It can become all too easy for a teacher to experience a sort of negative spiral in the classroom, especially when faced with a particularly challenging student. Originally, they feel inhibited from seeking support around challenging students leading to a downward spiral of resentment towards students, and an overload of blame on the student, instead of any evaluation of the teacher’s own practice. Professionality wanes in response to the daily negativity and the teacher’s emotional intelligence is suddenly a lost cause while they are prioritising their own survival. They stop being able to see difficult students as vulnerable children.
Pastoral leaders end up having to pick up the pieces of this kind of unraveling. But the negative spiral can be avoided.
First off, there are some core conditions that are prerequisite to effective teaching: the teacher must be prepared with a lesson plan, that is not too rigid to be adapted, but is well structured; the lesson delivery should be focussed on facilitating learning rather than reeling off a powerpoint. There should be discussion, variety, stimulation and a range of challenges and pace to keep students engaged; thirdly, the teacher’s attitude should be positive, open and friendly, coming across as warm and welcoming. Pastoral leaders should support teachers to include the most vulnerable students, and make sure that these core conditions are always and consistently practiced. As a pastoral leader, you want to minimise the amount that students are being sent out of class.
One of the best ways to do this is to ensure that teaching is differentiated. This does not mean producing an individual learning plan for each child in the class. That would be a pain and an unrealistic expectation. Instead, being aware of different abilities in the class, and different approaches or options that could be put into practice to engage a wider range of students. This simple concept can reduce a huge amount of more challenging behaviours.
As Ofsted says: Teachers should make sure that all students have opportunities to fulfill their potential, regardless of their starting points or abilities.
But they also say: Inspectors don’t expect work and tasks in all lessons to be tailored to meet each student’s individual abilities.
Despite this, many teachers seem unwilling to practice differentiated teaching and lesson delivery. Strong forms of differentiation seem to clash with lots of teachers’ strong beliefs that all students should be treated equally. And on a practical level, the heavy workload of English schools combined with an unfavourable ratio of planning to teaching time makes it all the less appealing to teachers to make sure lesson plans are differentiated.
But I’m saying here that differentiation is worth pursuing, and as a pastoral leader, it’s what you should be encouraging your teachers to include in their lesson plans. You want to avoid children being sent away to specialist schools as much as you can. Many specialist school placements can be avoided if pastoral leaders in mainstream schools train and support their colleagues to teach and engage with vulnerable students successfully.
So how can you help teachers differentiate?
First off, you can try to create the conditions for learning. Vulnerable students need to be included in the classroom. This means they need to be spoken to with a certain amount of respect, nurture and care, and given as much attention as possible. Of course, if a student is actually endangering themselves and others, then they should be removed from the environment, but keep in mind that nearly all behaviours can be preempted and thwarted in advance. This can be done by:
- Immediately understanding the student’s needs, and
- Creating a curriculum environment that meets those needs.
This means that before the lesson even begins, the student is more likely to be in conditions that minimise the likelihood of challenging behaviour.
Of course, to support teachers in dealing with vulnerable students, you must build up a good relationship with the teachers. Make sure they feel comfortable talking to you as a pastoral leader. Remind them that no-one’s perfect, and it’s ok for them to tell you how they’re feeling, and particularly how challenging they might be finding challenging students. You have to be extremely careful to be non-judgemental. As soon as a teacher feels judged by you, your relationship will break down. Be emotionally intelligent, and think about how the teacher might be feeling when they interact with you. In addition to this, make sure you are doing your bit by communicating effectively with teachers. If you know something about a student that the teacher doesn’t and that is likely to affect the way the student behaves in class, then you need to make sure the teacher knows this too. It’s not enough to just upload the information to the student’s file: no teacher will have time to go through every student’s file before every lesson!
The best way you can actually support a teacher is by modeling an example of a lesson for them to observe, and then talking it through with them. Of course, you might be thinking that you surely don’t have the time for this kind of lengthy support. But keep in mind that the pastoral role should be predominantly proactive and preventative, rather than just reactive. Modeling inclusive teaching for a colleague is an extremely good use of your time as a pastoral leader.
When modeling a lesson, here are some of the key techniques for inclusive teaching that you should emphasize:
- Getting the learning pace right.
- Using accessible language. It’s incredibly important to avoid shouting a student, as being shouted out often just reinforces the bad behaviour. Language choice can make all the difference, and trying to set out expectations clearly, having a seating plan, making sure that positive relationships are formed and maintained are all ways to minimise aggressive language.
- Convince all teachers that pre-learning and over-learning are the keys to a world of success, without any extra resources or intervention. Pre-learning is simply giving students a heads-up of what will go on in a particular lesson. Over-learning is going over it again with them after. Pre-learning and over-learning directly address the full range of SEN very well. This technique establishes an effective learning environment, assesses quality and practices differentiated planning and effective deployment of support staff.
As always, throughout the process of inclusive teaching, differentiated lessons and the rest, as a pastoral leader, you must make sure you’re still looking after yourself. There’s little point guiding teachers in how to include every student if you yourself eventually exclude yourself by overdoing it. Remember that there’s only so much you can do. But I hope that these guidelines will help you work out efficient strategies to support teachers and students.