Managing Students Manage Themselves

This article was first published in TESOL France’s Teaching Times magazine in summer 2021. You can download the PDF of this article here.

Offering tried and tested methods for helping both the student and the teacher in the classroom. 

Through trial and error, every teacher has developed their own methods of helping their students through the school year.  In this article I’d like to offer some ideas that were discussed at the recent TESOL France conference. 

Emotional Intelligence in the Classroom

In his seminal work, Daniel Goleman points out that at present we leave the emotional education of our children to chance, with ever more disastrous results (Goleman, 1996).  Especially as we go into 2021, there is an immediate need to educate our students on their own emotional intelligence, however Goleman also states this with a warning that emotions are still an unexplored ‘continent’ of science, with a ‘welter of self-help books, although well intentioned, lack much if any, scientific basis’.  One of the major points Goleman makes in his book is the need for self-awareness of our students, not just of how they feel, but also their actions, behaviour and how they interact with others.  Over the years I have designed activities that can be taken into any class to help our students become more self-aware.

The Wall is the Teacher’s Friend

Whether we have four walls in a classroom all to ourselves or move rooms so have to use a section of the board in each room, I find having several different posters for each class effective as a means of getting students to be aware of their actions.

For teens, at the end of each class, students grade themselves on how they think they handled themselves in the class, from the Irish ‘grand’ being OK or average, to Excellent, or if they stepped out of line they could admit to having misbehaved – each student and the teacher have to agree on what their score should be.  Generally I am a supporter of L1 in the classroom (if everyone’s L1 is the same of course to not isolate any student) and research shows it is the greatest learning tool students have to learning English, however if excessive L1 has been used they may be questioned on it.  This is kept public throughout the school year and students can see how they’ve handled the course.  Generally however students don’t score an excellent rating until after Christmas, giving them something to aim for in the New Year.

There is also a secondary scoreboard to use with teens if they have unit or progress tests.  Students predict beforehand what they estimate their scores will be, then compare them to what they really got.  Generally this is taken in good humour and helps lighten the mood of having a test, but is also a useful sign to show the teacher where they are in their learning, and their level of confidence on a topic.

For Younger learners I generally have a more simplified scoreboard throughout the year.  Each class is divided into two teams, with each team having a team captain – with their role they are responsible for their other team member’s behaviour.  Throughout class, at the teacher’s discretion, points are awarded to teams based on their work, correctly answering questions and for overall behaviour.  An example of a more ‘excitable’ moment in class for points is when I say the phrase “Thumbs on Table!” as they know to sit quietly on their chairs with both hands on the desk and thumbs up (therefore being quiet and not fiddling with anything as their hands are empty), first team to do this gets extra points.  At the end of each class the team with the most points wins points for their ‘overall’ class score board.  At the end of the three terms in the school year, the top scoring 3 students get a gold, silver and bronze award in class. 

Not all hope is lost however for the losing team, as when points are being awarded on the class’s overall scoreboard, one person from the losing team still has the ability to earn a ‘losing bonus point’, which has the added benefit for the teacher that even if one team is dominating the other, it keeps the losing team well behaved in the hope for points at the end.

Generally I use the wall for the gamification of behaviour and the scores are motivating for students.  It’s a light hearted approach to classroom management, and isn’t exclusionary.  These are permanent fixtures throughout the school year, so students can see their own progress and improvements as the year goes on. It’s also a very easy class control mechanism, for both the good days and the bad.

And it’s not just for students

It’s all well and good keeping tabs on our students through the year, but what about ourselves?  One of the greatest ‘Continued Professional Development’ tools I ever used happened to be in a school where teachers had 10 minutes between each class, and had to fill out a short review on the class, including activities carried out. 

Initially, though it may seem like extra paperwork and an annoyance if you want to run to the loo, over time, I found the comments section so important, that I’ve taken this idea to every school I’ve worked in since.  This is where the teacher writes a short paragraph or even a few sentences on the class, their behaviour, strengths/weaknesses shown, classroom management and any potential problems.  I found this invaluable as it was a great way to document through the year the relationships and atmosphere of the classroom too – it has easily been the best self-observation tool I’ve used to date and find that it helps to remember action points or sections of classes that did and didn’t work much more often, helping you, the teacher, develop faster.

Cheat sheets

On top of lesson plan note taking, there is another form of note taking that I use which I refer to as the cheat sheets of every class – since cheat sheets are kept entirely secret.  On top of my usual A5 booklets used for lesson planning, I have another A5 booklet that throughout the year – and especially at the start of each school year – is filled in with small details on each student.  This is especially important for other teachers whose memory may not be as great as others!  I find this vitally important for birthdays, pet names, holidays, family members names, jobs, interests and other details that help keep a rapport with each student (if we’ve 100 new students a year, it’s hard to remember everyone’s dogs’ name!).  Obviously this is kept entirely on my person at all times, but I find it speeds up building rapport in September with students and helps in the long run if you ask about their dog Spot once every three weeks!

These ideas have been built on over the years and adapted to suit new classes and situations as the years go by.  Hopefully there is something in there that you may find useful and adaptable for your classroom setting.

Alan Hall works as an English Language Teacher with the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre and has worked across Spain and Italy.  He holds a Masters in TESOL from Queen’s University Belfast and regularly talks at conferences on Emotional Intelligence and World Englishes.

Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.

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