It was my first month at the new teaching position ...

... as a substitute teacher. 

Having worked in state schools before (using traditional methods and approaches), I was enthusiastically facing the challenges introducing some new approaches of which I had quite some experience while working in private schools. I took the substitute teaching position at the beginning of April when the 'school rhythm' was well established. Being rather confident as a teacher with 26 years of practice, I was expecting a certain level of knowledge as well as some basic level of social maturity from the students (for example looking at me while talking to me, friendly addressing their schoolmates, mutual help etc).

What I received was ... well, not what I had expected. 

I rarely use the frontal approach in teaching, but rather organise group work. The practice has shown me, that while children working together, I need not repeat my instructions so many times because there are 4 in a group and together they remember more than if it was just one. 

The first oddness I noticed, when forming my new students in groups (Year 3) was, that they fenced themselves with folders to 'protect' their space from 'intruders'. They explained to me they were doing this so that their schoolmates couldn't copy from them. I explained to them that this was not a test and that they can learn from each other, help each other etc. They shyly put their folders away and we proceeded with the activity.

In retrospect, the activity didn't work. Not the first and not the fifth time (with the exception of one group), whose members' social skills were better developed and they grasped the benefits of teamwork exceptionally quick. 

Contemplating the outcome I had summed up:

  • Children had no prior contact/practice with real teamwork (cooperative work), where tasks are divided among themselves equally and each member needs to do their part in order to complete the task. They lacked in basic skills which disabled them to see the positive effect in cooperating;
  • Students were unable to nicely/friendly communicate with each other;
  • They were used to follow the instructions (only step by step!), no initiative was shown for finding any individual solutions and they were not used to accepting the negative consequences when not achieving the result ('I'll do it at home, mum will help me, were their excuses.);
  • The time needed for preparing the class for group work was eating up our lesson and we never had time for reflecting on our work;

In order to make my class work, I needed to change the 'working' atmosphere by starting working on developing students' social skills.  

From scratch, I rewrote my programme for the following year, starting focusing on developing social skills, building up the awareness of the acceptance, belonging and responsibility. All of that of paramount importance if wanting to change an 'industrial' atmosphere, where everyone is for themselves into an 'emotional' one, where everyone is friendly/respectful to one another.

Well, let's peep into my classroom the following year ...

I established a new routine In all of my classes from Year 1 to Year 3. I divided my lesson into three parts:

The first part was 'warming up'. The aim was 'becoming aware/familiar my own body', establishing the connection with one another and focusing on building up concentration.

The second part was focused on a cooperative task in which students practiced their social skills.

The last part was a reflection on their progress and a goodbye routine.

Let's see some of the activities I used:

Becoming familiar with my own body ...

Listening discrimination game

I used different instruments (or things that produce sounds). I rid classrooms of chairs so that we had space to move around. Children moved across the room in random directions while making different movements according to the heard sounds (for example, when hearing frequent hitting on a drum, they started running). Children focused on listening while paying attention to the change of the sounds. Moving around demanded their attention focused on controlling their own body and at the same time paying attention to others in order to keep safe distance among themselves (becoming familiar with the surroundings). 

Was there any English language involved? Of course, there was! The instructions were in English, so they practiced listening. The movements were named in English, so they learned some vocabulary in its function.

There are several variations of the described activity, introducing different ways of 'exploring the surroundings' while shaping a line, a circle or any other formation for that matter. 

Students were active all the time. I didn't ask them to repeat words/commands after me, but once they were into the game, they spontaneously commented their movements in English. 

Establishing the connection with one another ...

One simple game, 'clap-hello', was introduced to me at Pilgrims' by Mr Peter Dyer at his 'improvisation workshop'. 

For the game, you need no preparation and no material. The aim of the game is to establish an eye contact with a person you 'communicate'.

I formed children into a circle. I turned to the child on my left and looked into his eyes. When the connection was made, I clapped to him (meaning, I offered him a 'hello'). The child accepted my 'clap' by clapping himself. Then, the child turned to his/her left and offered a 'clap' to his/her schoolmate. 

The rule is that you 'have to accept the clap' and you can offer a 'clap' only to a person with whom you manage to make an eye contact. 

There are several variations of the activity: you may pass the 'clap' to whomever you want, you may choose to change the 'clap' for something else (a word maybe), you can even try a dialogue (verbal or non-verbal) ... 

The aim: socialisation, becoming aware of the concept of a dialogue.

Focusing on cooperative task and reflection on the progress ...

It was not after three months have passed, while regularly playing the above-mentioned activities, that children were prepared to be engaged with some real cooperative work. 

Until that time had arrived, we devoted our English lessons on playing some elementary games outdoors (always project based) and establishing routine/ steps at group-forming and out-going. (The aim: following the instructions, which is listening.)

The medals
With such big a class I had (28-30 students per class) it was a rather challenging job. However, the effort had paid off. After three months, the students formed their own groups with the help of the  'medals'. In groups, they went to the wardrobe, looked after themselves to get dressed up and only when all of the group members were clothed properly, they were allowed to go out. 

Prior to leaving the classroom for the dress-up, we chorally sang the song 'Put on Your (clothes)', so that they knew what they needed to put on (and in the process, they learned cloth items - again in function!). 

What was I doing while children were busying themselves? (After three months of sweating while establishing the routine.) 

Well, I was simply waiting at the exit door, where I checked up whether they were properly dressed prior to letting them out or sending them back to make their dressing up right. I joined them outside when the last group was ready. 

The children (groups) that were first out had the time free while waiting for the rest to join them. (It was part of social education: their good behavior was rewarded with trusting them to be out alone ...)

The outcome at the end of the school year

One of the Year 1 classes needed only 10 minutes from the moment when the song was sung and the children gathered outdoors, such was their motivation to be the first group out ... playing freely! Children cooperated and helped each other at their basic tasks.

Year 2 class was more difficult to 'socialise'. I was able to organise 3 cooperative groups that worked, the rest of the children were occupied individually or sometimes paired up. Those, who were not part of the groups, had not received the groupwork benefits, which caused (the expected) complaints. We discussed the matter, made some progress, but then the school year had finished. And another teacher took over ...

Year 3 students were already deep into arguing with each other when I got them. With year 3 classes I didn't get far. Only a handful of children experienced the benefits of teamwork and were able to employ their social skills for cooperative work. The rest were still in a phase of getting control over their own emotions. 

If I had been their teacher for longer, (and if their class teachers had used some cooperative work) I could have achieved more. The progress the students had shown bore significant improvement in the positive emotional environment within a single year.

So, by starting 'socialising' in Year 1 (in order to establish positive emotional environment) pays off in both, children's motivation and teachers' stress reduce. (After you've made your share of sweating in Year 1, that is.)

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