Kids eh! You can’t live with ‘em, we would all die off without ‘em! Whatcha gonna do?
If you’ve never worked with young people before, it might seem daunting at first. A room full of tiny people, all of whom (legally speaking) you are responsible for ensuring aren’t hit on the head by any nearby falling anvils. Armed with little more than a DBS certificate, how are you supposed to take on that responsibility?
I have 5 years of experience working with children. Some in draconian-strict-evil schools, some in hippie-luvvie-fun schools, some in beige-boring-normal schools, some in their parent’s kitchens on a beautiful Saturday morning when you would all rather be literally anywhere else. No matter what kind of kids you’re working with, or what it is you’re trying to teach, I’ve learnt a few surefire rules to ensure that class time will be a productive experience for both you and your students.
If you’re going into a classroom with the mentality of ‘I’m going to make you learn’, then you have already almost certainly closed down any possibility of actual learning taking place. Teacher is a terrible job title for a teacher, because the best teachers rarely teach - they inspire! The teachers I remember most fondly from my school days were the ones who went off on long, rambling tangents, answering each and every off-topic and left-field question, facilitating you in your own ways of learning as opposed to trying to impose theirs upon you.
Anyone wandering into a North West London primary school with the expectation that they are going to teach Shakespeare is going to be left frustrated with the average 9-year-old’s ability to grasp 16th Centruy English. You will find yourself in a class full of bored people who hate you, really sucking whatever little smidgen of joy there was to be sucked out of ‘The Tempest’ in the first place. If, however, you go in with the mission of ‘helping the class to make theatre’, then you will almost always be thrilled with the results.
Don’t teach the class, help them to teach themselves.
Kids, like the adult human beings they are bound to turn into, are perceptive. They know when you’re being insincere. They know when you’re damming with false praise. They know when you’re trying to be ‘cool'.
Don’t try and get on their level, but treat them as if they are on yours. Which is to say, just have normal conversations with them. Teaching is preparing to go to a dinner party. You wouldn’t change your personality, the whole reason you’re there is because the host thinks you are interesting and entertaining. Go in, be yourself, tell your anecdotes, ask deep and meaningful questions which further the conversation, don’t dumb yourself down, look things pop on your phone when you don’t know the answer, and laugh politely at other people’s jokes. That’s the best way to prepare for an interaction with a child.
Okay, so this sounds like a contradiction. I stand by my previous point. Don’t dumb yourself down or do that awful thing where you try and get ‘inside’ the mind of a child. Invite them up to your level, don’t try and get onto theirs. speaking though, you should be getting on their level as much as possible. Get down the gym and work on your glutes, because it’s squatting time baby!
I think I probably spend sum total of 75% of my class time waddling round on my haunches like a crinkled old spring. Get yourself as level as possible with children when you talk to them and MAKE EYE CONTACT (again, as you would with an adult, duh).
Nobody likes craning their neck up or being talked down to, and why would this be any different with young people? It’s a small gesture, but it shows that you are willing to engage in a genuinely meaningful way, and as a result will get you more willingness back.
Furthermore, if you’re telling someone off, it makes it really hard for them to look at anything but your face. Which brings me to my next point…
It’s very easy when working with young people to get sucked into the role of ‘behaviour night watchmen (day shift)’. Just skulking round the back of the classroom, waiting for someone to flick someone’s hair, or for someone to call someone else a bumface, or for the obligatory daily ‘huge explosion of tears for absolutely no reason whatsoever’. It’s important for both the wellbeing of the class and also your own sanity to not resign yourself to the position of behaviour monitor. This is all about expectation management.
Your class will expect you to be the arresting officer, judge, jury, and executioner - spotting bad behaviour, deciding who is at fault, and administering the punishment. Counter-intuitively, this is far more common in strict schools, where children have their ability to self-regulate behaviour totally supplanted by over-zealous disciplinarians. The best schools are the ones where the children are allowed to call each other ‘a great big poo’, and learn the real world consequences of that action (as opposed to a pseudo-consequence being invented by their teacher). If you call your classmates names then they will hate you, that’s the reason you don’t do it. Not because you’re going to get a frown face on the demerit-o-meter which will prevent you from collecting monkey points that week.
Now, that’s not to say you should let them hit each other with bags full of spark plugs, because you shouldn’t. When you do need to intervene, keep it brief, make it direct, and be honest. Don’t open a court hearing into arguments of ‘he said, she said’, just ask everyone involved that the behaviour stop because it is disrupting the class and upsetting people. Ask for an apology if you feel it’s necessary, but don’t labour the point so hard that anyone bursts into tears - that’s not a win.
There’s a certain school of thought that if a child in your class asks you to do something way off-piste, you should say no. You are in control, exert your authority, the lesson plan is an ancient text carved into stone which was been passed down to you from the lord on high. This is incorrect. You’re more like a jazz ensemble; you and the class as equals, improvising together in sometimes beautiful and sometimes godawful ways. You’ve got to roll with the punches. This can be a humbling experience, so check your ego at the door. You have to accept that sometimes people 20 years your junior know better than you (even if you’re the only one being paid).
So, if your lesson plan is derailed by 25 expressions of absolute boredom and a whole class in unison chanting ‘let’s make paper hats and draw smily faces on them!’ then put your ego to one side and make the damn paper hats.
If your classroom is noisy and the other teachers give you strange looks in the staffroom, don’t make up a load of pointless rules about ‘super silent time’ just to make yourself feel better, let the noise happen if it’s what’s helping the class to learn.
If one of the kids has learnt a game and the rest of the class want to play it, then don’t insist on doing ‘Zip Zap Boing’ again just because it’s yours, let’s do the thing which seems most useful to the most people at that particular moment in time.
Improvise. Innovate. Bow to superior knowledge. You’re on a team with the class, all working towards a fun lesson where everyone comes away wiser. Find the way to get to that goal together, without letting your pride hold you back.
So that’s it, go forth and sow the seeds of knowledge! There are many schools of thought in teaching, even amongst us here in Moving Waves, and the most important thing is to find what works for you. These 5 tips have always worked for me, and allowed me to teach a wide range of amazing classes and lead fun workshops with Moving Waves. If you're looking for your first job working with kids, then come and join our supportive family today! We're always on the lookout for amazing new facilitators, and will give you the support you need to make your classes amazing.