Karen Thomson

School Improvement Partner

  • Experienced Primary Teacher and Leader
  • Specialises in English, Maths, Science and PSHE

See more articles by Karen Thomson
See all news and articles

Getting off to a flying start in September

We all want children in our classes to do well at school: reaching and surpassing their potential and attaining the best results they can. But, learning is much more than being exposed to information. We are social and emotional creatures and I believe that joyous, deep and profound learning exists where the learning environment supports the complexity and humanity of learning: positive classroom climates.

Sometimes it’s easy to get into a rut in your classroom, especially in these days of accountability, data collection and looming Ofsteds, but I truly believe creating a classroom climate which is open and trusting really does pay dividends – both in the children’s learning and happiness and the teachers’! It’s also easy in September, with the enormity of the curriculum in front of you, to feel rushed into starting Proper Work! Don’t!

Some years ago, I remember speaking to a boy in my Year 6 class. We spoke of another child in his class. ‘Oh, I don’t know her!’ he said. ‘She’s in a different group to me!’ Both children had been in the same class since Reception.

These words both shocked and inspired me. They inspired me to break down the walls of ability groups and build cohesion, trust and a collective responsibility for learning.

A new banner on my wall proclaimed, ‘None of us is as smart as all of us,’ and that was our motto! So much needed to be in place before we could even begin to start Maths and English!

We started with Rights and Responsibilities. Perusal of the United Declaration of the Rights of the Child led to deep discussions about what is universally fair and how responsibilities balance rights. We drew up our own and displayed them. From that day on there was no talk of rules. There was no need! If children acted disrespectfully to each other, they, themselves, directed them to our charter. Children started to use ‘I Statements’ habitually, challenging others and becoming respectfully assertive. Increasingly, the class managed their own behaviour and I merely facilitated on the increasingly rare occasions when I was required to.

There are lots of other things I did, still do and you can do also to build positive classroom climates:

  • We know that children need to feel safe in their learning spaces to admit they’re stuck, admit mistakes and ask for help, so let the children set their own Ground Rules. As a PSHE specialist I initially used Ground Rules in SRE and Drugs Ed, but now I incorporate them into every subject! I always feel that Maths is where these Ground Rules are most helpful. Maths can be so right or wrong; black and white, and feelings of inadequacy, often amongst girls, hamper their confidence and progress. Ground Rules usually include: 
    • No making fun of others
    • Everyone should have their say – no interrupting
    • Don’t gossip about what goes on in the classroom and what people say
    • Help each other
  • You could also organise children into collaborative groups, inclusive of gender and ability, Change these half- termly. Children will learn to work with others and you’ll create a Team!
  • It’s everybody’s learning! Help children to teach each other and share responsibility for learning. You’ll have Mastery and Greater Depth as an outcome!
  • Include mini-plenaries to accentuate the positive and allow children to recommend others who are showing positive learning attitudes
  • Have regular classroom meetings and circle times. Organise these informally, allowing all children to have their say. Children can set the agenda. They could put the details of issues they want to discuss in a box before the meeting maybe. A class of mine once spontaneously formed a class circle at the beginning of the school day after a bereavement; it was their safe way of coming together for comfort and support.
  • Make learning collaborative, fun and interactive with plenty of opportunities to talk! TT Education have a host of ideas for this ‘gamification’. Come along to a course! “What we learn with pleasure we never forget.” - Alfred Mercier
  • Take time to know your children: their likes, their dislikes, their home circumstances, their worries, their dreams, their views. I have found that regular conferencing with individual children helps build our relationship and rapport and leads to much better learning! And don’t forget that YOU make the weather! It’s your interactions and reactions that set the tone and the mood. "They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel." – Carol Buchner

Finally, the children in your next class are out there enjoying their summer, but they are also maybe a bit anxious about their next teacher: that hugely important figure who will feature so powerfully in their lives for the next twelve months. Be the teacher who builds the happy classroom where learning is the best ever! And don’t rush into Proper Work too early next term! Build the classroom climate first! It will lead to higher standards and a better year for everyone!

….and, Senior Leaders – allow teachers to build their positive classroom climate when you go back in September! Don’t rush them!