Whilst we busied ourselves preparing for our future as teachers, developing our subject knowledge, pedagogy and behaviour management, I never remember anyone teaching me to be a form tutor. I remember learning all of the statutory guidance around safe guarding, both at university and on placement, that bit was thorough. But, the nuts and bolts of facing a form group everyday, I learnt that on the job.
Just be clear, this is by no means a criticism of anyone involved in my ITT (or ITT in general). Far from it. Teacher training is very much a finite experience, and every second is crammed full of things to prepare you for the classroom.
I started my NQT year in June, immediately after completing my PGCE, it was then that I was introduced to my first for group. They were year 9, had been with their current form tutor since year 7, and they idolised him! He was THE BEST FORM TUTOR EVER! I didn’t want to point out he was the only one they’d had, so where was their comparison? But I decided that my dented ego would just need to take the hit for now, and I’d just need to learn how to meet the standard.
Failing to plan is planning to failAlan Lakein, 1970s (apparently!)
Although the origins of this ubiquitous phrase are somewhat shaky, the sentiment stands strong. Planning for form time was often something I neglected in my early career. I was busy making card sorts, 3 types of worksheets and a circus activity for every class, but that’s a different story, which meant there was little time available to plan form time. It was often an after thought, a panic 10 minutes before the 8.45 am bell. I and my form, suffered the dysfunction this bought about. Something had to give.
Here are a few things that have helped me transition from a nervous, deflated egoed NQT, to someone a bit more organised with my form group!
Getting to know them
Doubtlessly, ‘know the kids’ is a phrase everyone had drilled throughout training. It’s true. Knowing them is fundamentally important, especially when they are your tutees.
Find time in your tutor periods to actually talk to them, find out their interests, how they are feeling towards school, what they are struggling with. Over time, you get to know them well, and that means you can support them really well.
Have a plan for each tutor time
Many schools will already have a form time schedule, what each year group should be doing each day. This is an example from my school:
If your school has a schedule for form time, stick to to it! If it doesn’t have some form of schedule, make one for yourself! And stick to it.
Students thrive on routine. For most schools, not all, form time is the first part of the day. Effectively, that means you are setting the tone for them for that day, make it a good one. Having had 30 voices filling the void where my tutor time plan should have been, I always make sure that there is something productive for them to be involved with or doing.
Read to them
3 years ago, my friend and colleague, the wonderful Joanne Tiplady (@MissJoT), set up a tutor reading programme at our school. It is not an overstatement to say its success has been truly transformational in our school. It has been implemented in years 7-10, with each student being read to twice a week. She discusses its set up, benefits and underpinning research in her blog here and for @BrewEdClee here.
we are professional, degree educated people who teach in the English language and who meet teacher standards. Tutors are not being asked to teach English or literature; they are simply being asked to read. As such, although I understand the hesitation if one is unsure, I feel passionately that we have a responsibility to model reading for our pupils. In this we act in loco parentis; there are pupils in our classes who do not read and are not read to.Joanne Tiplady, Reading for benefit.
If your school hasn’t set up such a programme, show them the blog and the webinar. If they’re still not sold, try it with your own form first. Then keep selling it.
Those in your form group often want to find you to have a chat, maybe discuss something important or just seek some help. For that, they need to know where you are and when you’re available. For this, I would suggest having specific office hours, to ensure boundaries are set. I found this was especially important when my form were in younger years, and every issue is a problem. Which, of course, when you are 11 years old, it really is. So they need to know when they can and when they can’t see you. To give them support when it is appropriate and to give them the opportunity to problem solve and self-regulate too.
I would also suggest discussing with them what would constitute an ’emergency’ which would mean, if absolutely necessary, they could see you out of office hours (I don’t mean a Saturday morning, but more like a Wednesday lunchtime, which you normally leave as sacred to catch up with your department!)
Birthdays & Christmas
If you choose to celebrate birthdays, Christmas, and other festivals with your form, I would suggest you decide how that will look from the outset. If you send cards, or do Christmas gifts one year, the expectation will be there from them on in. Do you want to continue that for your time with them?
If so, prepare in advance. With my form, I don’t send birthday cards, as I just wasn’t prepared in year 7, so haven’t done it since, but I do celebrate with a small token at Christmas. I normally buy them in the January sales and spend about 50p per child. This is a precedent I have chosen to set, so I will stick with it, but it is certainly not expected of a form tutor, so don’t feel obliged if you don’t want to. Your form, your choice.
If you choose to send birthday cards, you can normally get packs of 10 for £1. I would write these out at the start of the year and keep them in a handy drawer, otherwise, it is inevitable you will forget! And you don’t want to leave that one child wondering why they didn’t get a card.
Praise & misconduct
Again, consistency is key. You are the real crux in supporting your students with behaviour management. Most schools have an electronic system for recording incidents of misconduct or that are praise-worthy. Check this daily in order to have appropriate discussions with your tutees. Personally, I would ensure that praise is public and conversations about poor behaviour are held in private.
The important thing is, they know you are watching out for them, and, more importantly, will provide the appropriate support to achieving their best standards and reaching success.
Sweat the small stuff
Sweating the small stuff isn’t about picking on every little thing with your students. It involves having high standards, and doing all that you can to help them to achieve those high standards. This involves behaviour, praise, attendance, punctuality, uniform and equipment.
If you sweat the small stuff, they know that you expect a lot of them. If they are struggling to meet those expectations, by wearing their tie incorrectly, or not bringing the correct equipment, you are catching them early and are able to help them. This is also important in your role in safeguarding. If a student is constantly dishevelled or without the correct equipment, this could be indicative of something bigger than your role is able to deal with. But your safeguarding lead can, so sweating the small stuff is key in supporting the bigger picture.
On a visit back to Birmingham I visited the shops, walking through Debenhams I heard a high pitched squeal “Miss Lewis!”
Turning around I saw a young lady running towards me, I instantly knew who she was. She had been in that very first tutor group, and had now graduated law school and was on track to becoming a solicitor. And that, my friends, was bloody lovely.
Being a form tutor can be tricky. It’s a bit like being their in school parent. Whether you inherit a form, or get a shiny new year 7 form, you can make their 20 minutes every day one they look forward to and use to help them achieve success.