Professor Tony Loughland and Professor Mary Ryan explain why teacher collective efficacy is a vital part of their professional learning and how its use influences students’ learning and development…
Do Not Try This Alone
When Tony and Mary started their teaching careers last century there were many lone ranger teachers in the schools where they worked. These lone rangers were often very good practitioners who preferred to work their magic in their own classroom. You didn’t often see them in the staffroom but their students were happy, the parents did not complain and the school executive were generally of the view that “if it ain’t broke it don’t need fixing”.
There were also teachers and executive staff back then who were very generous in the sharing of their practical wisdom. This generosity was much appreciated by Tony who struggled to teach students with English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D) backgrounds in inner city Sydney, especially given he had just completed six semesters of enthusiastic and expert teaching of the whole language model of teaching English K-6 in his pre-service education degree.
The collegiality of these colleagues extended to observing them in class, team teaching, sharing programs and resources, affirmation of our small wins as novice teachers and generally making us feel like we might succeed at this profession one day. Their collegiality gave us an enhanced sense of our efficacy as an individual teacher and promulgated a general sense of collective efficacy that we can teach these students well in our school.
There is strong support in the research literature that students thrive when teachers have a positive sense of their self-efficacy as individual teachers as well as a strong sense of their collective efficacy as a stage, faculty, team and school. We argue in this paper that the motivational sources of collective teacher efficacy provide a useful framework for the development and evaluation of professional learning programs at the school level.
The Compelling Evidence for Pursuing Collective Teacher Efficacy
Teachers’ sense of their collective efficacy is the second most important school-based influence on student outcomes. It has an effect size of 1.57 on student achievement according to Hattie’s synthesis of 1200 meta-analyses relating to influences on student achievement (Hattie, 2015). An effect size of this magnitude demands the attention of school leaders and researchers invested in teacher professional learning, “Given the link between collective efficacy and student achievement, understanding collective efficacy in and of itself is a worthy endeavour” (Berebitsky & Salloum, 2017, p.2). This study sought to develop an in-depth understanding of the antecedents of teacher collective efficacy in their professional learning.
Collective efficacy is an extension of the construct of self-efficacy from the broader theoretical framework of social cognition. Collective efficacy is defined as “the extent to which people believe they can work together effectively to accomplish their shared goals” (Maddux & Gosselin, 2012, p.214). Social cognition assumes reciprocal causality exists between a person and their environment, “people respond cognitively, emotionally, and behaviourally to environmental events. Also, through cognition people can exercise control over their own behaviour, which then influences not only the environment but also their cognitive, emotional, and biological states” (Maddux & Gosselin, 2012, p.199). This reciprocal causality has positive implications for teacher collective efficacy as it creates a virtuous cycle of improvement where enhanced collective efficacy contributes to student achievement which then further strengthens collective efficacy (Goddard et al., 2000).
The motivational sources of teacher collective efficacy are mastery and vicarious experiences, social persuasion, and affective states.1Teacher collective efficacy is also enhanced by a team’s ability to analyse the task ahead and make a judgment on their current level of competency to complete the task. All these characteristics represent what is regarded in the literature as effective teacher professional learning. However, teacher collective efficacy has not been commonly associated with a theory of action for teacher professional learning as it has been predominately employed as an outcome measure of the health of a school’s collective culture.
We contend that the measurable construct of teacher collective efficacy can be used as a design framework for professional learning programs as well as being an evaluative measure of its effectiveness. We acknowledge that the question of whether teacher collective efficacy is a necessary antecedent condition for effective professional learning, or a consequence of these programs remains open. We suspect that there might be reciprocal causation between teacher collective efficacy and effective professional learning where the presence of both enhances the other.
The Importance of a Professional Learning Collective
This last section of the paper examines the confluence between the motivational sources of teacher collective efficacy and the principles of effective teacher professional learning (see Table 1 below)
Sources of Teacher Collective Efficacy
Principles of Effective Teacher Professional Learning
Collaborative. Iterative. Focus on teachers’ work
Collaborative. Focus on teachers’ work
Table 1 Collective efficacy, principles and design of teacher professional learning (Loughland & Ryan, 2022, p.345)
What is missing in the hypothesised model in table 1 is an explication of the processes that create the conditions for effective collaboration. One influence on effective collaboration and learning relates to time constraint and leadership support (Park & So, 2014). We have another clue to this missing piece of the puzzle in the finding that the density of networks is more important than centrality in professional learning networks (Berebitsky & Salloum, 2017). Furthermore, the density of networks is significantly related to collective efficacy in schools (Berebitsky & Salloum, 2017). This suggests that more opportunities should be provided for purposeful learning interactions between teachers as depicted in the principles of teacher professional learning in Table 1. This suggests that effective teacher professional learning needs to involve more interaction between teachers than top-down delivery approaches that may be better suited to compulsory compliance training. We know that time for professional learning in schools may be limited so school leaders must make informed decisions on what model of professional learning to adopt in their school.
The literature strongly suggests that a model of school-based, interactive teacher professional learning that focuses on teachers’ work in the classroom is the most effective (Kennedy, 2016). In this model, outside help in the form of academics and experienced practitioners in the system, is introduced if and when they are needed.
We suspect that the arguments we have presented in this paper are not earth-shattering revelations for the readers. The principles of effective teacher professional learning are now well established in the literature. The challenge that remains is one of implementation.
The challenges we identify here are very real to many teachers who are reading this article. There is the serious challenge of finding time for meaningful professional learning in the hectic schedules of schools. There is the conflation between the legislative requirements of compulsory compliance training and the real opportunities for professional growth afforded by effective teacher professional learning. There is the pervasive legacy of the cargo cult model of professional learning where the external consultant, the latest edu-guru, the international keynoter, or the social media superstar are regarded as experts and saviours. Valuable professional learning time is spent listening to them instead of engaging with your colleague next door on meaningful pedagogical discussion on how your students’ learning may be enhanced tomorrow, next week and next term.
Our own post-graduate university courses at the Masters and Higher Degree Research levels are also not exempt from our criticism. Our MEd and EdD programs need to be more adaptive and responsive so that they might produce educators with the scholarly and practical wisdom that they can use to provide the best possible conditions for student success in the schools and systems where they work.
None of these challenges are insurmountable but they require school and system leaders to build cultures of professional learning in schools that create a sense of collective teacher efficacy among their staff. Surely that is not too much to ask in an institution whose core business is learning?
1Mastery experiences are those that focus on developing instructional skills and capabilities. The important goal of improving student outcomes in wellbeing and achievement is at the forefront. Vicarious experiences are those whereby teachers and leaders learn from each other. Social persuasion involves a shared sense of purpose and vision, and a collaborative eﬀort to achieve those goals. Aﬀective states are the social-emotional aspects that underpin eﬀective relationships, including trust, respect and dialogic approaches that value all voices and contributions. A positive relationship between these motivational constructs and collaborative professional learning has been found (Durksen et al. 2017).
NB- Sections of this text have been taken from Tony and Mary’s published journal article (Loughland & Ryan, 2022) that can be found here https://doi.org/10.1080/19415257.2020.1711801 (available to access through an academic institution or paid download)
Goddard, R. D., Hoy, W. K., & Hoy, A. W. (2000). Collective teacher efficacy: Its meaning, measure, and impact on student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 37(2), 479-507. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312037002479
Hattie, J. (2015). The applicability of Visible Learning to higher education. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(1), 79-91. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000021
Loughland, T., & Ryan, M. (2022). Beyond the measures: the antecedents of teacher collective efficacy in professional learning. Professional Development in Education, 48(2), 343-352. https://doi.org/10.1080/19415257.2020.1711801
Maddux, J. E., & Gosselin, J. T. (2012). Self-Efficacy. In M. R. Leary & J. P. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of Self and Identity. Second Edition (Second ed., pp. 198-224). The Guildford Press.
Park, M., & So, K. (2014). Opportunities and Challenges for Teacher Professional Development: A Case of Collaborative Learning Community in South Korea. International education studies, 7(7), 96-108.
Tony Loughland is an Associate Professor and Deputy Head of School (Research) in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales.
Tony is an experienced educator who likes to think that theory should be the plaything of practice. He agrees with Marx’s assertion that philosophy should be used to not only interpret the world but to try to change it. Tony subscribes to Marx as he believes this orientation towards research is vital in a world threatened by anthropocentric climate change. Tony is currently leading projects on using AI for citizens’ informed participation in urban development, the provision of staffing for rural and remote areas in NSW and on Graduate Ready Schools.
Mary Ryan is Professor and Executive Dean of Education and Arts at Australian Catholic University. Her research is in the areas of writing pedagogy and assessment, teachers’ work in, and preparation for, diverse classrooms, reflexive learning and practice, and reflective writing. She was formerly a primary teacher and lecturer in literacy and English and has an extensive record of program development in universities and professional learning for teachers. Her funded research projects are in the areas of classroom writing and preparing teachers to teach for diversity to break the cycle of disadvantage.
Rose Dixon gives some practical advice on how to support students with ADHD . . .
WHAT IS ADHD?
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects around 9.4% of children under the age of 18. ADHD is one of the most commonly diagnosed conditions in children (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015). The diagnostic term attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) refers to individuals who display patterns of inattention, impulsivity, and overactive behavior that interfere with daily functioning (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) V (APA, 2013) criteria for diagnosing ADHD list three types of ADHD and the accompanying characteristics.
Formerly referred to as ADD, students with inattentive ADHD display symptoms of inattention, but do not possess symptoms of hyperactivity or impulsivity. This is the type of ADHD most commonly found in girls. As students with this type of ADHD don’t exhibit the typical high energy and impulsive behaviours, they can often be under identified.
This subset of ADHD displays symptoms of impulsivity or hyperactivity but does not display symptoms of inattention.
People with combined ADHD display symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.
The combined type of ADHD is characterised by symptoms of both inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity. Students with combined type ADHD exhibit symptoms of inattention such as struggling to concentrate on their work, difficulty following instructions, appearing distracted, forgetfulness, and misplacing items. They also exhibit hyperactive and impulsive symptoms such as being unable to sit still, restlessness, talkativeness, high energy levels, and interrupting others.
For all three types, these characteristics have to be present before twelve years of age and be manifested in school and out of school settings. They must also have adverse effects on academic performance, occupational success, or social-emotional development (APA, 2013). To add to the complexity of the diagnosis, children with ADHD are also likely to have co- existing emotional, behavioural, developmental, learning, or physical conditions (Wolraich & DuPaul, 2010).
Students who have ADHD face many challenges in school. The core symptoms make adapting to behavioural expectations and norms at school very difficult, often resulting in academic problems and peer exclusion (de Boer &Pijl, 2016; Mikami, 2010). Students with ADHD commonly have co-occurring problems such as anxiety, depression and learning disabilities. All predict further school impairment (Larson, Russ, Kahn, & Halfon, 2011; Taanila et al., 2014).
