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Lessons on facilitation from…

As hot as the term is, Facilitation isn’t actually the new kid on the block. Those charismatic skills of leading a room full of people, engaging interaction, guiding collaboration… are age-old practices used in many vocations and disciplines. We’re talking about primary school teachers, prison guards, tour guides, Karate Senseis and beyond.

Alongside introducing new and creative ways to facilitate here at Mischief Makers, we’ve created this series to celebrate and draw attention to the brilliant knowledge and practices already out there.

First up is Rachel Pearson, a primary school teacher in Scotland. She believes children see the world through a magical lens and she wants to be a part of creating memorable learning experiences for them. Here are the 7 main learnings from our chat, with the full interview below.

Magical beings, indeed

7 Lessons from the primary school teacher:

  1. The quickest way to learn is by doing. Half a year of teaching has empowered Rachel to deal with almost any eventuality.
  2. Get information about the group beforehand. This helps you prepare for potential surprises.
  3. Be approachable. Create a safe environment and establish rapport so that members of the group feel like they can talk to you about anything.
  4. Set a learning goal and allow the group to reach that goal themselves. Don’t tell them what to do, but assist when necessary.
  5. Establish a social contract for crowd control; eg. a tool to use in order to centralise attention.
  6. Tricky group members require some extra rapport. This results in them disrupting the learning process less.
  7. Estimating how long things take requires experience. At first, the schedule will always be different than expected. This is ok.

Read on to get a first-hand account of what it’s like to be a pillar of society:

Hi Rachel! What kind of groups do you teach?

Hi guys! I teach all ages, from 5 to 11 years old. I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, I go in to whatever classroom needs me that day. I work with different groups with different needs on a day to day basis.

That sounds fairly tough from a preparation standpoint. What’s your process like getting ready for class?

I’ve been thrown into classes a lot this year without time to prepare, often with literally no idea what I’m supposed to be doing. This has actually helped so much with my nerves. I used to prepare for hours, and now I’ve been empowered to deal with almost any eventuality. Throw me into any classroom and I can teach an art lesson or do games for half an hour. I can now think of a lesson on the spot.

My background is actually music, it’s what I studied for my undergraduate. This means I’m able to pull from a large resource of games and lessons other teachers might not feel confident doing. I know tonnes of singing games that children absolutely adore, so I’ll often use those as a way to break up the routine.

In general, if I know what class I’m teaching I’ll find out what’s on the curriculum and plan a lesson tailored to age, level and vibe of the class. If they’re loud and crazy I have to make it more engaging and interactive, if they’re older I’ll challenge them more, etc. I’ll also find out if there are any children with special needs, so I can make extra materials for them.

I’ve only been teaching for a year and a half.

In the beginning, I used to prepare every single word I’d plan to say, or I’d get muddled up and confused during explanations.

I don’t have to do that any more. After just a year and a half of experience it’s amazing how time spent planning has shrunk, as I’ve grown in confidence and being able to think on my feet.

What is important when you interact with a brand-new group?

Every teacher is different and will have their own style. I’m fun and bubbly (editor’s note: this is 100% correct, Rachel is top 3 most fun people I’ve ever met, possibly first place), but you have to be careful with that. I teach in a deprived area and you have to be mindful with certain behaviours, as children with problems at home will not respond well to a teacher that is all fun and games.

My priority is to be approachable and to give the feeling that you can talk to me about anything.

But I don’t start class or continue a lesson if I don’t have absolutely everyone’s attention. I’ve developed a very keen sense of when children are fooling around or if they’re a million miles away. I’ll be super fun and bubbly, but very quick to call people out. I don’t shout any more, that’s something I used to do a lot when I was starting out. Now I let my stern side come out a bit, and that usually does the trick.

Actual footage of Rachel in class

Shouting usually doesn’t solve anything. In fact, it’s a sign of weakness, or that you’ve lost your temper or your cool.

Some of the children from very difficult backgrounds get shouted at home most of the time, they don’t need that at school too. Being stern shows that you’re enforcing boundaries as a teacher, which the children need and respect more easily.

As a teacher, how do you transfer knowledge? Or how do you know if a child has absorbed knowledge?

