8 Strategies For Happier Classrooms

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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How can we make our classrooms happier?

If you want to get under the bonnet of a happy classroom, then go to the country with more saunas than cars, the place where a Day for Failure is celebrated every October 13th and also plays host to the annual world championships in Air Guitar, Mobile Phone Throwing and Wife Carrying.

Finland has been serving aces and enjoying a centre court position in the educational world for some time. It has become a tourist destination for educators keen to understand more. Although it is recognised that translating an education system from one country to another is impossible, that doesn’t stop us from copying and pasting and stealing strategies and giving them a go. Those canny Finns know a thing or two.

One person that can share some insights is Tim Walker, an American teacher who taught in Finland for a couple of years and has written the book Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms.

Tim’s book has something for everyone and the ideas he shares make you think twice about what you could do to bring some joy into your own classroom.

Some of the ideas aren’t new and many aren’t exclusive to Finland either, but they are all tried and tested techniques that can benefit any classroom to help you hit the joy jackpot.

I’ve adapted a few below.

1. Have Frequent Pit Stops

Built into every hour of class, teachers and students in Finnish schools typically enjoy a 15 minute break. Taking multiple breaks helps students to disconnect from their work and then be more focused as it refreshes their brains.

2. Co-plan

In the UK, we are obsessed with planning everything for children rather than with children, so, it’s lopsided responsibility. Children have a lot to offer – give them a voice, share the planning and share the responsibility of determining the direction of learning.

3. Teacher Swap

Tap into the talents around you by inviting your colleagues into your classroom to share their expertise. You can’t be the consummate all-rounder, so don’t go it alone. Get people in to share what they know and you do the same for someone else. Welcome the experts!

4. Forget The Competition

Collaboration is king, cooperation is queen. No one should be burning out and working themselves into the ground, and no one should be worried about their status as a competent teacher. Being non-competitive, being satisfied that you are doing a good job working as a team of learners makes all the difference. Seek flow, not superiority.

5. Customise Tests

Children often don’t do well in tests because the tests fail them – children don’t fail tests. ‘Generic’ tests don’t allow children to showcase who they are, prove their learning and justify their thinking. Tests have to be customised so that assessments are aligned more closely to the teaching that happens in your class, not someone else’s. Tests can make children happier if they do well – tests that actually reflect what has been done in class gives children a chance to shine. Sadly, many of our tests test children on things they haven’t been taught, so no wonder they get anxious and are unhappy.

6. Coach More

Limit your praise and emphasise feedback that is specific, honest and constructive. Empty praise can empty heads of what needs to be done to progress. Good teaching is good coaching achieved through modelling and feedback to achieve high quality work together.

7. Go Wild

We might not all have a wilderness on our doorstep, but that doesn’t stop us from addressing our nature-deficit disorder from taking the learning outside. Leaving the indoors behind is vital. As Sir Ken Robinson has said, outdoor learning is vital for education because:

  1. Nature is a powerful resource,
  2. Children can play through practical hands-on activities
  3. You can tap into children’s curiosity
  4. It is a social experience and children learn from working together
  5. Learning outdoors is fun.
8. Recharge

The one factor that will make your classroom happier is you. Children look to us for stability and as the ‘Captain of the Ship’, you have to be in ship-shape yourself. Focus on your wellbeing, pace yourself, set boundaries for work and rest … and keep to them. You have to recharge on a daily basis.

Learn From Suomi

Finland come top of the tree because they value happiness more than achievement. If you are happy you achieve more. Prioritising joy isn’t what we are good at, which is why the UK is in the thick fog of a mental health crisis.

There are plenty more simple and effective techniques that Tim talks about in his book that can benefit any classroom, so it is well worth investigating and trying them out for yourself.

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