Lizzy Price teaches Year 1: “I’ve taught other year groups, but I just feel at home here. I think if you’re going to get something right, you start at the beginning. They’re at the beginning and this is an amazing opportunity. I might have the power to make them love or hate education – I’m really going for the love part.” One part of achieving this is creating a classroom which combines purpose and joy.
Lizzy takes her responsibility introducing students to the expectations and opportunities of formal education seriously: “It is important because school is very different to home. They’ve not been in school for very long and you’re asking them to do something that may seem a bit obscure to them and might not be how they function at home. They may be an only child and not used to interacting with other people, or maybe they’re only used to interacting with one person at a time and then suddenly they’re in this classroom with loads of other children.”
“It’s just about being really clear and breaking it down with Year 1”
Lizzy sees modelling and setting high expectations of behaviour as an important part of this, whether in doing “a lot of speaking in full sentences” or ensuring “high expectations of how to treat others”. “So I tend to model with other children and I’ll be part of the group. I model the mistakes for them so that they can shout it out at me, so they’ve got some awareness of what not to do. Then, they go away and they’re more aware of their own behaviour, through watching and assessing an adult doing it first.”
Lizzy makes her routines very clear to her pupils. As the video shows, pupils know exactly what the signs she shows them mean. For example, Lizzy covers her eyes as a way of showing the children that they “don’t look like my Hedgehog Class.” Immediately, and without being asked explicitly, her pupils sit up attentively.
Initially, Lizzy was very careful in establishing the classroom’s standards: “At first, it takes time to build that trust and they need to know where the boundary is. So, we had firmer instructions to begin with, but now routine setting is fairly easy. I just tell them what I expect of them and I give them the chance to ask their question and then if they don’t settle, I will ask them politely and that will usually do. It’s just about being really clear and breaking it down with Year 1.”
“I want them to enjoy learning”
Lizzy sees setting routines as important, but she takes her role in helping her children love school just as seriously: “I want them to enjoy learning” she says, adding that she is with her pupils all day “and I want to enjoy my job.” So Lizzy looks for “ways to do things that are fun and playful” combining firmness with fun: “There is a way of standing so that they know that you mean business, but saying it nicely: ‘I need you to do this’, but I can say it in a fun way, or I can disguise it as part of our topic – it’s a game for me.” Lizzy is pragmatic about her children: “They are only five and six. They want to play… I can’t tell them, ‘You’ve got to learn how to write a sentence because you will need it in later life’. I would rather that they feel that they’re part of something. So we are silly and we play and most of them know in the back of their mind that this isn’t a game, but they want to be part of it. So we give them play and then they want to keep writing, even when you want them to stop.”
“I’m using my body to scaffold the message”
Lizzy uses her hands continuously as a way to reinforce the requests she makes of pupils. For example, she asks all those with “long hair” to stand, drawing out the words and stroking her own hair at the same time. She explained that when pupils first join the school, many of her class “have no English at all. By Year 1, sometimes they’ve got some functional English, but not the academic English they usually need to access everything, and in their own languages they have a different vocabulary bank and a different sound bank. Even if they didn’t and they had the vocabulary already, I think a pair of hands is really useful. I’m using my body to scaffold the message and the instructions I’m giving for them. So, they can still access the lesson, because I can’t imagine how bad that would be, just if you walked into a class in Japan and couldn’t understand anything they said and then were expected to do something, you would probably feel awful and I don’t want them to feel like that.”
The culture of Lizzy’s classroom is exemplified by a couple of moments in the video. The clip opens with Lizzy inviting pupils to choose how they will spend their break; yet Lizzy also uses the words “my turn” in a sing-song voice to emphasise both that she expects her pupils’ attention at that moment, but that they too have a ‘turn’. Late in the clip, when one pupil is chosen to show where to stand, a number of students chip in “I’m happy for him”, a phrase Lizzy taught the class as an alternative to jealous responses when a peer was chosen in their place.
It sometimes feels as though discussion about managing classrooms falls into diametrically opposed camps, advocating total control or total anarchy. Lizzy shows how it is possible to create a safe environment with moments of silliness to provide student choice over activities with orderly preparations for them. Lizzy’s winning combination: firm, explicit routines, camouflaging her requests in play, and clarification through physical gestures, creates a safe, caring and productive classroom.
Lizzy is a ‘13 ambassador at Medway Community Primary School in Leicester. Hear more about her approach to planning and her vision for her pupils.