DIAGNOSIS OF ADHD
ADHD is more commonly diagnosed in boys than girls, usually in a ratio of four to one, but research into ADHD in adulthood suggests an almost equal balance between men and women (Barkley & Fischer, 2008). A lower diagnosis rate among females in childhood can result because girls with ADHD are more likely than boys to have the inattentive form of ADHD and are less likely to show obvious problems or challenging behaviours.
Whilst students with ADHD need to be diagnosed by a medical professional, teachers may notice some of the following behaviours usually related to the three different types.
Predominantly inattentive type
The student may:
Submit inappropriate work or inaccurate work
Have difficulty attending to conversations, activities or tasks
Be easily distracted
Have difficulty following directions
Frequently lose materials and/or have difficulty organising tasks and materials
Predominantly hyperactive/impulsive type
The student may:
Appear to be in constant motion
Frequently fidget and move in their seat
Become restless during quiet activities
Leave their seat when expected to remain seated
Interrupt others and classroom activities
Talk excessively and/or fail to follow classroom procedures
TREATMENT FOR ADHD
While there is no cure for ADHD, and it can persist into adulthood (Barkley & Fischer,2008), evidence- based treatment can help a great deal with symptoms (Moore et al, 2018).
Treatment typically involves medications, behavioural and/or educational interventions. Given the often poor school outcomes of students, a growing number of studies have trialled school-based interventions for ADHD (van Krayenoord, Waterworth & Brady,2014) including the daily report card (DRC), where the child is set, and awarded for achieving, specific behavioural targets; academic interventions which focus on antecedents of problems; organisational skills training; and social skills training.(Chronis, Jones, & Raggi, 2006; Evans, Owens, Wymbs, & Ray, 2018).
USEFUL CLASSROOM STRATEGIES TO SUPPORT STUDENTS FROM YEARS 1 – 6 WITH ADHD
Teachers can employ evidence-based strategies in three key areas which have demonstrated positive outcomes. These include classroom management, organisation training and social skills training.
1 Evidence-based proactive strategies which improve behaviour
The behavioural classroom management approach encourages a student’s positive behaviours in the classroom, through a reward system or a daily report card, and discourages their negative behaviours. This teacher-led approach has been shown to influence student behaviour in a constructive manner, increasing academic engagement. Although tested mostly in primary schools, behavioural classroom management has been shown to work for students of all ages (Evan, Owens & Burford, 2014; Harrison, Burford, Evans & Owens, 2013)
Develop routines around homework and classroom activities. You will need to teach and reteach these routines and positively reinforce the student when they follow them.
Give praise and rewards when rules are followed.
2 Organisational training
Organisational training teaches students time management, planning skills, and ways to keep school materials organized in order to optimize student learning and reduce distractions. This management strategy has been tested with children and adolescents (Kofler et al, 2011).
These strategies can include:
Giving clear, effective directions or commands. Usually only give one command at a time and use a student’s name in the command.
Using Visuals – Place charts around with the Rules and Routines on them
Allowing breaks – for children with ADHD, paying attention takes extra effort and can be very tiring.
Allow time to move and exercise
Teacher cues for transition between activities, such as claps or music
Extra books – a set at home and a set at school
Use of calendars
Close to teacher
Away from distractions (e.g., electric pencil sharpener)
Away from windows, the door and other high traffic areas
Avoiding bright display areas at the front of the room or in the group teaching area
Assignments and Homework
Make assignments clear – check with the student to see if they understand what they need to do
Provide choices to show mastery (for example, let the student choose among written essay, oral report, online quiz, or hands-on project)
Make sure assignments are not long and repetitive. Shorter assignments that provide a little challenge without being too hard may work well
Be creative – creativity is a strength for students with ADHD
Use organisational tools, such as a homework folder, to limit the number of things the child has to track.
Ask another student, if possible, to be a homework partner
3 Evidence based Social Skills Training
Social skills training allows children and adults to acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need to recognise and manage their emotions, demonstrate caring and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions and handle challenging situations constructively. Many available programs provide instruction in and opportunities to practise, apply and be recognised for using social skills. This type of learning is fundamental not only to children’s social and emotional development but also to their health, ethical development, citizenship, motivation to achieve and academic learning (Evan, Owens & Bunford, 2014).
Research shows that large numbers of children with ADHD are contending with significant social, emotional and mental health barriers to their success in school and life (Kofler et al, 2018). In addition, some children with ADHD engage in challenging behaviours that teachers must address in order to provide high quality instruction. Schools can use a variety of strategies to help students improve their emotional well-being and connectedness with others. Providing children with well managed learning environments and instruction in social skills addresses many of these learning barriers. It does so by enhancing school attachment, reducing risky behaviours, promoting positive development, and positively influencing academic achievement. Well-implemented social skills training is associated with the following outcomes:
Better academic performance
Achievement scores an average of 11 percentile points higher than students who did not receive social skills training
Improved attitudes and behaviours
Greater motivation to learn
Deeper commitment to school
Increased time devoted to schoolwork, and better classroom behaviour.
Happier/ fewer instances of mental health disorders (e.g. depression)
The evidence-based strategies that have been discussed in this paper can usually be implemented in the Year 1-6 classroom. They address the core symptoms of ADHD such as the ability to pay attention, conflict with teachers and peers, challenges with executive function, inattention symptoms, poor organisation skills and self-esteem. However, school- based interventions should target the outcomes identified as most important to the students and their families. Other studies have found that positive teacher- child relationships and good home-school relationships (Gwernan-Jones et al, 2015) and advocacy for the student may be the strongest intervention and have the greatest impact on student’s outcomes.
Even if you find it difficult to implement the adjustments in the three areas outlined above, just maintaining good relationships with the students and their families can be a very strong starting point.
American Psychiatric Association, D., & American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (Vol. 5, No. 5). Washington, DC: American psychiatric association.
Barkley, R. A., Fischer, M. (2008). ADHD in adults: What the science says. New York, NY: Guilford. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Data and statistics about ADHD.
Chronis, A. M., Jones, H. A., & Raggi, V. L. (2006). Evidence-based psychosocial treatments for children and adolescents with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Clinical psychology review, 26(4), 486-502.
de Boer, A., & Pijl, S. J. (2016). The acceptance and rejection of peers with ADHD and ASD in general secondary education. The Journal of Educational Research, 109(3), 325-332.
Durlak J. A., Domitrovich C. E., Weissberg R. P., and Gullotta T. P. (Eds.) Handbook of social and emotional learning: Research and practice. New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2014.
Durlak J. A., Weissberg R. P., Dymnicki A. B., Taylor R. D., and Schellinger K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 2011; 82: 405-432.
Evans S, Owens J, Bunford N. Evidence-based psychosocial treatments for children and adolescents with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology 2014;43(4):527-551
Evans, S. W., Owens, J. S., Wymbs, B. T., & Ray, A. R. (2018). Evidence-based psychosocial treatments for children and adolescents with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 47(2), 157-198.
Gwernan-Jones, R., Moore, D. A., Garside, R., Richardson, M., Thompson-Coon, J., Rogers, M., et al. (2015). ADHD, parent perspectives and parent–teacher relationships: Grounds for conflict. British Journal of SpecialEducation, 42(3), 279–300.
Harrison JR, Bunford N, Evans SW, Owens JS. Educational accommodations for students with behavioral challenges: A systematic review of the literature. Review of Educational Research 2013;83(4):551-97.
Kofler, M. J., Rapport, M. D., Bolden, J., Sarver, D. E., Raiker, J. S., & Alderson, R. M. (2011). Working memory deficits and social problems in children with ADHD. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 39, 805-817.
Kofler, M. J., Sarver, D. E., Harmon, S. L., Moltisanti, A., Aduen, P. A., Soto, E. F., & Ferretti, N. (2018). Working memory and organizational skills problems in ADHD. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines, 59(1), 57–67.
Larson, K., Russ, S. A., Kahn, R. S., & Halfon, N. (2011). Patterns of comorbidity, functioning, and service use for US children with ADHD, 2007. Pediatrics, 127(3), 462-470.
Mikami, A. Y. (2010). The importance of friendship for youth with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Clinical child and family psychology review, 13, 181-198.
Moore DA, Russell AE, Matthews J, Ford TJ, Rogers M, Ukoumunne OC, et al. School-based interventions for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A systematic review with multiple synthesis methods. Review of Education. Published online October 18, 2018.
Perry, R. C., Ford, T. J., O’Mahen, H., & Russell, A. E. (2021). Prioritising targets for school-based ADHD interventions: a Delphi survey. School Mental Health, 13(2), 235-249.
Taanila, A., Ebeling, H., Tiihala, M., Kaakinen, M., Moilanen, I., Hurtig, T., & Yliherva, A. (2014). Association between childhood specific learning difficulties and school performance in adolescents with and without ADHD symptoms: a 16-year follow-up. Journal of Attention Disorders, 18(1), 61-72.
van Kraayenoord, C. E., Waterworth, D., & Brady, T. (2014). Responding to individual differences in inclusive classrooms in Australia. Journal of International Special Needs Education, 17(2), 48-59.
Wolraich, M. L., & DuPaul, G. J. (2010). ADHD Diagnosis and Management: A Practical Guide for the Clinic and the Classroom. Brookes Publishing Company. PO Box 10624, Baltimore, MD 21285.
Dr Roselyn Dixon has been a special education teacher in both mainstream and special education settings in primary and secondary schools. Rose has been in academia and involved with Inclusive Education for more than 25 years. She has published research in the fields of social skills and behavioural interventions for people with a range of disabilities including students with Oppositional Defiance Disorders and Autism.
She has been actively involved in examining the relationship between digital technologies and pedagogy in special education and inclusive classrooms for students with Autism as well as the implications of the NDIS on people with disabilities in rural and remote communities. Rose is an Honorary Associate Professor at the School of Education, University of Wollongong, where she was previously the Academic Director of Inclusive and Special Education. She continues to support doctoral students in Inclusive and Special education with a focus on Autism.
Steve Henry offers some reflections on the challenges faced by English teachers in a time when social media has an all-encompassing influence on the students they seek to engage . . .
It was 2011. An English teacher in Sydney woke up, brewed his coffee and enjoyed a podcast as he drove his little white Yaris to work. Things seemed normal as he tried to avoid eye contact with the ‘talker’ at the sign-on book and then looked hopefully at the table in the English staffroom for any sign of baked goods. Period 1, his Year 10 class wandered in and sat down, but something was different.
The English teacher looked closely, they seemed . . . glazed. ‘Krispy Kreme students’ he thought.
‘You guys lose a bit of sleep last night?’ he asked.
They stared back at him like stoned goldfish.
Later he shared his donut joke with a younger teacher.
‘Oh, you just need to click the ‘like’ button,’ she said.
‘What’s a ‘like’ button?’
