The Power of Praise

Less than 6 weeks ago my new Year 7 class took part in a gymnastics taster lessons. This is part of a new carousel of 8 activities we are trialling in Year 7 in order to give the students an exciting taste of what’s to come during the academic year and also help staff set accurate and aspiring targets. During the gymnastics lesson I witnessed confidence levels crash land as the girls inevitably started comparing themselves to their peers and feelings of inadequacy flooded in. No amount of encouragement or praise seemed to change things and many students said they did not feel confident enough to show any of their work to the other students, and the ones who did certainly did t produce the same quality of work as they had done 10 minutes earlier.

Six weeks on and we have just completed a unit of work on Dance, following a superheroes theme. This is the first time I have taught dance in over a decade so it’s been a good challenge for me. Knowing that our destination point would be a final small group performance in front of the whole class, with their peers assessing them, I was determined to make this happen without the confidence crisis I had witnessed in the gymnastics lesson.

This Thursday the entire group smashed it out of the park. Every single student performed with a big smile on their face, watched by the whole class and filmed by me. So how did we do it? Every lesson involved a small amount of sharing and showing ideas to another small group with at least a third of the class all performing at the same time. This gradually developed to more of the routine being performed to a larger audience with some verbal feedback being given. In support of this I made an extra effort to be more positive and precise with my praise, targeting specific students. I picked out ‘favourite bits’ at specific points, highlighting the good ideas and hard work from the students who I felt needed the biggest confidence boost, not just the usual superstars. With careful manipulation and tracking I made sure every student in the class had been awarded a star performer during the first 5 lessons within the unit of work. Finally, we had a pep talk on the day of the performance. We discussed how normal it was to be nervous and what to do if we forgot a bit or something went wrong, honing in on the whole school value of Resilience. This created a safe environment where students felt confident enough to perform, knowing that they had the full support of everyone in the room.

I was so proud of every single student in the class and I told them so. I even broke the cardinal rule and gave everyone a star performer for the lesson. I simply couldn’t choose between them. They all supported each other with smiles of encouragement, big applause and constructive feedback. I couldn’t have asked for more of them. Now we start all over again with hockey sticks in our hands next week!

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Better Together Answers

This term I’ve been exploring different ways of asking students to answer exam questions. I have a very shy and quiet group of A Level students who need more confidence in answering questions and more independence too (I keep telling them I won’t be sat next to them in the exam!). They are always reluctant participants during discussion tasks too so I wanted an activity that would encourage collaboration. Plus, I’m always on the lookout for anything that reduces marking workload so when I trialled my ‘better together answers’ idea with them it worked a treat. Here’s how it works…

Step 1organise students into groups of 2-4 (this can ability groups for differentiated questions or mixed ability groups with students taking on different roles).

Step 2 – give students an exam question to attempt. On this occasion I went for a 6 mark question on the energy continuum with my LA students, whilst the HA students worked collaboratively on a 10 mark question.

Step 3provide support/feedback. You can either support students in answering the question, for example by helping them to breakdown parts of the question or model part of the question, or provide verbal feedback once they have attempted the question.

Step 4 – ask students to read each other’s answers then collectively take the best bits from each answer and write a group answer that should be better than their original attempts.

Step 5mark the group answer and give written /verbal feedback. This is where marking workload gets reduced – instead of marking 9 answers I only had to mark 3. It also meant I was able to identify remaining gaps in knowledge/common errors within the group that still needed addressing. Win win!

I will certainly use this strategy again, but I may experiment with different groupings or types of questions to see if it remains effective. It could easily be rolled out to a GCSE class or BTEC class working on their Unit 1 exam. Once I’d marked the group answers I photocopied it so that each student had a copy of the improved ‘better together answer’ and the feedback on how to make it even better, which could be followed up with a further DIRT activity (or Aim Higher activity as we call it at Richmond).

Tips for New or Striving Middle Leaders

I’m not a new middle leader, in fact I’ve been a Head of Department for over 5 years now, but I certainly would still describe myself as striving and sometimes even struggling.

The learning journey on a leadership pathway is still as winding and undulating as any other professional journey in teaching.

You never quite know what you will meet around the next corner so how can you prepare yourself for the next challenge? Here are my top tips for anyone who is new to a middle leadership post or just a striving middle leader looking to to improve.

1. Get to know your team

It doesn’t matter if you are completely new to your team or you’ve known them for years. Leading and managing groups of people is tough and can throw up all kinds of challenges. Spend some time getting to know each person. Making individual connections is important. Find out about their previous experiences, likes and dislikes and what makes them tick in the classroom. You don’t have to become the next expert on emotional intelligence but knowing them a little better can help you to make better choices about how to handle specific situations in the future.

2. Listen

This is probably the most important tip if you want to build positive meaningful relationships with your team members. People need to feel that they have a voice. And that their voice will be heard and considered. Don’t misinterpret this advice – you do not have to do everything your team suggests. But it is important to involve them in key issues affecting the department and reach an informed decision on the next steps forward. Team members feel more valued if they have a degree of autonomy and can work collaboratively to shape the future of the department.

The format for this ‘staff voice’ opportunity will and should vary, depending on individual circumstances. For example, some discussion could take place in a whole group format at a department meeting, which is beneficial if you need to consider everyone’s thoughts and ideas within a short time frame. However it is not always the most effective method if you want to hear true opinions and consider the perspectives of every individual within the team. Some characters may dominate the discussion and some may sit back and not get involved. Your team may benefit from having some information and questions to consider beforehand to allow thinking time and a more purposeful discussion. There may be some members of your team who find it easier to communicate their ideas more clearly in written format or one-to-one discussion. Choose the ‘listening platform’ depending on the needs of your group and yourself.

3. Say thank you

The power of gratitude is underestimated and underused in schools. It is important to get the right balance. Don’t say it enough and people start to undervalued. Say it too much and it loses the intended impact (to motivate and encourage more positive and professional behaviour). Everyone in your team needs to be recognised and feel like they are making a valued contribution. So say thank you. And mean it!

4. Ask for help

It took me a long time to learn this one but asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It actually reflects a strong level of self-awareness and maturity to identify areas that you need further support with, especially if you are able to identify and articulate specific problem areas. Don’t struggle or strive alone. A certain degree of humility is respectable.

The request for help does not have to come from your line manager or SLT. Although they are experienced and well positioned to give you advice and support (they are your line manager after all) there are other sources of advice and wisdom that could give you an alternative perspective and new ideas. Use people like me – fellow middle leaders who have a few more years of striving under their belt or may have experienced a similar challenge, and can share their story and the lessons learned along the way. They may not ultimately solve your problem but they might just ignite a spark in your brain to come up with your own solution, and it always helps to know that there are others out there, experiencing the same struggles as you. Strive together!

5. Be patient

This is the one I have to most frequently remind myself about. It is important to have high expectations and aspirations for the team you lead but don’t feel that every ‘area of development’ must be developed immediately. Identify the ‘quick wins’ that can be achieved with only little time and effort and then focus on one main area of priority that requires more thought, time and effort but will have the biggest impact at the end of the term or year. To rush big changes within a department group setting may mean the change you implement will not be that effective and may negatively affect the attitude and motivation of the group members involved. Take your time to plan and discuss. Pause, breathe and reflect. Then start to build gradually – small steps!