I don’t know if I’d call it transferring knowledge. Our main goal is to provide a space or an opportunity where children problem-solve or figure it out for themselves. We do a lot of group work. For example, if we’re learning about St. Andrew’s day, I’ll give them a powerpoint, some information sources and an activity. If you can do the activity, I know you’ve learned it. So the activities are there for them to create the learning for themselves. You can always go to individual pupils and check they truly grasped the material by asking them questions about their work.

Every single student in years 5 and 6 gets an iPad to take home for their learning. So for Christmas I’ll give them a task to make an advent calendar. They can do it whichever way they want, using whatever app or tool they desire. Onenote, BookCreator, or download something new. Whatever you do, if you click or tap or do something to each number representing the dates of December, something needs to happen. They can do it in groups, pairs or alone. Totally up to them.

This is where teaching is going. Less of ‘here’s the information, here’s what you should know, we’re going to just tell you and you remember it for a test.’ You facilitate them reaching their own conclusions and learnings. If you see someone is struggling you go over and talk to them to figure out where it’s going wrong. Providing possible ideas but not telling them what to do.

Very cool! Sounds similar to what we do as facilitators! How do you maintain order, or keep the chaos at bay?

Hah! Crowd control is one of our main responsibilities as primary school teachers. There are lots of small tricks you pick up, like you sing something and they’ve all been trained to sing back to you, to get their attention back. Maintaining order has most to do with your relationship to the children. They have to feel you’re approachable, that they’re able to tell you anything, liking and trusting you.

Children are cheeky. They aren’t going to want to do what you say unless they like you.

Some really like rules and respect boundaries. Others take a lot of time and energy from me before they start respecting me.

Sometimes I use my personal staff room planning time to hang out with the trickier children, building trust. By playing Lego for example, or just having a chat. I take the time to build a relationship. Usually the majority of the pupils are very easy to keep order with. They respect boundaries and listen, because they think the teacher is engaging, fun and kind. The others just need some time. For example, I sometimes offer the children with social anxiety to eat lunch in the classroom with me instead of the busy hall so they feel safe and develop trust.

I also really work with the tricky students before the problem gets out of hand. They then want to listen to you because they don’t want to let you down. Usually they’re dealing with personal problems. I build rapport with the ones that seek attention, because that’s ultimately what they crave or lack.

You don’t have to do this one-on-one always, I also do this during class with other children. One particularly tricky kid for example, as I’m teaching, sometimes I’ll just rest my hand on his shoulder, or have a private joke with him as the others are doing a task. This lets him know I’m there for him, that I see him.

How do you stay on schedule?

Wow, this was a huuuge problem when I started. Time management is the devil. I was teaching the actual subject of time in maths last, and it was an absolute disaster. I’d do maybe 20 minutes worth of material in an hour and a half. This is something you learn on the job, as you gain experience.

The reason some material takes longer should be because of high engagement. I’ll often not worry too much because the children are learning.

I might go off schedule but it’s ok, because the students are actively participating.

Otherwise it means you’ve planned badly. It could be that the children aren’t ready for the material, or it’s far too easy for them.

Ideally every lesson should be tailored to every group, and when that happens you can feel that everything is going smoothly. If it goes a slightly different direction it’s ok if they’re still learning good stuff. As a teacher, you get good at figuring out how long things will take.

My estimations have improved dramatically. Still, every day there is so much that hasn’t gotten done. Like I haven’t even touched fractions this term, they don’t even know what a fraction is! Every time we get to end of term, all the teachers check in with each other. There’ll be lots of questions like ‘eeeuh have you done even one writing class yet?’ ‘God, no, who knows when I’ll fit that in’. Especially coming up to Christmas with all the fairs and extracurricular events we organise. It’s not humanly possible to teach everything, but it’s ok. It usually sorts itself out, somehow.

It usually sorts itself out, somehow — it always does. Thank you Rachel!

Interested to opt up your own facilitation practice?
Check our facilitation course out
here.

Words by Roeland Doherty

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Your monthly dose of Mischief around play, collaboration and facilitation.

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Mischief Makers

A facilitation agency focused on collaborative working and the power of creativity. We design workshops and programs that shake things up to unlock potential. ✨

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