The next day he found a big thumbs up button at the front of the room. Whenever a student volunteered an answer or read out some of their writing he’d sidle over to it, tap it, and wow wouldn’t their ears perk up? Wouldn’t their eyes light up? What was there not to like about the ‘like’ button?
Still, he couldn’t help but notice that the ‘like’ button was placed front and centre of the room. Was it possible to be jealous of a button?
Agents of Online Culture
Someone has left open the door to our teenagers’ rooms and Online Culture Agents have snuck in and set up camp. They sing their seductive little TikTok songs, the glow of their campfire screens keeps our teens awake and all the talk is of Snapchat romances and insta-friendships. Their culture is replete with its own filters, rituals, skillsets and values. They are sneaky good.
Now when our teenagers arrive at their classroom some of them behave as if they are tourists.
Glazed. Homesick for their online world.
We become what we behold (Father John Culkin)
Warning: Mixed metaphors ahead.
In 2021, Facebook admitted that Instagram was toxic for teenage girls. A Roy Morgan survey showed that Australian teenage girls on average spend nearly two hours a day on social media (Morgan, 2018). American adults touch their phones 2,617 times a day (Naftulin, 2016). Classes have fallen silent, fake news now travels six times faster on Twitter than real news. COVID-19 has exacerbated the already parlous mental wellbeing of teens who are being hospitalised for self-harm in record numbers (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2023). Social media notifications are no longer novelties, they are little devils that demand to be fed at all times. The technology of distraction has ceased being a home invader – it’s now bringing us coffee so we can stay up and watch another YouTube clip or wait for another ‘like’. The algorithm that baits the social media hooks has determined that the negative emotions of outrage and anger will keep us right there . . . stoned goldfish.
Behold, our students are becoming what they are beholding.
Martin Gurri and Jonathan Haidt have talked about the way social media can be a type of ‘universal solvent’ (Haidt, 2022) at once dissolving many of the barriers behind which abuse and injustice have lain hidden but also eating away at the mortar of institutional trust and challenging the significance of those shared rituals that are foundational to our collective values and identity. We tend to consider these things in isolation, the danger of Instagram, the increasing pace of life, mobile phones for children, invasive educational data, notifications and family filters. A sociologist would consider the way online culture has sought to fill a young person’s life with ‘entertainment’, removing time previously spent bored or in reverie or imaginative play or in face-to-face communication with family and friends. A psychologist would be rightly concerned at the impact of social media on the mental health of our young people, many of whom are exhausted by their inability to escape from the online world of heightened emotional response, cyber bullying, hyper-alertness and fractured attention. Parents worry about the lurking dangers of online predators and the closed bedroom doors of the online world their teens inhabit.
An English teacher has concerns as well, not just at the decay of basic skills and long-form reading, but with the subtle forms of narcissism and objectification that are entrenched in the online communication skillset.
The year is 2022. Our teacher is back in the Yaris and back to the classroom after two years of pandemic disruption and wretched attempts at getting students to speak or participate in zoom classrooms. He organises his Year 9 class into randomised groups to view and discuss film clips. Most groups work well, laughing and talking about the clip of Don and Peggy from Madmen, or the ‘Commander of the Felix Legions’ from Gladiator, or the ‘make him an offer he can’t refuse’ Godfather clip. But one group of boys sits there and stares awkwardly at one another . . . for five minutes, for ten minutes.
‘Come on you lot, get talking, get to work.’
‘But we don’t know each other sir. Can’t we work with our friends?’
‘No, you can’t. Introduce yourselves, ask questions, speak, talk, get at it.’
They sit there in their misery. ‘Like glassy little billiard balls’, he thinks to himself.
Back in the staffroom he relates his experience.
One teacher says that she changes the seating plan of her Year 8 class around every three weeks for this very reason.
Another English teacher, Mr Brennan (likewise a Yaris owner), explains that he has developed a series of sayings in reaction to the student obsession with staying connected.
‘No Snapchat, no backchat. We don’t Facebook, we face our books. Forget social media, try antisocial media.’ The ‘Brennanism’ is born.
Perhaps when Marshall McLuhan (1964) declared that ‘The medium is the message’ he envisaged something of what technology might bring with it. I suspect, however, that even he would be surprised at the seductive weight of both medium and message of online culture: stealing time and focus and, increasingly, our young people’s ability to think critically, relate open heartedly and listen carefully.
The skills and values of the English classroom
Speaking and Listening
Most English classrooms are set up to facilitate discussion. The classic ‘double horseshoe’ where students all face each other, or desks arranged in small groups. Students venture their opinions in an environment where random thoughts, whimsicality, philosophical musings, wry humour and tentative speculations are all welcomed as grist for the collective mill. The skill is in catching new ideas and putting them into words, developing deeper, more complex thinking and new perspectives and giving them shape, testing them out. The underlying values are the dignity and worth of each individual, a recognition that the class is better for the input of a variety of students.
What about formal debating? Two teams are sent off with a topic. They need to adopt a firm position on the topic, clarify and define, research and discuss, develop coherent arguments and summaries, make notes and collaborate. Then, they face their classmates and they disagree, armed with rational argument and clever rhetoric. They listen carefully to opposition points and do their best to counter and rebut. After the debate is over, they listen to the adjudication, accept defeat graciously or celebrate victory, thank each other and then sit down as colleagues. The formal debate privileges the skills of rationality, well-chosen example, and collaborative effort, it insists that an opposition argument is worth careful attention and the person who offers it is not to be mocked or belittled or sneered at. A debate takes students deep into relevant topics and asks them to wrestle with new ideas and possible solutions to current issues.
There are online forums and courses that aim to foster these same skills. However, the mediation of the screen and the potential for an almost unlimited audience immediately introduces troubling elements of anonymity, deception and spiteful feedback. Cacophony becomes default. Many apps have, as their foundational principle, the notion that someone else is only worth listening to, or engaging with, if they look cool, or interesting, or beautiful . . . hey, otherwise, just move on, just swipe left (or right, our English teacher isn’t sure). The fast pace of the medium means that for the most part, students don’t have the time or opportunity to formulate coherent rational arguments and, even if they did, they couldn’t be sure that they would be listened to. No, better, to shout, better the loud insult than the nuanced argument, better to sell product as an influencer with hundreds of thousands of subscribers than to lose a debate.
Reading and Writing
It’s not all Krispy Kreme and billiards for our English teacher however. There are still many of THOSE moments, when a class is caught up in a story or play, drawing a collective breath when the rock plummets towards Piggy, screwing up their faces and trying not to leak at the end of The Book Thief. They walk out of the classroom taller, sadder, wiser, more reflective, more at one with their fellow students.
When a teacher challenges a class to read a Dickens novel, when they ask them to dig deeper into the poetry of Plath or Oodgeroo, they are asserting a set of values: that a novel is worth investing hours of their time into because it will cause them to think differently about life and people, that time spent in different worlds where they are not the centre of attention is well spent indeed.
Research has shown that reading long form fiction creates new neural pathways, strengthening brain activity, it reduces stress, amplifies our ability to empathise and helps alleviate symptoms of depression (Stanborough, 2019). The reading and study of poetry will likewise reward them, bring them to an understanding of how beautiful language can be when it harmonises form and freedom, careful word choice and unspeakable emotion, painful history and glimmers of hope and beauty, immortal visions and flickering mortality.
Our teacher suspects that the Online Agents are using books for their campfires. But where would they get them from? So many bookshops have closed.
‘Two old people are sitting on their porch. There’s a table between them and there is a pot of tea and some other item on the table. Write down what you see in your mind’s eye, the detail.’ Our English teacher begins another creative writing lesson. Thirty students, all in their school uniform have walked in, but within two minutes, each of them is developing a unique world, giving imaginative shape and texture to the sketched image their teacher has presented them with. The object on the table? A postcard, a gun, a porcelain dog, a newspaper, a linen bag, a single flower, a water pipe, a seashell, a fortune cookie, a pair of broken glasses, an empty photo frame. The students read out their pieces, listen, laugh, applaud or sit there, puzzled. No answer is dismissed, these are beginnings of stories and histories. They move on, experimenting with setting, form, character and plot.
Later that year, our teacher leads the students through the art of the formal essay. Some of them complain that they are confused. ‘Good’, he answers. ‘Stay in that valley until you find clarity, then write your way out.’
The way we read has changed with the broken-dam-deluge of information that overwhelms us. We scan text for things of immediate interest, skimming texts instead of engaging with them. The algorithm that filters texts for our consumption is not geared for nuanced perspectives, worthy literature or balanced world view and the deep focus and flow states that are an enriching part of novel reading are sacrificed for the assumption that anything that doesn’t capture our attention in the first few seconds is of lesser value. Johann Hari (2022) tells us that this move away from sustained reading ‘creates a different relationship with reading. It stops being a form of pleasurable immersion in another world and becomes more like dashing around a busy supermarket to grab what you need and then get out again.’
The corporate values that are the impulse of major media corporations also provide the impetus for the writing that succeeds in this culture: fast, emotionally manipulative, accusatory, spin-laden and catchy. Online Culture (OC) creates space for important conversations and shines its light into dark corners of abuse and prejudice, but it is also the breeding ground for shallow comparison and envy, untested theories and obvious untruth. While the immediate potential of a world-wide audience has its egalitarian element, there is considerable risk for today’s shy teen who writes themselves onto the screen and then sits there, tragically isolated in the 24/7 glare, unable to hide from cyber nasties and trolls.
Why have we accepted the hairy-chested intrusion of surveillance capitalism and the self-referential algorithm into the lives of our children? These cultural bullies seek to elbow physical reality aside and replace the contemplative and creative disciplines of reading and writing with grunting emojis, narcissistic posing and a billion snippets of vacuous trivia and forgettable TikTok performances. If we really think our children are somehow safe from the trillion-dollar social media culture agents then perhaps we should ask ourselves how well we’ve done with it, whether we, the ‘adults in the room’ have been able to resist the constant distractions that have fractured our attention and fostered our obsessive focus on small screens on trains.
A classroom counterstep
Where does all of this leave our teacher? Tasked with teaching a set of skills, passing on a love of literature and fostering the accompanying values that are increasingly being relegated to the margins of a dominant OC, he feels that his subject, far from being regarded as central to learning and life, is now becoming niche. He feels like one of those guerrilla gardeners, sneaking into the concrete landscapes that OC agents have constructed in his students’ lives, hoping to plant some fragile little seed.
Or, perhaps he should just join them. Trade up for a car that is more corporate and a job that is more in tune with the pace and monetised values of the online culture.
Or perhaps English teaching is now more important than ever
Every culture, every religion or system of thought, every artistic or artisanal endeavour, every scientific breakthrough relies on the teacher student nexus to survive into the next generation. Mentors and mentees, masters and apprentices, professors and students, teachers and disciples, the aged and the young, the key is to be found not in the method, but in the nature of that ageless, archetypal relationship. Set against the emotional fragility or explosive echo chambers of online connections, are the robust interactions between a teacher and student. The best learning has always been cocooned within the teacher student relationship. My contentions here are that:
English teaching is increasingly a counter cultural activity.
