Secret Student

Secret student is a ‘golden nugget’ I have stolen from a work colleague (Sophie) and started implementing a couple of weeks ago! So far I can say it has been incredibly successful.

Starting at a new school, I have had to build up my reputation as a teacher and set out my high expectations with all the new students I now teach. One of my classes, my current bottom set year 9 class, are challenging. However, the more I have got to know them (and them me!) our relationship is becoming a positive one. This doesn’t always mean they take pride in their class work or work to the best of their ability in every lesson. So when a colleague (also a new teacher to the school) suggested starting secret student, I have never looked back!

What is secret student?

Secret student is where you have an envelope with the names of two students in your class inside. At the end of each lesson you open the envelope and those students whose names have been randomly placed will have an e-mail sent home with a photo of their class work that day. So far it has been a big success.

Students are taking more pride with their work and they are striving to achieve their best. At the end of the lesson there is a positive anticipation of whose names are going to be picked!

Today I had one of the students desperate to tell me at the beginning of the lesson they received an iTunes voucher from their parents over the weekend after I sent an e-mail on Friday.

Not only is this raising the expectations students have of themselves, its building a positive relationship.

I strongly suggest you give it a try and once you have e-mail template, it won’t take up too much time.



What about our language? How we can use words to give our classrooms the nudge.

In teaching, we have all been talking about Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset. The education endowment foundation found that students received training on growth mindset made an extra two months progress compared to control groups in English and Maths lessons.  Many schools are trying in helping students develop from a fixed to a growth mindset through simple changes to the language they use. In our school we have been doing this through displays, assemblies and during deliberate one to one interaction with students. Some examples of the language we’ve tried to get students to use are below:


But what about our language?

This week I have been thinking about student engagement in our classrooms. While observing some lessons I picked up on the subtle effect of the teachers’ language choice of words on students’ engagement with the task at hand. I was surprised by how much of an emotional impact I felt as a result of the words spoken by the class teacher, particularly when they seemed more in line with the fixed mind-set examples above. To give you an idea of what I am talking about:

Teacher A: “What I am going to get you to do now is…”

The problem with this one is that we are suggesting the activity is going to be onerous before they even get started. As a result of this instruction, I saw students become more apathetic, and even I found that I wasn’t too interested in getting involved in the task.

Teacher B: “In case you are interested…”

Again, we are suggesting here that students probably aren’t interested, or even worse that they shouldn’t be!

Using positive language to increase engagement

As teachers, part of our role is encouraging students to see the value in our subjects and in the subject matter we are covering in that particular lesson. I think one of the easiest ways we can start to do this is in careful selection of the language we use. Moving away from the negative and passive language seen above, and instead using positive active language that will help carry students along with us. I have found that I can make students believe that even doing an extended bit of writing is exciting when I introduce it as such.

For example, this Friday afternoon I was teaching concentration calculations to a Year 10 group that are yet to realise how amazing science is and sometimes (dare I admit it) lack engagement. Through deliberate selection of the language I used to introduce tasks I managed to have every student in the room complete at least 10 calculations quite happily.

This idea is supported by “Nudge Theory” which is discussed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their (non-teaching) book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”. The theory goes that indirect suggestion and positive reinforcing can help us achieve non-forced compliance.

I thought about the language the teachers above had used and how they could have changed it (see below). These small changes in our behaviour will help to nudge students towards making the right choices and increase their willingness to engage with us and our subjects.

So, next time you are finding engagement waning in your classroom, think about the language you use to deliver your instructions. Changing teacher habits like this does take deliberate practice, so maybe try to come up with a few phrases you can rely on and see if you can’t give your class the nudge!

Emily Clements


Changing Mindsets, a project by the education endowment foundation (2015).

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2009)

Nudge Theory, find out more on Wikipedia

How can you add value to your teaching? Connect with your students.

