Don’t smile until Christmas. I was given this advice by tutors, colleagues and even my mum who was also a teacher. Show them who’s boss and set those firm boundaries. Woe betide anyone who might cross them. So, in my NQT year I gave it everything, I was firm, strong, strict and took no messing. Had I cracked it? Maybe. The kids behaved, they did ok but at the end of the year I overheard the nickname they’d given me. Mr Temper.
I was devastated. I realised it wasn’t my job to be their friend, or to be their favourite, but how on earth could they have enjoyed coming to school when they called their teacher Mr Temper? How could they have learned as well as possible? I needed to change something for the following September. Strict and nasty wasn’t me anyway, but I’d done it for the right reasons and was looking for the right results, it just wasn’t the right way of doing it. Children need to enjoy coming to school, they need to feel appreciated, like they will get a fair crack of the whip and I don’t think my first class will have felt they got that.
I started my second year determined to do something different. I still wanted the boundaries but wanted to apply them in a different way. I decided I would only hold them to two rules: do your best and don’t stop yourself or other people learning. We unpacked those as a class and we had a much better year. But why was that? It wasn’t because I had less rules or different ones, it’s because I took the time to get to know my students. Instead of watching them like hawks, ready to pounce on the smallest indiscretion I found myself having more opportunity to chat with them and get to know them. Consequently, I think I had what is still the best year of my teaching career. Our relationships were so much better. We understood each other, we knew where each other were coming from and what our boundaries were. I was more consistent and they responded to that.
I started thinking about this when reading cards from pupils this year and when I found some old ones in the loft. None of them told me I was great at lesson planning, none of them said I led maths really well nor that the way I catered for all learning styles really helped them. No, they commented on kindness and helping them, humour and being happy. This is is what they remember and this is what puts them in the right frame of mind to learn.
A teacher who can build good relationships, but has poorer practice will get better outcomes than a teacher who has perfect practice but can’t connect with children. We know it as teachers, from the way senior leaders interact with us. Set the boundaries and establish your classroom ethos from a place of relationship, not from domination.
That’s why every first days of the year was spent getting to know children. I always did an art activity with them in the first afternoon and sat down with each table completing my own version of it. I didn’t comment on their technique or try and teach them anything at all. We just chatted while they were kept busy. Did I miss several learning opportunities? Maybe. Did I care? No. I built the opportunity for so many more just by spending time with them as people rather than pupils.
The children reflect everything we do. This came sharply in to focus for me when some of my Year 6s taught my class for a lesson. It was like looking in a mirror, every quirk I had when I taught, they did. My phrasing, my language, my structures. They will reflect exactly the relationship we offer them. We want them to be happy and to respect us, and reach their potential and they can only do this if they feel happy, safe and secure. The best way to reach this point is to really get to know them. Not just superficially, but to laugh with them, get upset with them, get indignant with them and share experiences with them. All of that made for far better learning, for them and for me.