The antidote to some of the damage done by online culture can be found within the stable learning environment of the teacher student relationship. Culture, skills and knowledge mediated not by screen or algorithm, but by a teacher.
Healthy teacher student relationships exist when a student is challenged to grow and learn but can find support in the process. They exist where students are celebrated for their uniqueness and are expected to rejoice in the difference of others and the richness that brings. They exist when students are helped towards clarity, not popularity. Disagreement and argument will naturally exist within a classroom, but a robust student teacher connection will humanise it and provide students with avenues for asserting their perspective, listening to others and growing in understanding. Texts are introduced into the relationship, not with the aim of added screentime or the promotion of moral superiority, but with the hope they will touch something deep in the student and provoke self-reflection, greater wisdom and empathy. Healthy teacher student relationships include moments of catharsis, they develop their own rituals and routines and foster resilience. They feel safe and inspiring in equal measure, they mitigate against extremes, they force students to recognise their own knowledge and skill deficit and challenge them into pathways of growth. The dynamics of classroom relationships requires students to submit to authority and requires authority to bow to the needs of students. Tasks are attempted, the syllabus is followed, the imagination is engaged, mistakes are made, reflection is required, apologies are offered, lessons are learned, jokes are laughed at, skills are cultivated, day after day, year after year.
This face-to-face relationship remains the best model we have for passing on the best we have to offer to all of the next generation, regardless of social position.
In a nutshell, our teachers, not our textbooks, are the embodiment of the finest things that we want for our next generation. They lead, they serve.
This is why our teacher should puff out his chest when he wakes up and gets into his Yaris tomorrow morning. English teaching (and all teaching) is more important now than ever. The challenges faced are of a different scale and the task is increasingly difficult but more urgent. Educational policy must not first be one of data or corporate values but must recognise that the student teacher relationship must be privileged.
And if he walks into Year 9 and sees a student take out their phone he will say, ‘Put that away and get ready to listen carefully, to read and think deeply, speak thoughtfully and write beautifully.’ He will mutter his favourite Brennanism, ‘Instagram? I don’t give a damn’ to himself and then say to the class:
‘Alright everyone, today we are going to start with this question. In The Book Thief, when Liesel Meminger’s world descends into chaos, why is it that she chooses books to steal? Eh? Why books?’
*This article was originally published in mETAphor in 2022
Haidt, J., (2022, May) Why the Past 10 Years of American Life have been Uniquely StupidThe Atlantic, May 2022
Hari, J., (2022, January ) Stolen Focus Bloomsbury Publishing
McLuhan, M., (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,
Steve Henry is currently Head Teacher of English at Cherrybrook Technology High School and has taught senior English for many years. Steve has been the Supervisor of Marking in the Texts and Human Experiences module.
He has been involved in writing study guides and articles for the Sydney Morning Herald and for the English Teachers’ Association (ETA) on a range of topics.
Steve has a love for creative and innovative writing.
Jackie Manuel reflects on the nature of, and importance of, teaching reading in Secondary English. She encourages teachers to utilise their students’ experiences to increase their engagement in reading for pleasure . . .
When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young. Maya Angelou
As English teachers, one of our abiding aspirations is to foster our students’ intrinsic motivation to read. We know that this intrinsic motivation is sparked when students derive personal rewards, satisfaction and enjoyment from their growing command and confident use of language. We also know that the motivation to read depends on a purpose that has meaning for the individual (cf. Dickenson, 2014).
We may read for myriad reasons including for pleasure, curiosity, information, connection, solace or sanctuary, or to be transported beyond the ordinary. So, in every sense, the act of reading can be understood as part of the identity work that lies at the heart of English.
Some decades ago, Scholes (1985) encapsulated this relationship between language, reading, writing and identity when he argued that:
… reading and writing are important because we read and write our world as well as our texts and are read and written by them in turn. Texts are places where power and weakness become visible and discussable, where learning and ignorance manifest themselves, where the structures that enable and constrain our thoughts and actions become palpable. This is why the humble subject ‘English’ is so important (p. xi).
His insights still resonate, perhaps with even greater force in our fast-faced, technology-driven, language-dense and image-laden context. The assumptions embedded in this rationale are worth considering for their enduring relevance and include:
a view of students as active meaning-makers, reading and writing their identity and their world;
the symbiotic relationship between reading, writing, interiority and agency;
reading and writing as social and communal (‘our’ / ‘we’) as well as individual pursuits; and
the political implications of reading and writing for expanding and empowering, or conversely, constraining ‘our thoughts and actions’.
In this article, I share some reflections on teaching reading in secondary English. These reflections formed part of the first session of the 2022 Centre for Professional Learning Secondary English Conference.
Starting with the self
Garth Boomer, the eminent Australian educator, wrote that:
[w]e are in hard times, when money and imagination is short; patience must be long. In order to make struggle and survival possible, we need to make explicit to ourselves and others (in so far as we can) the way the world is wagging (1991, n.p.).
It may come as a surprise to know that Boomer made this observation thirty-two years ago (1991). That his words speak to our present moment perhaps suggests the extent to which ‘struggle and survival’ are ever-present to some extent in our work as English teachers. Boomer’s message about the way through is plain: start with (and keep returning to) the self as the literal and metaphorical ‘still point’ that can enable us to sustain our passion, drive and aspirations. Articulating our philosophy, beliefs and values can reconnect us with those generative forces that shaped our initial decision to teach. It can also clarify and fortify our purpose when navigating ‘hard times’.
When it comes to reading, ‘starting with the self’ means taking the time to reflect on our own practices, preferences and attitudes. The prompts below may assist you and your students to consider the characteristics of your reading lives and to then explore the implications of your responses for your teaching and students’ learning.
Your reading life: Reflection prompts
Do you read?
Do you read regularly beyond the administrative and assessment demands of work?
If so, how often do you read and what kinds of reading to you prefer?
How would you describe yourself as a reader?
What conditions do you require to read?
Do you believe reading for pleasure is important. If so, why? If not, why not?
Do you read to/with your students? If so, how often?
Do you share your reading experiences, practices and preferences with others, including students?
Do you prefer to read on a device or read a hard copy, or a combination of both?
As teachers, our philosophy necessarily includes, and indeed influences, our pedagogical beliefs and actions. For this reason, it is also instructive to reflect on our current approach to teaching reading by asking questions such as those suggested here.
Teaching reading: Reflection prompts
What is your rationale and philosophy for teaching reading?
Do you make visible, regular time in class for reading?
How much of the in-class reading material is selected by you?
Do students have any choice in what they read in English?
Do you know what your students’ reading habits and preferences are?
How much student reading is tied to assessment and why?
Do students engage in reading a diverse range of texts?
Do students have the opportunity to read for pleasure and do you explicitly model and encourage this?
What are your strategies for supporting disengaged, reluctant or resistant readers?
Do students usually have a purpose for reading that is explicitly linked to their worlds?
Is there class time available for individual and/or shared reading and discussion about reading that is not linked to assessment?
Do your students prefer reading on devices or with a hard copy, or a combination of both?
Implicit in a number of these reflection prompts is the premise that learning best occurs when we activate, and then harness, the capital each learner brings to new situations or contexts. By capital, I mean the store of distinctive personal knowledge, skills and understandings shaped by:
passions and interests;
The work of Gee (1996) offers additional insights into the value of students’ language and experience capital – what he terms ‘Primary Discourses’ – as the basis for acquiring skills and knowledge to meet the more formal language demands of the classroom and society more broadly (Secondary Discourses). As Gee explains, Discourses are:
ways of being in the world, or forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, gestures, attitudes and social identities … A Discourse is a sort of identity kit, which comes complete with the appropriate … instructions on how to act, talk, and often write, so as to take on a particular social role that others will recognise (1996, p. 127).
He describes Primary discourses as ‘those to which people are apprenticed early in life … as members of particular families within their sociocultural settings … [They] constitute our first social identity. They form our initial taken-for-granted understandings of who we are’ (Gee,1996, p. 127).
In contrast, Secondary Discourses ‘are those to which people are apprenticed as part of their socialisations within various … groups and institutions outside early home and peer-group socialisation … They constitute the meaningfulness of our ‘public’ (more formal) acts’ (Gee, 1996, p. 137).
Students come to secondary school with ownership of, and confidence in, using the Primary Discourses they have developed through their everyday lives beyond school. Success in school, however, requires the increasing mastery of Secondary Discourses. These, for example, are the specialist discourses of subjects, essays, assessments and examinations. These discourses must be taught and learned.
Effective pedagogy recognises and builds on a student’s Primary Discourses as the foundation for initiating them into the necessary Secondary Discourses of the worlds of school, work and society more broadly. This, in turn, develops students’ understanding of how language functions to produce, reproduce or challenge power; and to exclude, include or marginalise. Without skill and mastery in language, we can be denied entry to the layered structures and systems of society.
A critical component of teaching, then, is to create connections between a student’s Primary Discourses – their unique lived experience, passions and interests, memories, observations, and imagination – and the generally unfamiliar Secondary Discourses we are aiming to equip them with through our teaching.
In the discussion that follows, I explore this idea of student capital, along with a number of principles and conditions for optimising students’ engagement with the ‘magic world’ of reading.
The benefits of reading
We have plenty of research evidence to guide us in our approach to teaching reading in secondary English. Foremost is the understanding that ‘reading for pleasure has the most powerful positive impact of any factor on a young person’s life chances. So if you want to change their lives, make books and reading central to everything you do. And let them enjoy it’ (Kohn, n.d.).
There is a host of cognitive and affective benefits of reading – especially reading fiction for pleasure. Emerging research in neuroscience, for example, points to the far-reaching, positive impact of reading fiction on brain development, personality, Theory of Mind, social and emotional intelligence, and decision-making (Berns, 2022; Zunshine, 2006).
The Centre for Youth Literature (CYL, 2009) reports that from studies of the brain, neuroscience has ‘discovered that dynamic activity in the brain continues (beyond the age of six, when the brain is already 95% of its adult size) and the thickening of the thinking part of the brain doesn’t peak until around 11 years of age in girls, and 12 in boys’ (p. 12). Thus, at the time when students are making the transition from primary to secondary school, the neural pathways and connections that are stimulated will continue to grow, while those that are not will be thwarted:
[s]o, if 10 to 13-year-olds are not reading for pleasure, they
are likely to lose the brain connections; the hard-wiring
that would have kept them reading as adults. Reading
after this age could become an unnatural chore, affecting
young people’s ability to study at a tertiary level
and perform well in the workplace (CYL, 2009 pp. 11–12).
The same CYL report (2009) affirms that reading for pleasure:
supports literacy and learning in school;
enables young people to develop their own, better informed perspective on life;
is a safe, inexpensive, pleasurable way to spend time;
allows young readers to understand and empathise with the lives of those in different situations, times and cultures – to walk in the shoes of others; and
improves educational outcomes and employment prospects (p. 11).
