas expressed in a generic manner always need to be adapted for a context. So – don’t take them at face value – take ownership and adapt things to work for you. Most likely, that is what people were expecting you to do anyway.
  • It might mean you engage in some give and take and then focus on evidencing what is working. If you don’t even try the things that your colleagues are keen to try as a whole team, then you create friction – and you might surprise yourself; they could be right after all.
  • If you are determined to try something, don’t just assert its value; if you can show people that your idea produces great outcomes – people will listen. Set it up like a kind of trial and set if you really do get a good response – then show people what you did.

Actually, there are more than 10 – but that’s enough for now! Thanks to everyone asking these questions. It’s so important – and it’s often the case that more mundane and specific the issue is, the more likely you’ll find answers.

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