‘The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook’: How can I have a positive impact on my students?

An Action Research Project by Jodie Johnson (Mathematics)

Reading time: 8 minutes

Background

The Lazy teacher’s Handbook appealed to me as I attended a CPD training session by the author Jim Smith and found his ideas interesting and readily adaptable to my own practice. As an NQT attending this course, I found some of the most useful questioning techniques that I’ve been using  to develop resilient learners ever since. These ideas included giving students options other than sitting and waiting for my help when they find themselves ‘stuck’ with a piece of work. Jim Smith gave practical phrases and ideas that gave students more time and strategies to get themselves ‘unstuck’ without relying too heavily on the teacher. This seemed to be the theme of the day as all of his strategies were pupil led rather than teacher led and put the responsibility for successful learning back in the hands of the students rather than relying solely on the teacher, something that as an NQT I found it difficult to combat.  With this in mind I looked forward to reading his ideas on becoming the ultimate ‘Lazy Teacher’, with students taking control of their own learning rather than depending on me.   I hoped I would find more strategies to become the facilitator of the learning that the students really took ownership of.

Marking, the ‘lazy way’

There were several strategies whilst reading this chapter that I felt that we as a school have already adopted to maximize learning through our written feedback. There were however some ideas that I felt were transferable and that I felt needed exploring further. Firstly, the author made a real point of preempting assessment and planning what exactly the teacher should mark. By choosing marking friendly tasks, whether it be an assessment, group work or presentation, the author reminded the reader that ill-thought out planning of marking can lead to hours of marking that isn’t beneficial to the student. He also discussed the importance of planning your focus for marking and making sure you make it clear to the students what that focus is.

Peer assessment was important when marking the lazy way and the author made it clear that if students are trained properly to do this, i.e. given clear criteria, this can be more beneficial for progress than written teacher feedback. The author also discussed an ‘appeal system’ which allowed students the chance to argue why they should obtain more marks/ better feedback which I trialed with some year 8 students and this seemed to work very well indeed.

The author reinforced the importance of allowing students the time to ‘check’ their work before handing it in. I allowed all of my classes just 3-5 minutes each time they knew I would be marking their books to check through them, they might just be checking for missing headings, for general presentation (things like headings that weren’t underlined etc.) but often the students found other bits of my marking that they had missed and had to respond to in green pen. I found this hugely beneficial to my classes and it saved me time highlighting the small things like careless spelling errors, which left me more time to focus on the actual mathematical content of their work.

Another strategy which put the onus back on the students for ensuring the quality of their work was allowing them time to peer assess their work after I had given them DIRT time. Questions like, how can this be improved? Is your working clear enough? Will Miss be able to understand that? Were questions that students were encouraged to ask each other and again, this reduced the time I would then spend going back through their books to find smaller errors.

Finally, in terms of keeping a positive and therefore purposeful atmosphere in the classroom, I found two morale boosting opportunities in for my classes that I have used across year groups and which have had a huge impact, particularly in Key Stage 3.  The first was the positive Friday phone call. Every Friday after school I told my classes I would spend a bit of time making positive phone calls. I adapted this after advice from a colleague to telling the students that I would randomly pick three students from each class and whether they had a good or bad week I would be phoning parents to tell them.  This helped hugely as it meant behaviour improved with the thought of the negative phone call but what was actually more powerful, was the chance of a positive phone call.  This not only benefitted those students who always get it right and don’t always get the praise they deserve but also those students whose behaviour could be mixed.  The possibility of getting a positive phone call home rather than a negative had a huge impact on motivation in my classroom. Secondly, the author suggested every few weeks (or every few times you marked a set of books), only using praise. I tried this with Key stage 3 a couple of times throughout the year and the positivity generated in the room when I gave the books back was infectious. Obviously this is not appropriate to use at all times but for a one off maybe once a term I found it very powerful.

