Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I love it when a seating plan comes together…

Before kicking off, let me make it clear that I’m not teaching granny to suck eggs here. But if you are new to the teaching profession, or wondering about the best way to arrange your classroom, it may be that I can at least offer some food for thought.

And so we begin.

For those of us in Scotland, the new academic year is beginning to bear down on us – fewer than two weeks to go. Not long now until we meet our new classes (or nearly-new, for those of us who have the joy of the June start, ie a few weeks of running through the “new” timetable… difficult to explain this to anyone outside of Scotland, and nae wonder) – and not long until they meet us.

How, then, to start off? Do you use a seating plan?

I know of old hands in teaching who don’t bother. Get them in the door, then move the more obvious culprits from the back of the room to the front, and off we go. And I know of some newer teachers who have committed to having a different seating plan, more or less randomly generated, for every lesson, so that the pupils get a chance to work in different groups.

Both types of teachers have my admiration, but I confess I’m still a fan of the seating plan. I can – and will – give quite a few reasons for this, but for the main one, let me take you back a few years. Cue harp music representing flashback sequence…

It’s my first week in my first year of secondary school – heck, let’s just say it’s the first day. It probably was. My class, class 1C1, has been round a few classes already – English, I seem to recall, and Science, and what have you. In each class we’ve wandered into the room and found our way to seats – our choice.  Next up is History with Miss M. We find our way to the room and she is waiting right at the door to welcome us (for which she would still get brownie points today from HMI). I’m not paying much attention and I give her a friendly nod as I walk into the door when suddenly I’m not walking any more. She has her hand barring the doorway.

“And where do you think you’re going?” she asks. I’m about to point out that I’m quite obviously trying to get into the classroom, but she’s already asking me for my name, and showing me on her plan (which I only now notice in her hand) exactly where I’m to sit.

And to this day I can remember thinking:

This is not a teacher to be messed with.

That’s your main reason, right there. An immediate message to the new class: my house, my rules, my seating plan. Now to be fair, some kids may object to this – to which I can only say, good. You’ll never have a better chance to quash any complaints than on day one with a new class, so just go for it.  (And let’s face it, if you decide to give the kids free choice, and then decide a few weeks later that you really need to rearrange the seating because of all the riots and murder and whatnot, the kids will object all the more.)

Remember also a fairly basic premise: knowledge is power. If wee Darren is playing silly buggers at the back of the room, it’s a damn sight easier to call him to order if you know his name. So if you are going to use a seating plan, you’d better learn it, and fast, otherwise you’re operating at 50% power from the get-go. True story: I once took over a class who had been through any number of teachers, mainly supply, because of staffing difficulties. I drew up a seating plan before I met the class and, with a bit of effort, I learned the plan by heart, so that by the end of the lesson I was able – party piece ahoy – to go round the class and name each pupil, one by one, without recourse to any bits of paper. I then pointed out to the class that they would no longer be able to complain to their parents that their maths teacher(s) didn’t even know their name. It made an impact, I can assure you. (If you need help with memorisation techniques, by the way, go google. Heck, even Derren Brown will give you tips to get started. And if you still need convincing that knowing names is a powerful matter, here's a clip from Doctor Who where the good Doctor manages to evaporate a baddy just by naming them. Works for me.)

Now, for a few other reasons:

It’s an unspoken law that when pupils arrive and are given a free choice, then (a) the seats fill from the back of the room forwards, and (b) males and females tend to sit apart. (a) is obviously a daft idea – which is why old hands will move some of the kids at the back straight off. But based on what, exactly? How they look? Whether or not they are called Wayne? OK, so the truly worst offenders may well have tried to stab someone by now, but I doubt your super Spidey-teacher powers are so good that you can identify any and all trouble makers within three minutes of meeting the class. Much better, I’d argue, to go for a “random” (of which more anon) seating plan. One which, incidentally, manages to mix up the sexes so that boys and girls DO sit together, thereby dealing with (b). I mix them up not only because there’s a fair chance that behaviour will be better, but also because I think it’s not a bad idea to engineer an opportunity for daft wee ladies to be able to say at least a few words to not quite so daft wee lassies without breaking into a sweat. Well, they probably will sweat initially, but they’ll get there in the end. Trust me, if teachers didn’t mix classes up in this way, there’d be some lads out there who wouldn’t say a word to a girl for six years. (We should probably have seating plans in staff rooms, now I come to think of it, and for exactly the same reasons.)

Next, there’s no point in pretending that you are drawing up the seating plan in a vacuum, that is to say, in an absence of information about the pupils to be entrusted into your care. Even if you are new to the school, I’d be astonished if you weren’t given all manner of information – too much information, to be honest – about your pupils. And if such information is not forthcoming from the Support for Learning Department, or Learning Support Department, or Guidance Department… then get out there and ask for it, pronto. Otherwise you will be unaware that Wayne has fallen out with Dwayne and so they must not be seated together; that Darryl is blind in one eye and so has to be seated at the front and right; that Carryl is deaf in one ear and must be seated at the front and left; and that Mac the Knife earned his nickname the hard way and must be kept away from the safety scissors. Throw in the fact that every second kid has an inhaler and/or allergy to strawberry cheesecake, and hey presto, your seating plan now begins to resemble a Sudoku puzzle. That’s no reason not to draw up the plan, by the way, and it does beg the question of how you cater for all these requirements if you are randomly generating those plans.

I could go on, but it’s time for a break. My next post will look in more detail at seating plans through the lens of a pretty important question: assuming you have any control over it, how are you going to set your room out? Will pupils sit in rows, in pairs? Singly? In groups? And if so, in threes, or fours, or… what, exactly?