Behaviour

Assemblies: surfing the ripple to keep pupils focused

After wiping out on a wave of disruption of his own making, James Handscombe reflects on how to keep assemblies meaningful – and focused

After wiping out on a wave of disruption of his own making, James Handscombe reflects on how to keep assemblies meaningful – and focused

James Handscombe, executive principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form, has told students to stop calling teachers sir or miss

17 Oct 2022, 5:00

When the millennium was still in short trousers, I worked for a very charismatic and somewhat eccentric headteacher. Last week, I failed to live up to his mesmerising standard of school assemblies.

My old headteacher’s eccentricity was never more on show than during our annual Hats Day celebration, an Easter ceremony of his own devising. Each of us, staff and students, would construct and wear a hat and then go to a special assembly in which the students would be wound into a frenzy of millinery-related excitement that might generously be described as chaos.

Then he’d pause and continue delivering his reflective and uplifting message to a happy but rapt audience.

As I came out of my first Hats Day experience, somewhat bewildered, entirely delighted, an old hand said to me: “It’s not getting them so excited that’s impressive – anyone can do that – it’s bringing them back afterwards.”

Those words rang in my ears last week. I’d just delivered an assembly at my new school in which I’d told a joke. It wasn’t even a particularly funny joke, but it got a gratifying giggle. I paused, but the giggle became a murmur, then a whisper, then an open discussion. A ripple of disruption spread through the hall. I’d lost my audience.

It’s getting them back afterwards that’s impressive, and I had failed to impress. One solution would be not to tell a joke in the first place, but it’s not just flippancy that can cause the ripple. Talking about something controversial or emotionally loaded can do it too.

So, unless we’re happy for assemblies to slip into bland irrelevance we have to find a way to surf that ripple, control it and use it to power our message.

Once the ripple has become a great ocean roller of noise that’s crashing over you, there’s not much you can do. As I did last week, you can stop talking, take a deep breath, and use your ‘Teacher Voice’ to demand silence before delivering a short lecture about politeness in audiences. It’s effective, but it rather spoils the mood.

Better is to keep the ripple under control, to prepare beforehand for their enjoyment of your wit and wisdom and be ready to surf. If you’ll forgive advice from someone who has just confessed to being wiped out by an over-sized wave, then here are my top tips.

Emphasise the theatre of the occasion

The idea is to make it more than a teacher lecturing a crowd. Staging to give you height, a formal introduction to set you apart from the humdrum, a routine that connotes silence. A bit of pomp and circumstance goes a long way.

Don’t give them too much to cope with at once

The ripple becomes a tsunami when it represents discomfort and uncertainty, so don’t leap straight in. Warm them up with some light wordplay or something that isn’t too surprising.

Avoid cheap gags

Go for something slightly more obscure. If only those paying attention get it, you get a lighter disturbance and incentivise your audience to do the same.

Or at least warn them first

Alternatively, tell them in advance what you’re going to do and the response you’re looking for. This is strongly advised if your ‘joke’ is not, in fact, funny. It’s also a good idea if it’s something serious or meaningful you want to get across.

Use your teacher tricks early

Pause at the first sign of a giggle and fix them with a steely eye before moving on to your next line. A large hall is a step up from a classroom and it pays to be a bit more conservative in what you’ll allow.

An assembly is an amazing moment of connection between speaker and audience; it would be a shame to squander it by not building in humour or meaning. And so, next week, I shall be climbing back on my board and paddling out to sea with a glint in my eye and the hope of riding the next wave – all the way to shore.

More from this theme

Behaviour

GCSEs: Suspended pupils 12 months behind peers, research finds

Think tank's research puts 'a number on the suspension grades gap for the first time'

Samantha Booth
Behaviour

de Souza wants to check how many schools ban phones

Children's commissioner tells MPs she'd like to use her statutory powers to get clear picture of practice in schools

Samantha Booth
Behaviour

School mobile phone ‘ban’ guidance: What you need to know

DfE publishes non-statutory guidance it says will give 'hard-working teachers the tools to take action'

Freddie Whittaker
Behaviour

Teachers striking over pupil assaults demand ‘zero-tolerance’ 10-day exclusions

Union reports four physical assaults in the last two weeks alone at troubled Oasis Isle of Sheppey

Schools Week Reporter
Behaviour

Exclusions up on pandemic lull, as suspensions reach at record-high

But permanent exclusions still at lowest rate outside of lockdown-affected years

Freddie Whittaker
Behaviour

‘Wake-up’ call for schools as weeks of lessons lost to misbehaviour

Government survey finds discrepancy between leaders, teachers and pupils' views on disruption

Jack Dyson

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *