An introduction to the concept of the student led classroom, and the factors which influenced me to put ideas into action.
In the beginning...
So firstly, a brief introduction. I became a teacher pretty late on. I was in my early thirties before I began as a volunteer in year one in Farnborough. I was soon a TA and studying for my level three qualification after following some sound advice from a fantastic head I had been working under. With a years’ experience under my belt, I began my degree through the University of Surrey, before moving to Bedford and taking up a new LSA post in Bletchley, Milton Keynes. I travelled back down south once a week in order to complete my studies. At the same time I worked weekends at High Wycombe Hospital. Life was a slog, but I had only myself to blame for not working harder during my time at school. After a difficult three years, I found myself with a 2:1 and a new TA role in central Bedford. I began my teacher training, with The Pilgrim Partnership, shortly afterwards, and qualified. My training year had been spent in a year three classroom. I was given the opportunity to work with a variety of professionals, enjoyed numerous sessions with subject specialists, outside of the classroom, and visited a number of schools where I got to grips with the different settings, teaching styles and approaches used to capture the attention of the learners who arrived in class every day.
Newly Qualified Teacher
I remember a piece of advice which I was given in the final days before qualification. I was fairly strong minded in regard to how I thought things could or should be done, and happy to share my opinions, but was told to wait a while before rocking the boat. As I entered school as an NQT in the September of 2017, I did just that, quietly allowing my classroom to evolve in the ways which most do and putting in place the generic rule set, seating plan, working walls and behaviour strategies that I've seen in tens of schools across a number of counties up and down the UK. It was not long afterwards, that my head-teacher of the time spoke with me in relation to an opportunity to take part in the 3T Erasmus Project; multi-national research aimed at highlighting the most positive aspects of time, technology and talent in the UK, Denmark and Finland. I happily agreed to take part and flew to Copenhagen with a number of pre-conceived assumptions about what I expected to encounter.
The Wake Up Call
Denmark was a revelation. I loved the fact that there was no division between primary and secondary, meaning that children had the opportunity to spend their entire school lives in one venue, consistently mixing with students of hugely varied ages and abilities. My jaw dropped as I experienced my first Danish playtime; open gates led to spaces in the city centre where children played amongst the public and kicked footballs onto roads and then waited patiently for the traffic to stop before retrieving their balls. Inside the schools, children cooked their own meals and were trusted to use knives and DT apparatus that would only normally be found in a UK secondary, from a very young age, without close supervision. Student-teacher relationships were laid back and non-formal, but seeing that in class and then watching as work took place independently, without the persistent reminders and 'nagging' that I had become so accustomed to in the UK, was my wake up call. How had this level of student autonomy been achieved at such a young age and why wasn't it being talked, or more fittingly, shouted about?
The Dawn of a New Concept
I returned to the UK a few months into the school year. My year four class were a vastly varied and diverse group, inclusive of children who spoke little English and those with SEND - I suppose you could say, pretty typical for many town centre schools. Behaviour was manageable but difficult at times and focus was severely lacking. I discussed my experiences with them and asked them which aspects of my journey they believed could be embedded into our own environment to improve their ability to learn and engage. Around the same time, I stumbled over a blog post which discussed the concept of a 'Silent Teacher Day' as a reward, where well behaved children would be given the opportunity to run the classroom for an entire day. I loved this idea, however, I had more of an interest in instilling student autonomy, responsibility and leadership as a classroom mainstay rather than as a one-off. It was now time to rock that boat. I wanted to embed the dynamics I had witnessed abroad into my own group of children and I wanted them to own the idea - taking what I hoped would be a new found confidence and maturity with them into the next school year and, frankly, the rest of their lives. I honestly believe that almost anyone can achieve big if they are given the opportunity and the tools to. It was time to change the way I did things in order to give them these tools. I must add, that my now head teacher, who played a major role in the management of the Erasmus Project that I had been involved in, supported my ideas and placed his trust in me and my approaches. Without that support and belief in change I can understand why some teachers may stagnate and become frustrated by their situations. Thank you!
The Evolution of a Concept
There was no treading water. We threw ourselves into the deep end and ran with it. My goal was to produce a team of student teachers and my first priority was to ensure that every member of the group understood what they, as an individual, had to offer. Recognition of one’s own strengths and weaknesses is a hugely important factor in group work. We began by discussing democratic voting and nominating our peers for teacher roles. The children quickly grasped that nominating a best friend to lead a handwriting task would not reap positive results for either of them if their pal couldn't accurately join. Instead, they were tasked with nominating the strongest individuals for the task; those children who encompassed a good understanding, confidence and who commanded respect. Teachers were selected in pairs in order to offer one another support and they would teach from bespoke resources which I had created prior to the lesson. Behaviour was managed in the same way in which I would manage it, with countdowns regularly used to control volume, and, initially, a points system for both positive and negative behaviour. Over the course of 2017-18, the children were given between 2/4 opportunities to present lessons a week in a variety of subjects. Whilst they taught, my TA and I would circulate as their assistants, and the group were consistently encouraged to self-regulate their learning. Discussion and sharing of knowledge was lauded and the pairing of higher and lower achievers was commonplace. As we approached the end of the school year I began to plan for my own 'Silent Teacher Day'. By this point the children were well aware of the location of the daily timetable and where they could locate resources on the computer system. A large majority of the group were hugely confident in their abilities to lead, and to aid their peers when necessary by this point, and there was a buzz about the positive team ethic that had been generated in such a short period of time. 'Silent Teacher Day' ran smoothly with the children quickly recognising that their adults would simply be observing for the day. Lessons were taught, problems were solved, arguments were resolved, consequences were put in place for those who behaved poorly and everyone went home with a huge feeling of proudness. At the end of the day we sat and discussed what had happened. Of course, there had been tricky moments, but for a class of ten year-olds to achieve what they had was proof to me that my concept had legs. During the year I had had to battle some negativity and was well aware that, for some, what I was doing was out of their comfort zone, however, clear academic and personal progress had been made and I was adamant that the process should continue.
The End of the Year
July arrived and I had been expecting to wave goodbye to my group. However, I was informed that I would be moving into year five, giving me the somewhat unusual opportunity to continue working with some of the same children for a second consecutive year. I won't go into detail here about 2018-19, but will say that the concept continued to evolve, with a greater push towards whole class autonomy rather than students simply leading from the front. After all, the 'real' class teacher plays a pivotal role in the classroom and will always be vital to the group’s progress. In July of 2019, I did, finally, see my class move along the corridor to their new home in year six. Feedback from their teachers suggests that they are a motivated and driven class, who understand the importance of taking responsibility for their own learning. The process hasn’t only been of benefit to the students; confident and proactive children go hand in hand with driven and motivated classrooms, making the task of ‘teaching’ a far more enjoyable and rewarding experience, in my opinion anyway!
This Time Around
Having recently inherited a new group of year fives, I aim for this blog to become a space where I post about some of the systems that I put in place, opportunities that I provide and updates on how the group is evolving whilst I strive to create my new group of student teachers and develop resilient, confident and self-reliant learners. I hope you will join me on my journey and perhaps utilise some of my methodology in your own classrooms along the way!