I found this chapter on marking to be beneficial if not just to remind me that marking should certainly be a two way process but that if planned effectively the students should be working harder to improve their work than we are in marking it.  I feel that with the strategies discussed above together with prior planning, marking does not have to be a laborious task that takes hours and has little impact, but it can be hugely beneficial in maximizing progress and boosting morale and motivation in the classroom.

‘Lazy Language’ that changes everything

This chapter was particularly useful in focusing on the actual words said to students in my classroom. Our job as teacher requires us to talk for most of the day, whether it be to whole classes or to individual students to help them with their work but often the actual words and phrases I use are not at the forefront of my mind, when actually, the smallest change in what or how something is said to a child can stick with them for the rest of their lives!

This chapter really encouraged me to think about this in more detail than I had since my training. Firstly, the author discussed ways in which the teacher can improve motivation in the classroom. I found these methods very beneficial especially with a difficult year 9 class I had last year whose motivation and enthusiasm for maths was near rock bottom when I took them on at the beginning of the year. Firstly, the author reminded the teacher that if the students are only motivated when you are in the classroom then there is something wrong, this got me thinking about how I could adapt my teaching style so they weren’t just looking to impress me the teacher with their hard work but also each other.  It was more important for them to realise the importance of working hard and reaching goals for themselves. When completing group-work I relied heavily on using peer loyalty to get the best from my students – “the rest of your group are relying on you to get this bit done well”.  Using this type of language had a great impact on the said year 9 class.

What the author also reminded me of was the importance of the completion of work; often because of time constraints we move on very quickly and leaving work unfinished or unpolished is no good for improving self-esteem or motivation of a class that already feel they are weak in the subject. By completing work it allows students to process it and then ask questions of the teacher, almost ‘putting to bed’ each topic and therefore consolidating understanding, which in turn leads to more secure learning.

The second and most useful idea that this chapter encouraged me to reflect on was to think about how much  I was actually saying in class and whether, there were any strategies I could use to reduce this.  By limiting the teacher-talk time the author described how the time spent talking would be genuine learning time and the students would listen more intently. He gave a number of strategies to help with this, including limiting the amount of time spent talking and sharing this with the students so that they knew, or by limiting the actual number of words said, so the teacher is forced to think more carefully about the best way to describe a method or process.  Again, this would encourage the students to think more carefully about what the teacher was saying.

Finally and most importantly for my classes, was the way in which I gave praise, both written and verbal, to maximise impact. Without realising it, teachers give praise throughout the day. However, the impact this has is not always maximised, the author gave strategies to combat this. He discussed how teachers should avoid generalisations, but be specific with praise e.g. “I like the way you….”.  He also mentioned the importance of promoting successful learning experiences – “think about the skills we used when you were successful in doing…” and finally when the students are struggling, removing the blame from them can be very powerful in refocusing their thinking  – “I didn’t explain that well, can somebody else help me out?”

Conclusions

While our Learning Focus Group and I felt there was a lot in this book that we were already doing, the two chapters that really made me think about my practice were the two discussed above. Assessment and making it relevant and purposeful, while getting the balance right in terms of workload, is something I have struggled with and this really made me focus my thinking on planning more carefully for assessment rather than assessing everything for the students. This has impacted hugely on my planning and on the quality of feedback my students now receive.

The language we use as teachers is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal and reading this text and discussing it with colleagues really focused my attention on exactly what, how much and the way in which I say things to my classes, this has led me to a shift in my thinking and again, a shift in the way I plan for what I say.

The most important thing for me in my year of work on this book has been to make me re-think some of the things that I felt came naturally to me, working with colleagues and discussing these strategies made me re-assess a lot of what I took for granted in my classroom. As a busy teacher I don’t often find the time to read educational literature, however having the time to read and then discuss these strategies with colleagues, even when we didn’t feel they were appropriate for our classes, has definitely been beneficial to my practice.

References

‘The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook: How your students learn more when you teach less’ (Independent Thinking Series)  Jim Smith – Author, Ian Gilbert – Editor

Featured image: ‘Read’ by Kadaha on Pixabay, licenesed under Creative Commons CC0

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