Whenever I have the privilege of observing another teacher’s lesson, the thing that strikes me first is always the relationship that the teacher has with their students. You can sense this through the emanating atmosphere when you enter the classroom; sometimes uneasy, tense, staid or – dare I say it – rebellious, at others focused and respectful, full of positive energy, motivation and application. There are manifest reasons for why this may be the case, some a result of the teacher or lesson, others the particular topic, room or time of day. Yet the most positive atmospheres have a common thread running through them: excellent teacher-student relationships.

The importance of teachers building positive connections with students has been highlighted in recent and seminal studies. These suggest that students are more motivated when teachers take a genuine interest in them (Ferlazzo, 2015) and create inclusive classroom conditions (Ryan and Deci, 2000). The damaging impact of not building these relationships has also been stressed (Ginsberg, 2015). My own small-scale research for my MA in Education also highlighted the importance of positive teacher-student connections. Across interviews with a number of my students, ‘getting to know students as individuals’ was the most frequently coded reason given for the development of motivation-encouraging relationships.

Why is fostering these positive individual relationships with students so important? Well, apart from the pleasure that comes from getting to know another human being at more than a surface level, they have a positive impact on the quality of learning that occurs. Having these positive connections won’t in themselves make for excellent lessons, but what they can do is to add value to every aspect of your teaching. Students will be better behaved, work harder, respond better to feedback, show increased motivation, be more sympathetic to your misjudgements and in sum drive your class forwards more positively than if these connections haven’t been made.

So how can we go about building these individual connections with our students? The most important thing may be just finding (in reality, making) the time for the many small inputs that help forge these positive connections. Here are some of the things – and I’m sure there are many others besides – that I believe are worth making time for to build these connections:

– Learn the name of every student that you teach as soon as possible at the start of the year. Don’t just hope this will happen naturally over time. Get your class photo lists out and consciously learn them. Nothing that follows will work without this essential prerequisite.

– Get to your lessons a couple of minutes early and spend that time talking to individual students as you wait to begin, trying to find out something of their lives and interests outside of your lesson.

– Greet each student at the door of your classroom by name as they enter, saying good morning and asking how they are. Do the same as students leave, this time highlighting something positive they have done in the lesson, for example asking great questions, showing improved concentration or finally nailing that 8-mark exam question.

– Always say hello to your students in the corridor or around school. Make this an active approach; be the one to make the first move. If you can, stop to have a chat with them. Remind them about a due homework or test. Ask them how their half term was. You will find that over time students will start to seek you out as well, further developing the teacher-student relationship (and brightening up your day).

– When returning tests or assessments, find time to speak with each student individually about it. Let them know what you were pleased about and reinforce areas they need to improve. Support them if they under-performed and stretch them if they had success. Make your students aware that their results are not just a ‘number’ for you, but a signal of their progress and a spotlight on their strengths and weaknesses.

– When you ask a student a question in class, be sure to always listen to their answer. It can be easy to ‘switch off’ sometimes when teaching and only half-listen – especially if you are concerned about time or monitoring behaviour – but nothing will hinder these connections more than your students feeling as if their contributions aren’t valued.

– Following on from this, don’t tolerate anything less than total respect in your lessons, not only between you and your students, but also between the students themselves. Make sure everyone feels like they can make a valuable contribution to your lesson in a supportive and respectful environment. Encourage your students to make mistakes (and learn from them). Encourage all students to get fully involved in tasks and activities. Don’t let a student fall ‘under the radar’ as every student needs to feel like a valued part of your class.

– Share something of yourself with your students. You are their teacher, but don’t feel you have to act like a ‘teacher’ all the time. Show some humanity. Share a story about your past, demonstrate empathy with struggling students or relay an amusing anecdote from your weekend. 

Ben Wright


  • Ferlazzo, L. (2015) Building a Community of Self-Motivated Learners: Strategies to Help Students Thrive in School and Beyond, Oxon: Routledge.
  • Ginsberg, M. (2015) ‘Shadowing a student shows how to make learning more relevant’, Phi Delta Kappan, 97(4), pp.26-30.  SAGE [Online] Available at:
  • Ryan, R. and Deci, E. (2000) ‘Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), pp. 54-67.