Other studies, such as those conducted by Organisation of Economic and Co-operation and Development (OECD), establish a clear correlation between the quantity and quality of students’ reading for pleasure and their level of achievement in reading assessments. This is especially evident in reading assessments that require higher-order capacities for sustained engagement in ‘continuous’ texts, interpretation, empathising, speculation, reflection and evaluation (Australian Council of Educational Research [ACER], 2018).
From the Australian report on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) (ACER, 2018) it is worth dwelling for a moment on the finding that those students who indicated that they read widely and diversely had higher mean scores in PISA than those students who indicated a negative attitude to reading and a lack of breadth and diversity in their reading choices. Importantly, regardless of background and parental occupational status, those students who were highly engaged in reading achieved reading scores that were significantly above the OECD average (ACER, 2018).
For educators, parents and carers, the takeaway message from research and reports on programs such as PISA is the critical role we can play in nurturing young people’s proclivity to read, including reading for pleasure. Jackie French argues that it is the ‘make or break’ task of the adult to attentively guide, model and support the development of students’ sustained reading engagement, enjoyment and confidence. French insists that success in reading depends on the ‘young person + the right book + the adult who can teach them how to find it’ (French, 2019, p. 9). This ‘winning equation’ depends on the oft-neglected variables of individual taste, motivations and purposes for reading. Just as French has no desire ‘to read about the sex life of cricketers, any politician who isn’t dead, or any [book] with a blurb that includes “the ultimate weapon against mankind [sic]”’ (2019, p. 8), so too does each individual student come to reading with their own interests, appetites and antipathies (Manuel, 2012a, 2012b). Or, as Kohn (n.d.) puts it:
Students will become good readers when they read more.
Students will read more when they enjoy reading.
They will enjoy reading when they enjoy their reading material.
They will enjoy their reading material when they are left to choose it themselves.
These insights affirm what we as English teachers know: that reading widely, regularly and deeply has a profound impact on a student’s life chances.
Creating opportunities for student choice
Of course, the realities of syllabus requirements and classroom practice mean that what students read, their purpose for reading, and how they read in our classes (and beyond) is necessarily influenced by teachers’ judicious selection of texts and pedagogical choices. This expert curation of reading material and experiences by the teacher does not, however, preclude opportunities for students to exercise some degree of choice in the what, why, how and when of their reading.
Remembering that choice is the most critical factor in generating motivation, reading engagement, confidence and achievement, an effective and balanced reading program should provide access to a wide variety of reading materials so all students can experience: whole class or shared reading; small group or pairs reading; and individual reading.
In practice, this means designing a reading program that incorporates four strands.
Teacher-selected materials, based on the teacher’s understanding and awareness of the students’ needs, interests and capacities and the resources available to them.
Teacher-student negotiated materials – individuals or groups of students discuss and plan their reading choices and reading goals with the teacher.
Student-student negotiated selections – for example, Literature Circles, reading groups and Book Clubs.
Student self-selected reading material, as part of a wide reading program.
Time is a friend of reading
We understand from research that ‘students cannot become experienced until they actually engage in sustained periods of reading. This can be facilitated only when students are provided time to read and access to books they really can read’ (Ivey, 1999, p. 374). Establishing regular, dedicated time in class for reading (by the teacher and by students) is a key ingredient for developing young people’s motivation, reading habits and reading accomplishment. Even modest amounts of time allocated to reading – shared reading and individual reading – can yield substantial flow-through rewards, including that vital sense of belonging to a community of readers.
The power of modelling
One of the crucial roles of the teacher when it comes to reading is modelling: modelling reading practices, attitudes, habits and enthusiasm. Through modelling and using whole texts regularly (e.g. stories, poems, plays, articles) rather than fragments of text, the teacher can demonstrate that reading is a process of making meaning, embodied semantics, elixir for the heart and mind, and ‘bodybuilding for the brain’ (French, 2019, p. 9): reading is far more than merely the application of a series of sub-skills in standardised literacy tests.
The simple act of reading aloud to students can be a catalyst for a whole range of short- and longer-term benefits that include, but are not limited to:
Reading aloud to students helps to improve their language skills, including vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. It exposes them to new words and sentence structures, which they may not have encountered otherwise.
Reading aloud helps to develop a student’s cognitive skills, including attention, memory, and critical thinking. It also helps to improve their ability to understand and interpret information.
Imagination and creativity
Reading aloud can stimulate a student’s imagination and creativity. It can transport them to new worlds, introduce them to different characters and situations, and encourage them to imagine new horizons.
Reading aloud can help to develop a student’s emotional intelligence by exposing them to different emotions and situations. It can help them to develop empathy and understanding of others’ ways of seeing and living in the world.
Reading aloud can provide an opportunity for shared experience and can contribute to stronger relationships between students and between students and the teacher.
Creating an optimal environment and nurturing a community of readers
In an optimal learning environment students feel invested in their learning by actively participating in shaping their own reading practices and experiences. A classroom environment that values and celebrates reading by ensuring it is visible, low-risk and enjoyable serves to bolster students’ readiness to engage with reading and other readers and, in turn, experience the social and personal affordances that reading can offer.
Creating an optimal environment means normalising the range and diversity of types of reading in everyday life. It means demystifying the reading process by modelling reading, reading often and understanding that reading is socially mediated. Familiarising students with otherwise unfamiliar texts and unfamiliar ways of reading is an essential component of strengthening each student’s reading proficiency and, as a consequence, their receptivity to new textual experiences.
Cultivating a community of readers means encouraging students to become curious, critical thinkers and meaning-makers, honing skills of prediction, anticipation, speculation, interpretation, reflection and evaluation through the shared experience of reading and talking about reading. Strategies that promote students’ active engagement with and response to reading include, for example:
The Four Roles of the Reader (Freebody & Luke, 1990).
Before reading, during reading and after reading tactics (cf. MyRead, Reading Rockets).
Reading contracts, reading wish-lists and Literature Circles.
Dramatic readings, representations and interpretations of texts.
Earlier on, I briefly explored the principle of ‘starting with the self’ and the importance of getting to know and then utilising students’ capital as the basis for learning. Recognising and fostering the literacy and experiential capital of each and every student is a deliberate pedagogical approach that aims to engage students in learning by connecting the known with the new. Often, this approach can be realised through pre-reading/pre-viewing strategies, or what is otherwise referred to as ‘getting ready for the text’.
For example, strategies intended to arouse interest in the text, activate prior knowledge and experience and prompt speculation about the text can be as straightforward as using the text’s cover, title, images or blurbs to stimulate hypothesising, predicting and anticipation. Students do not require specialist knowledge or discourses to engage in discussion about what the cover or title of a text may suggest about its content and what it may remind them of. They draw on what they already know and understand in order to generate connections between their world and their initial ideas about the potential world of the text.
Other effective pre-reading/pre-viewing strategies include:
Creating a mystery box filled with items relevant to the ideas, action or characters of the text. Take one item at a time out of the mystery box and invite students to speculate on who it may belong to, what it reminds them of, what historical period it may come from, etc. This not only sparks students’ anticipation for the text: it also generates a lively and enjoyable discussion.
Engaging in role-play, scenarios or dialogue that have relevance to the ideas, themes, characters, or plot of the text.
Using an extract from the text, have students predict what may occur next, write the next scene, dramatise the scene or poem, discuss what the text may be about, based on the extract, etc.
Taking a key idea/issue/experience/theme explored in the text and inviting students to brainstorm and discuss their experience and understanding of this idea/issue/experience/theme in their own lives and in the world around them. For example: revenge, compassion, conflict, friendship, or overcoming adversity.
In a recent conversation, an English teacher shared an experience he had with a student who had just completed the HSC English examination. The student was elated. Why? Not because he had completed his school education in English but because, in his words: ‘I’ll never have to read another book again’. Unfortunately, this sentiment may be a familiar one to some or many of us. It can certainly prompt us to step back for a moment, to ‘look again’ (Boomer, 1991) at the principles, conditions and strategies that may help us to shift students’ negative attitudes to reading: to refocus on our guiding philosophy and aspirations. What do we want our students to remember about our English classes? What do we hope they will carry for their lifetime, because of our teaching? What will be our legacy?
If, like Margaret Atwood, we believe that ‘a word after a word after a word is power’, then there can be few greater life-changing and life-giving gifts than the gift of the English teacher in championing, enacting and inspiring a love of reading.
* The first line of the heading is a quote from Margaret Atwood in 2019
Atwood, M., (2019) A word after a word after a word is power – documentary.
Manuel, J. (2012a). Reading lives: Teenagers’ reading practices and preferences. In J. Manuel & S. Brindley (Eds.), Teenagers and reading: Literary heritages, cultural contexts and contemporary reading practices (pp. 12-37). South Australia: Wakefield Press/AATE.
Manuel, J. (2012b). Teenagers and reading: Literary heritages, cultural contexts and contemporary reading practices. In J. Manuel & S. Brindley (Eds.) Teenagers and reading: Literary heritages, cultural contexts and contemporary reading practices (pp. 1–4). South Australia: Wakefield Press/AATE.
Scholes, R. (1985). Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Zunshine, L. (2006). Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Ohio: Ohio State University Press.
About the Author
Jacqueline Manuel is Professor of English Education at the University of Sydney, Aust. She co-ordinates and teaches secondary English curriculum in the Master of Teaching (Secondary) program.
Her most recent publications include: International Perspectives on English Teacher Development: From Initial Teacher Education to Highly Accomplished Professional. (Routledge, 2022), co-edited with Goodwyn, Roberts, Scherff, Sawyer, Durrant, and Zancanella.; and Reimagining Shakespeare Education: Teaching and Learning through Collaboration (Cambridge University Press, 2023) co-edited with Liam Semler and Claire Hansen.
Professor Megan Watkins and Professor Greg Noble present a research-based examination of the complexities involved in working with students of refugee backgrounds in our schools. They discuss why it is both inherently difficult and necessary for NSW public school teachers to strive to meet the needs of these students and their families . . .
In mid-2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated the total number of refugees world-wide was 27.1 million (Refugee Council of Australia, 2022). This number has risen dramatically in recent years due to the increasing number and intensity of conflicts in Ukraine, the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia, forcing many to flee their homelands and seek safety elsewhere. Many of these refugees are under 18 years old, and many are unaccompanied minors. While Australia’s proportion of this number is relatively low, thousands of young refugees (Refugee Council of Australia, 2017) enter Australia each year on humanitarian visas and face the daunting prospect of beginning school in their newfound home with limited or no English, limited or no literacy in their first language, disrupted or no previous schooling, and the scars of trauma resulting from the experiences of war, the death of loved ones, poverty and protracted periods of displacement in refugee camps and/or one or more countries of transit (Yak, 2016). Once settled, many may be under pressure to earn an income or to help other members of their family, which affects their attendance and progress at school (Refugee Council of Australia, 2016). In addition to contending with these difficulties, issues around gender, faith and racism may affect their capacity to ‘fit in’ (Yak, 2016).
