‘Three, two, one, pens down and eyes on me.’ This phrase, or variations of it, is one almost every teacher will use at some point to gain students’ attention. This what I call a back-pocket phrase – a phrase deliberately crafted and practised so you can use it effortlessly, kept in reserve for key situations.
During my teacher training, we were encouraged to have a variety of these phrases available for different scenarios. Initially, I was dubious of their effectiveness – they felt too prescriptive – but now I use them daily. Here are a few examples of where back-pocket phrases may come in handy.
1. After behaviour incidents
The way we speak to students about their behaviour can sometimes make a situation worse. Rather than simply giving a negative conduct point or a detention, it’s important to speak to the student about what happened, so they understand why the behaviour was not acceptable and how to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
I put the onus on the students in these conversations by using scripted questions, which can be adapted to suit the scenario. Let’s assume you’ve taught some new content and are questioning pupils to check understanding. One student is shouting out answers, despite your blanket warning not to do so, to allow everyone the chance to demonstrate their understanding. Yet the behaviour continues. So I ask the student to step outside the classroom to have a private conversation, and I then use a few back-pocket questions. What led to you now standing outside the class? Who was affected by this behaviour? What can we do in future to ensure it doesn’t happen again?
With other behaviours, it may be appropriate to ensure students know you have considered their emotions. How did you feel when this happened? How do you feel now you have had a minute outside? Do you need more time before rejoining the class? What needs to happen now to put things right?
2. Speaking to parents
Depending on your school’s policy, you may only communicate with parents at parents’ evenings, or you may have to ring about behaviour incidents, or as part of your role as a form tutor. This can be daunting. I start a phone conversation with: ‘Hello, is that …? It’s Dr Owens from … I teach … science. Do you have a minute?’
A script gives focus and helps reduce any anxiety – it provides a quick introduction and reveals that the conversation will be short. Most parents are very receptive, particularly as it allows them to decide if it’s a suitable time.
3. Personal questions
Children are inquisitive, especially about their teachers’ lives outside of school. An abrupt ‘That’s personal’ response can cause embarrassment, affect the relationship or lead to more challenging questions. A gentler approach, such as, ‘I don’t need to know everything about your life so you don’t need to know about mine’ or ‘Who would have thought you were so interested in your teacher’s life?’ can shut these questions down.
If you live locally, students might see you outside of school hours, so on Monday morning you might be greeted with: ‘Oh Miss, I saw you at the weekend in Tesco’. Jokingly responding, ‘Well, teachers do need to eat, too’, will prevent these conversations from spiralling.
4. Difficult questions
Students may have questions beyond the curriculum which may not be relevant, and can take the lesson in a direction you didn’t intend. It’s a balancing act to keep them engaged without reducing precious curriculum time. Use a few scripted responses to make the student feel their query was valid, without stealing lesson time. ‘That’s an interesting question. It doesn’t link very well to what we are covering today but we can discuss it at the end of the lesson if you want.’ Of course, some students ask questions to delay any independent work, so this also works well as a behavioural strategy.
It’s trickier when learners do link to the topic you’re covering, but you don’t know the answer. Be honest. You can’t be an expert in every niche scientific topic, and it is important they know that. Combat this with: ‘That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer right now, but I can look it up for you and let you know next lesson.’