Lessons Learned from Primary Observations

green click pen on a white graphing notebook
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I work mostly with teachers fresh off the CELTA, who are suddenly expected to teach a mostly young learner timetable. Part of my job is to support them, provide advice, and take part in an observation cycle with them twice a term.

There’s a huge jump from teaching adults on the CELTA course to teaching primary children for three hours on a Saturday, of course. I can offer training on how children learn, what a meaningful task is, and so on, but I have noticed there are a few other things that newly-qualified teachers are missing. These things took me years to learn, and they are not really covered in training sessions.

Here I outline some common situations, why they occur, what the problem is, and suggest a solution. Hopefully this will help you in your own teaching, or teacher training.

Situation 1

The children enter the room in dribs and drabs. They very slowly find a seat. They start chatting. One child gets a toy out of their bag. The teacher is logging in to the computer, with his back to the children.

Why?

The children don’t know where to sit. Does the teacher want them to do something? Their schoolbags are huge, and they don’t know where to put them. They feel a bit unsure. One child is bored and has a new toy he wants to show his classmates.

The teacher has barely said hello to the children- he’s dealing with technology.

What’s the issue?

This lesson has started with some children feeling bored, and others lacking confidence. The teacher hasn’t really acknowledged the group- do the children feel valued, in this case?

There’s no clear signal that the lesson has begun. Is it still playtime? The children don’t know. If the children are still chatting, laughing and playing with something not related to their English lesson, who can blame them?

What’s the solution?

  1. Prepare your classroom before the lesson. Set up your computer/boardwork. Lay out your register and any handouts on your desk.
  2. Greet the children at the door. Say hello to every individual.
  3. Consider having an area for children to put their bags and coats. I like to set up a table at the back of the room for this. As they enter the room, tell them where to put their things.
  4. Consider putting name cards on the tables, so children know where they should sit.

 

Situation 2

The teacher stands at the front of the class. The children are seated at tables. The teacher gives an instruction, asks CCQs and gives a time limit (fresh from CELTA, after all!). Some children are fiddling with their notebooks, one is sharpening a glittery pencil as the teacher is doing this.

six assorted color lollipops
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Half the class start to do this activity. The teacher goes around the room quickly to repeat the same instructions to individual children.

Some children start to play with their glittery pencils, or with a toy in their pocket.

Why?

The children don’t know what they are going to do in this lesson. They have one hour (or three!) in front of them, and they have no idea what is going to happen. Some children assume they will need to write something, so they have their pencil and notebook ready. Some children didn’t realise the teacher was saying something important, so they didn’t listen. Or they didn’t understand- but the teacher always comes around to each child and explains again, anyway, so why bother listening?

Some children are simply bored by waiting.

What’s the issue?

This is not a safe learning environment for children. They do not understand what is expected of them, or what is coming next.

The children have no voice or agency in this learning process- learning will be ‘done to’ them, at some point.

This is exhausting and frustrating for the teacher. In giving poor instructions, the teacher feels he needs to repeat them to every child. Naturally, the children realise this and simply wait for their individual attention, rather than getting started on the activity. As they wait, some children will become bored and want to play or fiddle with something.

What’s the solution?

  1. Set out the learning aims and structure of the lesson at the start. This can be done visually.
  2. Make sure everyone is listening when you are giving instructions. Ask children to put notebooks/pencils away until they are needed.
  3. Give multimodal instructions. Show pictures of what you want them to do, or a video. Think of a song or mime to deliver the instructions.
  4. Model the task with you and one learner. Model again with two learners.

 

Situation 3

The children are going to do a task where they need pencils, coloured pencils, and glue. After giving instructions (hopefully modelling, too), the teacher gives the handout. The children wait. The teacher gives the pencils, coloured pencils and glue. The children wait to receive the materials.

Once they have the materials, they seem reluctant to start. The teacher goes around the room quickly, to tell every child they can start the activity.

Eventually, some children finish the activity. They each tell the teacher when they have finished. Other children are still working.

Why?

Some children got the materials earlier than others, so naturally they finished earlier. There may also be some mixed abilities in the group.

Some children didn’t realise the activity had ‘started’, as the teacher was giving things out.

Each child tells the teacher when they’ve finished, as they expect to be told ‘well done’ and given something else to do.

What’s the issue?

The children are sitting waiting for a long time here, and the result is a bit chaotic. Naturally, by the time they get their pencils and glue, they have either forgotten what they need to do, or they don’t know if they’re ‘allowed’ to start or not.

The teacher is running around handing things out, getting every child started on the activity, and dealing with children shouting out that they are finished. This makes for a rather loud and distracting classroom.

brass bell
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What’s the solution?

  1. Give roles to some children. Have them hand out materials.
  2. Have a signal when children can start an activity. You could sing a song, show a flashcard, or ring a bell.
  3. In your instructions, include what you want children to do when they finish. Do you want them to shout ‘Teacher! Finished!’ (um, no!)? Do you want them to help a classmate? Or go to the story corner and read a book? Let them know in advance.

 

Situation 4

The bell has just gone, and the children stand up and run to the door. Chairs are all over the place, there’s some rubbish on the floor, and one child has forgotten their cardigan.

The teacher packs up and leaves the room. The academic manager gets complaints from the next teacher- the room was a mess.

The parents of the children ask them what they did in their (very expensive) English lesson today. The children say ‘nothing’.

Why?

The children don’t realise they need to take responsibility for the classroom. They want to go and play. The children genuinely don’t know why they did the series of activities in the lesson.

The teacher hasn’t asked the children to tidy the classroom, and after they’ve left thinks ‘Well, it’s not my job to clean up this mess!’ (Newsflash: it is).

What’s the issue?

Children may leave the room pushing and shoving each other, which could lead to injury. Having such a rushed and frantic end to the lesson is also stressful to the teacher. Leaving the classroom a mess puts pressure on auxiliary staff, who have to work harder because you didn’t do your job, which is unfair.

adorable animal animal portrait blur
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What’s the solution?

  1. Have a clear end-of-lesson routine in place. This should include time for the children to get their things ready to go, and to get in an orderly line by the door.
  2. Factor in how much time the children need to get everything tidy and ready to go. This might take 15 minutes, but I find it’s better to give this stage as much time as children need to do this calmly.

These are just some of the lessons I’ve learned from teaching and observing Primary classes. Do you have any others?

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