The New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education (DoE) now records that there are more than 11,000 students of refugee backgrounds in NSW schools (NSW DoE, 2020). While many of these students are located in metropolitan Sydney, in particular in the western and south-western suburbs, there is an increasing number settling in regional areas, posing considerable challenges for schools and their communities to ensure that these students’ complex needs are met. Schools are often the first point of contact with wider Australian society for young refugees, so how schools position and serve them has enormous consequences (Uptin et al., 2013).
Various community, government and non-government organisations have provided considerable assistance to schools, but a number of studies suggest that not only is far more needed (Sidhu et al., 2011; Block et al., 2014), but that further research is required to gauge refugee students’ experiences of schooling and whether current practice is addressing their needs and those of teachers (Ferfolja and Vickers, 2010).
In 2019, the NSW Teachers Federation commissioned researchers at Western Sydney University to undertake such a study to help fill this gap and to yield data to inform how they may best support teachers working in these complex environments. The report, It’s Complex! Working with Students of Refugee Backgrounds and their Families in New South Wales Schools, (Watkins, M., Noble, G., & Wong, A. ,2019) is the product of this research. Its title, drawn from a comment made by one of the teacher participants, reflects not only the complex needs of refugee students and their families but the inherent complexity of meeting these needs often within schools already grappling with the challenges of socio-economic disadvantage, increasing cultural and linguistic diversity and students with physical and intellectual disabilities. Meeting the needs of students of refugee backgrounds is undertaken alongside those of other students, making the task for teachers a complex one indeed.
It’s Complex aimed to capture this complexity. The research informing the report included interviews and focus groups with executive staff and teachers, students with and without refugee backgrounds and the parents or carers of students of refugee backgrounds in ten public schools. These schools included primary schools, high schools and Intensive English Centres (IECs) in Sydney and regional locations in NSW, with high and low populations of students of refugee backgrounds and varying numbers of students with a Language Background Other Than English (LBOTE) amongst their broader populations. The study also involved observations in classrooms, playgrounds and at school community events. In addition to school-derived data, interviews were also held with relevant personnel in organisations supporting refugee students and their families.
The study examined the challenges faced by school communities as a result of their increasing number of students of refugee backgrounds. It looked at the educational and broader needs of these students; the programs in place to support them within schools; the links between educational experiences and other aspects of the settlement process and the social contexts in which settlement occurs; the consequences for teacher workloads and their professional capacities; and a range of other issues. This article provides a broad overview of the project’s key findings with a link here to the full report for more detailed examination of these from the perspectives of each of the various informant groups that participated in the study.
One of thekey findings of the research was that the needs of students of refugee backgrounds are not simply the pragmatic requirements of educational performance, these students also have complex linguistic, social, cultural, psychological and economic needs. In discussion with principals and other senior executive across the 10 project schools, the area of greatest need identified was that of welfare, not only ensuring students were fed, housed and felt safe but that there was support for those who experienced psychological trauma as, without addressing this, it was considered difficult for students’ educational needs to be met. Yet these respondents also stressed the highly individualised nature of these students’ needs with one teacher remarking: ‘all refugee students struggle but struggle in different ways. We have very capable students, students that have, you know, not as much capacity to learn as others. And some are very bright – a full range of learners’.
While not news to school executive and teachers, the research revealed how schools aremuch more than educational institutions. This may have always been the case, but with increasing and diversifying refugee intakes, they have become complex sites of refugee and community support, with greater expectations and challenges. As one principal commented: ‘I guess we are kind of, we have almost become a community centre, and this is something that I find quite challenging … So, we get a lot of requests that are far removed from our brief as a school’. Schools, therefore, are grappling with a range of issues that result from these greater expectations: teacher workload, professional learning, funding issues, interagency coordination and community liaison.
The research also found that there were uneven levels of expertise and support across schools, both by region and by type, and related to school and community contexts, and individual teacher’s experiences. There are schools, such as IECs, which are set up well to meet these challenges, developing significant banks of expertise and resources, and there are schools which, by dint of their location and demographics, are not well set-up nor well-funded.
Many teachers are providing additional support beyond the classroom in terms of arranging homework clubs, extra work, support services, community liaison, etc, creating increased and intensified workloads which have stressful consequences for work-life balance and some teachers’ mental health. Many teachers are providing this extra support but with varying degrees of experience and expertise. Many do not have English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D) qualifications, for example, exacerbating the stressful circumstances in which they are working. Many are also finding themselves in classrooms with an increasing complexity of student populations, posing challenges for classroom teaching.
This was matched with very uneven levels of understanding in schools – amongst teachers, non-refugee students and the wider community – of the complex experiences and challenges faced by students of refugee backgrounds. Staff in schools often struggled to ‘get the right balance’ between addressing the pastoral, the academic and the socio-cultural needs of students of refugee backgrounds with huge implications for these students’ learning. One executive staff member reflected on the problem of an overemphasis on the pastoral:
“I think that when we are dealing with our students one-on-one and we start to hear and get to know them more and hear the history of where they have come from and their trauma, there can be a bit of a tendency to make excuses for them not improving academically and as strongly as they could and … I am going to use the word ’pity’, like there can be an element not from all teachers but from some teachers.”
An executive member at another school suggested such an approach raised questions about the nature of wellbeing itself: ‘So, it is striking that balance between wellbeing as welfare and wellbeing as self-esteem and achievement’.
As a consequence, students of refugee backgrounds have very varied educational experiences: some are settling well, and some are not ‘fitting in’. While most value the efforts undertaken at their schools, as do their parents and carers, many are also suffering from a lack of support. These students are also faced with the dilemma of in\visibility: they often stand out – for various reasons – but their needs are often ‘invisible’, and they can fall through cracks in the system. Many students recounted the enormous challenges of English language and literacy acquisition and often felt underprepared for their educational experiences. Many students continued to experience enormous problems in the transition from IECs to high school and there appeared little progress in addressing these issues, despite being well documented in previous research (Hammond, 2014).
Many students of refugee backgrounds reported the ongoing incidence of racism, though this is not always acknowledged by staff in schools. This racism varied in scale and type from microaggressions of other students avoiding contact and making veiled derogatory comments, to forms of structural racism often resulting from well-intentioned programs that actually reinforced these students’ lack of belonging. In one example of the former, in a school with a predominantly Anglo-Australian student population attended by a small number of refugee students of African backgrounds, a teacher referred to students making racist taunts in the form of ‘back door kind of comments’. The teacher explained how students would say: ‘So, they are asking for a black pen, like they will disguise the racism and emphasise certain things like, “Can I have a black pen?” or something like that. Whereas I shut that down immediately’.
While schools provided various forms of assistance, many continued to struggle with developing and sustaining productive relations with parents of refugee backgrounds and their wider communities.
The work of Refugee Support Leaders (RSLs), a temporary measure introduced in response to the arrival of large numbers of Syrian refugees in 2016, proved increasingly important in many schools and their broader communities. RSLs took up roles in the wake of the loss of the NSW Department of Education Multicultural Education/EAL/D consultants that occurred in 2012, a loss which has been detrimental for many schools. A pleasing development, following the publication of It’s Complex, and because of the NSW Teachers Federation’s advocacy, has been the appointment of EAL/D Leader roles seemingly filling the void of the previous Multicultural Education/EAL/D consultants. These are much needed positions which, it is hoped, are ongoing, supporting schools in meeting the EAL/D needs of not only refugee students, but the many students who require specialist EAL/D teaching.
Finally, while much work has been done to address issues around the coordination of governmental and non-governmental agencies in the area of refugee settlement, this has not always been embedded well in daily practice in schools. For this work to be consolidated and extended we must enable multiple, critical conversations – between the Department, support organisations and schools; between teachers, students, parents/carers and their wider communities – around students’ educational, pastoral and social needs, and the capacities of schools to address them. Failure to facilitate such dialogue will threaten the stability of life that students of refugee backgrounds and their families so urgently need.
A useful starting point will be looking at the full report, which can be found at:
If you are interested in applying to the It’s Complex: Working with students of refugee backgrounds in NSW public schools professional learning course run by the Centre for Professional Learning, please click here.
Block, K., Cross, S., Riggs, E. and Gibbs, L. (2014). Supporting schools to create an inclusive environment for refugee students. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 18(12), 1337-1355.
Ferfolja, T. and Vickers, M. (2010). Supporting refugee students in school education in Greater Western Sydney. Critical Studies in Education, 51(2), 149-162.
Hammond, J. (2014). The transition of refugee students from Intensive English Centres to mainstream high schools: Current practices and future possibilities. Sydney: NSW Department of Education and Communities.
New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education (DoE)(2020) Supporting Refugee Students https://education.nsw.gov.au/teaching-and-learning/curriculum/multicultural-education/refugee-students-in-schools.
Sidhu, R., Taylor, S. and Christie, P. (2011). Schooling and Refugees: Engaging with the complex trajectories of globalisation. Global Studies of Childhood, 1(2), 92-103.
Uptin, J., Wright, J. and Harwood, V. (2013). ‘It felt like I was black dot on white paper’: examining young former refugees’ experience of entering Australian high schools. Australian Educational Researcher, 40(1), 125-137.
Megan Watkins is Professor in the School of Education at Western Sydney University. Her research interests lie in the cultural analysis of education exploring the impact of cultural diversity on schooling and the ways in which different cultural practices can engender divergent habits and dispositions to learning. Megan began her career as an English/History teacher working in high schools in Western Sydney. Her most recent book is Doing Diversity Differently in a Culturally Complex World: Critical Perspectives on Multicultural Education (Bloomsbury, 2021) with Greg Noble.
Greg Noble is Professor at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University. Greg has been involved in research in multiculturalism and education for thirty years. His interests have centred around the relations between youth, ethnicity, gender and schooling, as well as aspects of curriculum and pedagogy in multicultural education. He also has broader research interests in issues of migration, ethnic communities and intercultural relations. He has published eleven books, including: Doing Diversity Differently in a Culturally Complex World (2021) and Disposed to Learn (2013), both with Megan Watkins, and Cultures of Schooling (1990).
Helen McMahon, Michelle Gleeson, Andrea Gavrielatos & Trystan Loades consider one of the most important topics for all teachers … classroom management. Helen, in the introduction, returns to a topic that she wrote about in the 2015 edition of the JPL. Michelle and Andrea then give us the primary school perspective and Trystan discusses the high school context . . .
Teaching is complex, no more so than when it comes to the management of student behaviour. Effective teaching can only occur when the behaviour of students is successfully dealt with at a whole school and individual class level. High standards of behaviour are essential in creating a productive and positive learning environment, as well as a safe and respectful school.
A high standard of behaviour should be expected of all students and applied throughout the school each day by everyone. From the outset it is important to understand a fundamental principle: while the public education system accepts all students, we do not accept all behaviours.
The student profile of many of our schools is becoming ever more complex and, therefore, teachers require increasingly sophisticated sets of skills to deal with behaviour in their own classes. However, it is important to understand that the management of student behaviour is also a collective responsibility, across the whole school by all staff, and in serious cases with systemic Department of Education support.
As all schools are required to develop a behaviour management plan, it is essential that this is developed collaboratively, and closely adhered to by all staff, in order to develop consistent approaches to unacceptable conduct.
Individual teachers, particularly for those who are beginning their teaching career, will usually need additional advice, support, and professional learning opportunities to acquire the range of skills that allow them to gain confidence and become professionally autonomous. Any professional learning should cover areas such as:
why engaging teaching strategies can be the basis for minimising unacceptable behaviour
how to manage persistent disruptive and challenging behaviours
strategies that could be used to de-escalate conflict situations
the need to engage parents and caregivers early and in a positive manner
the support that will be available from colleagues and executive teachers.
The NSW Department of Education’s Student Behaviour Policy (2022) states, “All students and staff have the right to be treated fairly and with dignity in an environment free from intimidation, harassment, victimisation, discrimination and continued disruption.” To ensure that schools are safe, productive, and stable learning environments it is essential that this fundamental policy position is embedded in the school culture and reinforced daily.
Classroom management – school contexts
During the liveliness and excitement of a bustling school day, there are many things out of our control. One of the things that we, as teachers, can control is how we set up our day and our classroom to ensure that we set our students (and ourselves) up for success.
The way classroom management looks in each classroom is ultimately up to the teacher. And whether or not you are working in a school which sets clear systems, expectations and routines, there are practices for your classroom that can make the day flow in a more positive direction.
Before we launch into the what and the how, let’s start with the why. On top of knowing our content and how to structure a lesson, classroom management directly affects the conditions for student learning and effective teaching. When the learning space is organised … students’ academic skills and competencies, as well as their social and emotional development are supported and enhanced (Kratochwill, DeRoos, Blair, 2009). This aligns with the Professional Knowledge and Professional Practice domains of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (NESA 2018), specifically that teachers ‘Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments’ and ‘Know students and how they learn’. The intersection of these two standards with regards to classroom management highlights that not only do our considerations about how we arrange the learning space matter, but this, combined with a deep understanding about our students’ individual characteristics and needs, can be affected and supported by that very learning environment. What are the things we need to factor in for our students before they’ve set foot through the door for our lesson or for the day? How can we suitably reflect on our lesson plan to anticipate how we might deal with behaviours that become too excitable? How can a teacher pre-empt and identify strategies to ensure all students are engaged safely and successfully in classroom activities?
Across both primary and secondary settings, there are universal elements to classroom management. that link back to the Standards. that can help us reflect on how we best set our students up for success in their learning. Let’s take a look at a day in the life of a primary school teacher and a learning period for a high school teacher, and, in doing so, share some strategies which you can add to your toolbox to support you…
A Day in the Life of Primary School – through the lens of classroom management
Starting the day
Classroom management begins well before the front gates open for students and families. This time is quite possibly the most important part of the day with regards to effective classroom management.
A good habit to develop each day when you arrive at your classroom is to map out the day plan in a visual timetable, either written or with visual aids, displayed at the front of the room. This practice is an example of how to utilise Universal Design for Learning as seen in the Universal Design for Learning planning tool (2021). This framework is most beneficial for students with additional needs, however it reduces the fear of the unknown and can be beneficial for all students. Taking a moment to walk through what’s happening, on any given day, can also help you to anticipate the flow of what’s planned and review what you’ll need for the lessons for the day. Using the morning routine to locate and organise resources needed for your lessons will assist in those teaching moments to maintain your students’ focus and minimise opportunities for behaviours to unravel. Being proactive in having what you will need at the ready, or mentally noting what you need to prepare during the session break and considering how and where resources are accessed during the learning is an important aspect of classroom management related to the routines you establish and maintain in your classroom.
Setting the tone of your learning environment
How you then organise your classroom with resources and routines inherently sets the tone of the learning environment. Giving attention and consideration to how the classroom helps to develop a culture of learning and structure is something which can often be forgotten. Setting up the learning space in a way which is conducive to teaching and learning is paramount.
It is helpful to ask questions such as ‘can students and teachers move around the room with ease?, ‘is there enough room to walk?’, ‘is the floor clear of resources?’, ‘are resources clearly labelled and packed in the appropriate place?’, ‘where will students sit for group discussions or brainstorming or modelled lessons?’, ‘what kind of noise levels are acceptable and at what times?’.
Ideas as simple as group structures and seating arrangements can promote positive behaviours and academic outcomes (Wannarka & Ruhl, 2008). There is evidence to support the idea that ‘if students are working on individual assignments, they should be seated in an arrangement that makes interacting with peers inconvenient…for example, in rows students are not directly facing each other’. Conversely, ‘when the desired behaviour is interactive… seating arrangements that facilitate interactions by proximity and position, such as clustered desks or semi-circles, should be utilised’ (Wannarka & Ruhl, 2008). Strategically planning these structures prior to the day beginning can have a positive influence on student engagement and behaviour.
Involving your students to establish a set of expectations supports a shared understanding of what is valued in the learning environment for everyone to be able to engage in learning. It can also assist students to regulate collaboratively the classroom behaviour. What is important to one group can be vastly different to another, so this process is a crucial component to classroom management and is most successful when students have agency in determining the conditions for learning as well as the positive rewards and negative consequences that go along with these. Along with collaboratively setting up, and explicit teaching of, class expectations, each teacher will have a different system of organisation with regards to student jobs, and overall set up. It is important to be strategic in deciding which student will be responsible for each job depending on their social, emotional and academic needs. Guiding questions such as the following are helpful to ask yourself when selecting students for each job: Do any students require regular breaks? Does a particular student require a peer to assist them in executing the job? Will the students be able to refocus upon completion of the job?
As with any element of classroom management, it is crucial to model and guide students in how to successfully perform each task before expecting them to complete it independently.
Relationships sit at the heart of effective classroom management and a simple yet effective way to connect with your students, and to set the tone of the day of learning, is to greet students personally as they enter the classroom. Positioning yourself at your door, monitoring both students as they unpack and those that are settling into the room allows you to:
start the day with a positive connection with your students,
remind students of classroom expectations through specific praise of preferred behaviours, in turn supporting the transition into the formal learning space, and
gauge the moods and mindsets your students have before the learning begins.
This, in turn, offers a “low-cost, high-yield” proactive strategy that complements the organisational elements to setting up the learning environment (Cook, et. al 2018). Coupled with your proactive measures of setting up your resources, being proactive with your students’ behaviour, and starting every day with a positive and personal acknowledgement of each student in your class, has been shown to promote higher levels of academic engagement. It also minimises, even prevents, the occurrence of problem behaviours that disrupt learning. Additionally, being perceptive to the emotional wellbeing of your students, not only as they start the day but throughout the day, and particularly following transitions, can assist you in managing behaviours through pre-corrections, further modelling or revision, or tuning in to students’ needs to support them to re-engage or regulate their behaviour.
Positive reinforcement extends the tone of the learning environment and can take varied forms without always being a tangible reward although, at times, the extrinsic motivator can help. Acknowledging and reinforcing the behaviours you expect supports students with direct feedback on what is valued, but is only effective when the reinforcement is genuine, clear, and explicit about the behaviour and given in a timely manner (i.e., straight after the target behaviour). If there are established positive reinforcement procedures in your school, it is critical that these are integrated into your own systems. Such integration, however, does not preclude the use of your own additional strategies, if required, which can be as simple as non-verbal cues and verbal praise, a positive phone call to parents, to tangible reward tokens or activity rewards. Knowing the individual preferences of your students will also inform the approach that you take for encouraging positive behaviour in your classroom. Most students will respond to the universal support and expectations for behaviours (be they the whole school or your class systems) but some students may require an individualised approach with targeted and specific behaviour goals that have positive consequences negotiated with the student and their parents or carers.
“Be the calmest person in the room”
And while giving attention to the routines and structures of our classroom allows us to exert some control in pre-empting behaviours, the only thing we can control is ourselves and to be the calmest person in the room. The key to effective routines and structures lies in modelling and explicit teaching but this begins with our own behaviours. Students are more likely to replicate calm energy if they have been shown this. The importance of being responsive over reactive, having and modelling empathy, and above all else being consistent, sits hand in hand with the positive, safe and supported learning environment that is conducive to the success of our students.
Transitions and breaks
When it comes to managing your expectations around behaviours at any point in the school day, it’s often safer to never assume your students will know how to behave. Establishing expectations not only with regards to the use of resources and interactions for group or independent work, but also around transitions requires explicit teaching through modelling. For example, if your students are expected to enter and exit the classroom quietly and in two straight lines or move from sitting on the floor to their desks, then preparing them from the outset with clear expectations and demonstrations is required, even for simple tasks such as these. Show your students what the transition looks like, sounds like and feels like so that they can experience that through practise, revising as often as needed.
While classroom management is often viewed as enacted within the four walls of the classroom, practices such as active supervision apply in the playground and have similar effect and impact in managing behaviour. The proverbial ‘eyes in the back of your head’ comes to mind. The effects of scanning, movement and proximity on supporting positive behaviour in any school setting will influence behaviour. It is important to remember that our job is to teach and that every moment is a teaching moment, whether we are in the classroom or elsewhere. Teach and praise what you want to see more of and celebrate the steps along the journey.
Managing the end of the day
The bookends of the day largely dictate the overall organisation of your classroom, and where much attention is given to setting up the day, the end of the day is equally important. Similar to the setup, pre-empting issues and being proactive is key at the end of the day – knowing that your students are going to start feeling tired and fatigued, consider what could go wrong with the planned group activity, or art lesson, and make adjustments to your plan where necessary. If you think they require some time to regulate, complete a calming ‘brain break’. If it seems as though they are lacking energy, complete an energising activity. (Although ‘brain breaks’ can be done at any time throughout the day, the end of the day is often when they are utilised most regularly).
Allow yourself plenty of time for packing up, giving yourself at least 10 minutes at the end of the day to finish calmly and smoothly with an activity before students are dismissed such as read a story/poem, play a game, silent reading or journaling, guided drawing, practise gratitude, dance or sing. The activity could be a routine one or be different every day, this is up to you and your class. Just as the expectation stands for entering the classroom, be consistent with clear expectations for how students leave the classroom when the bell rings. Think about how many students will you dismiss at once- will they be the same students at tables/desks or the students who are packed up and quiet? Supporting a positive and calm end to the day will not only support your students in finishing the day on a good note but is also good for our own wellbeing to avoid ending the day in frantic chaos.
When you need support…
With the increase of students with additional needs enrolled in public schools, over the course of a career, teachers will likely be met with students who challenge and provoke our thinking. Sometimes, when redirection and all proactive, positive systems have been exhausted or when the safety of a child, a class, or staff members is at risk, different strategies are required.
Whether or not an individual behaviour plan is required, at times, it is critical to utilise expert and experienced staff, including senior executives, for support.
Some things to remember, if and when faced with more complex, challenging and escalating behaviours, are:
remain calm – think about your tone of voice, body language, what you are saying, how you are moving, where you are positioned,
explain why the specific behaviour is unacceptable – Is it unsafe? Is it disturbing the learning of others? Is it respectful?
don’t buy into any secondary behaviours which may arise,
give short and direct instructions – it is helpful to use the student’s name first and then the clear, explicit direction,
call for assistance.
Remember, once any incident is dealt with, it is important to move on and start fresh.
Students come to school to learn and they all have a right to do so in our vibrant and diverse public education system. With clear and visible expectations and routines which are reiterated and retaught consistently through a calm and predictable teacher, you set yourself and your class up for success (Dix, 2017).
For many students, their school, and in particular their classroom, is the place where they feel most at ease, at baseline and where they can truly be themselves. Their teacher is a constant and when we act and react predictably to all situations, it makes our students feel safe. Safety allows students to remain calm, display positive behaviours and in turn, engage in learning. ‘Visible consistency with visible kindness allows exceptional behaviour to flourish’ (Dix, 2017).
A High School Context
Teaching is a highly complex activity, which, depending on which research you read, requires a teacher to make as many as 1500 decisions a day.
As stated earlier, teachers have a core responsibility to ‘Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments’ Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (2018). Our students also have a core responsibility to ensure that they are contributing to a positive learning environment. As Helen McMahon stated in our introduction: while public education accepts all students, we do not accept all behaviours.
High schools are busy places, in which movement and transitions are an integral part of every school day. The effective management of student behaviour is critical to ensuring that our practice and pedagogy impacts positively on the learning of our students. Without it, learning cannot take place.
Three ways in which teachers can impact on student behaviour are through: routines and structures, controlling the learning environment and engagement.
Routines and Structure
As high school teachers, we are always receiving students who are arriving from another context, be it roll call, recess, lunch or the previous lesson. Our class may be arriving as a group who were together in the previous lesson or be a group coming together for the first time that day. This poses significant challenges for a teacher who needs to ensure that the start to their lesson is both orderly and purposeful.
Paul Dix, author of When the adults change, everything changes (2017)states, “Your students might claim that they prefer to lead lives of wild and crazy chaos. In reality, it is your routines, and your relentless repetition of them, that makes the students feel safe enough to learn.”.
Managing the Start of Lessons – Explicitly teaching clear and consistent routines throughout the structure of your lesson has many benefits for you and your students. Meet students in the same way every lesson, if they line up, do it the same way every time. Greet every student, building a connection before entering the classroom. Ensure that the first contact is proactive, positive and within your control. If you search YouTube, you will find videos of teachers sharing elaborate handshake routines which are individual to each student. This would not be something we could all do, but a personal verbal greeting to all students is something we can all achieve, it could be asking about the lesson they have just left or simply a personalised greeting. These interactions also help teachers, before entry to the classroom, to pick up on issues students are arriving with.
Feeling Safe – Consistent routines and structures provide students a connection to, and a feeling of safety in, our classrooms. For students, the idea that ‘I know what to expect’ allows space for engagement in initial instructions and explicit teaching. For students who have experienced trauma and those who have additional learning needs this is critical to building a sense of trust and safety as a learner.
Managing the End of Lessons – Our role in supporting smooth transitions is particularly important at the end of lessons. It allows for reflection on the learning which has taken place and provides support to our colleagues who will be receiving our students during the next teaching period. It also directly impacts on the safety of students and staff as they move to the next location of their day. Having a consistent routine at the end of lessons is as important as at the start of each lesson. Developing a suite of strategies such as exit tickets, routines around packing up and preparing to leave the room are vital and the important thing is to, as Paul Dix said, be relentless in your repetition of them.
Controlling the Learning Environment
Taking control of your classroom is a vital component of being a successful teacher. There is no one way to do this, and every teacher is different, however, being passive is not an option.
The NSW Department of Education’s Classroom management: Creating and maintaining positive learning environments (CESE 2020) cites research which says:
Put simply, classroom management and student learning are inextricably linked; students cannot learn or reach their potential in environments which have negative and chaotic classroom climates, lack structure and support, or offer few opportunities for active participation (Hepburn & Beamish 2019, p. 82), and students report wanting teachers who can effectively manage the classroom learning environment (see Woolfolk Hoy & Weinstein 2006, p.183; Egeberg & McConney 2018)
Layout – Assert your control of the classroom environment through the arrangement of furniture. Set up the space before students arrive whenever you can. If there are materials to distribute to allow learning activities to begin, have them on desks before students arrive. This saves time and removes opportunities for disruption.
Managing Behaviour -Exercise power to gain power and, therefore, control of the environment. Gain compliance through small instructions which are easy to follow, such as completing a simple task of collecting or getting out equipment or setting up a page in a workbook can settle a class and establish your authority in the classroom. Taking ownership of behaviour management is critical in establishing your authority. You should always know how to get support from colleagues and your Head Teacher but resolving issues yourself will always pay off in the long run. It is important to note that knowing when an issue needs to be escalated is also critical.
Seating Plans – A well-considered seating plan allows students to know where to be and for you to control where individuals are in your learning space. Some students may have specific positions described in their Individual Learning Plans (ILPs). A seating plan can allow you to establish effective group work as a supportive structure in your classroom.
Non-Verbal Communication – The use of non-verbal communication is a core skill we all need to develop; it can allow us to intervene early and get behaviour back on track without drawing attention to a student or their behaviour. This can be as subtle as eye contact at the right moment, a hand movement to suggest calming or even a smile and a nod.
Positioning – Where you place yourself at key times such as student arrival, roll marking, giving instructions, asking questions will impact on each activity’s effectiveness. Your ability to move around the room while maintaining a scanning view allows you to keep on top behaviour and levels of student engagement. Some teachers use a specific position in the classroom to manage student behaviour which is separate to positions they use for explicit teaching. Used consistently, this can even become an example of non-verbal communication as students learn to associate it with an intervention by the teacher.
Pace – Your control of the pace of your teaching and the learning in your classroom is also a key strategy in developing an orderly and effective classroom. Research has shown that a slow pace of instruction can cause significant behaviour problems. The right pace in a lesson will positively impact on student engagement and progress in learning.
Any teacher, who has become involved in a struggle of attrition with an individual or a class around behaviour, knows that it is a negative cycle, which needs to be broken. The way to break it is always through positive engagement in learning.
Explicit Teaching – Students’ knowledge of what they are learning, and why they are learning it, impacts on their engagement. Building their ‘field’ of knowledge around a topic or specific activity adds richness and promotes genuine understanding and interest.
Modelling – Modelling an activity for a class, or group within a class, draws students into a task and provides the opportunity for a teacher to build credibility with students. A teacher sharing skills is a way for students to see that their teacher is an expert from whom they can learn.
Questioning – A skilled teacher will use a wide range of questioning techniques to develop students’ ideas, to check on understanding, to draw individuals into the learning process and to inform their own decision making on where to take the lesson next. Questions allow a teacher to take a class deeper into a topic and promote students’ skills of justifying and explaining their reasoning. Simple techniques like ‘no hands up’ or ‘think, pair and share’ place structure and enhance the teachers control of order in a classroom. The use of closed questions to check recall and open questions to promote deeper thinking and analysis will be appropriate at various times within a class’s learning. Click here for the link to the Department of Education’s section on Questioning
Participation – Designing learning activities or tasks which require active participation is fundamental to building student engagement.
When teachers require that students participate in lessons, rather than sit as passive listeners, they increase the odds that these students will become caught up in the flow of the activity and not drift off into misbehaviour (Heward, 2003).
This idea is explored in detail by Geoff Munns’ JPL article from 2021. He said,
“We talked about students being ‘in-task’ (positively involved in their learning) as opposed to being ‘on-task’ (just complying with teacher instructions).”
No matter which stage you are teaching, being prepared, and having as much organisation in place as possible will enable any teacher to deal with the unexpected. As stated earlier a teacher will make as many as 1500 decisions in any normal school day, each one may be critical to a student’s learning or the management of their behaviour. Teaching really is rocket science.
Cook, C, Fiat, A, Larson, M, Daikos, C, Slemrod, T, Holland, E, Thayer, A & Renshaw, T (2018). ‘Positive greetings at the door: Evaluation of a low-cost, high-yield proactive classroom management strategy’, Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, vol. 20, no. 3.
Dix, P. (2017). When the adults change, everything changes: seismic shifts in school behaviour. (1st ed.). Independent Thinking Press.
Egeberg, H & McConney, A (2018) What do students believe about effective classroom management? A mixed – methods investigation in Western Australian high schools. Springer International Publishing
Helen McMahon is an experienced secondary History and English teacher. For much of her career she taught in the south-west region of Sydney. Helen held the position of Deputy Principal at Bankstown Girls High School before being appointed as Principal to Leumeah High School. Following her retirement as principal she returned to the classroom, teaching English at Keira High School.
Helen is the author of a popular article on behaviour management published in the very first edition of the JPL which is still available. The article was based on beginning teacher professional development courses she delivered on behalf of the Federation.
Andrea Gavrielatos began teaching in 2015 at Bardia Public School in Sydney’s South West.
She has worked in mainstream and special education settings. Prior to her current role she worked as a relieving Assistant Principal in an SSP which caters for students with Emotional Disturbances, Behaviour Disorders and Intellectual Disabilities.
Andrea is currently an Assistant Principal at a large Primary School in the Canterbury-Bankstown area. She has worked in infants and primary.
Throughout her career, Andrea has supported early career teachers to establish planning/programming routines and classroom management strategies as presenter at various conferences and courses.
Michelle Gleeson began teaching in 2005 as a primary teacher and is currently acting Deputy Principal at a large primary school on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
Throughout her career, Michelle has been involved in advising early career teachers on accreditation processes and supporting beginning teachers to establish planning/programming routines and classroom management strategies as presenter at various conferences and workshops for the CPL and NSWTF.
She worked as a Professional Learning Officer at the NSW Institute of Teachers (now known as NESA) and advised teachers and school executive on designing and implementing effective processes to support the learning and development of all staff, using the framework of the Teaching Standards.
Trystan Loades has been a high school teacher for 26 years. He has held classroom teacher and executive roles in both NSW schools and schools in the UK, where he was a Faculty Head Teacher for 6 years. He is currently a Deputy Principal at Keira High School in Wollongong.
In recent years Trystan has worked closely with the University of Wollongong Master of Teaching program. He collaborated in the writing and delivery of professional learning for teachers supervising Professional Experience.
He currently leads new staff induction and support for beginning teachers at his school.