Friday, March 25, 2016

Teaching now. And then.

It's been an easy term of teaching, freed as I am from the massive workload of senior English.
Oh, there’s lots of burgeoning bum-fluff on the downy faces of my year 8 boys. There’s a bit of swagger; a mini-potentially-swarthy character in the back row. Watch him. Quick to take umbrage; hyper-aware of his power as a student with all the rights. Printed dark tee-shirt visible and hanging down a couple of inches beneath his white uniform shirt. In a couple of years time, gypsy-boy could be brutish and challenging but for now, for this old campaigner, he’s too easy.

Same with mischievous Martina. She stirs the nearby boys; a surreptitious swipe and their books and pencils fly off the table. She’s out of her seat again. Quickly kicks the shin of the same boy. ‘Miss, did you see that?’ He pretends outrage but can’t wait to retaliate. She rocks back on her chair, swings her legs coquettishly. The seating plan nips that one in the clich├ęd bud.

Kids are kids this year in my year 8 and 9 classes. It seems to me I don’t have any severely damaged students.

Touch wood.

I’m following the school GANAG protocol and writing the goal of the lesson on the white-board at the start of each period. I’m encouraging students to assess their own efforts and achievement at the end. Well, generally.

But basically, I’m largely doing the same thing with my middle school kids as I was back in 1979. We called them juniors in those days. Reading, writing, speaking and listening. They were more inclined to read given they weren’t BYOD-ing. That’s ‘bringing your own device’. Or devices, given the ubiquitous mobile phones. The government has stopped giving out free computers. Final drafts of their work will generally be word-processed and printed out. There will be the inevitable submissions on USBs because printers will have run out of ink or won’t be working. I’ll be incurring extra work marking on line, or, to expedite the marking process, printing them out at the school’s expense.

Am I really doing the same thing as I was in 1979, aged 22? At its fundament, yes. I'm the teacher working with a number of students; reading, writing, speaking and listening. However, the previous paragraph reveals that things have indeed changed. Being able to draft on a computer is a huge difference in itself. And what's more, I'm a vastly improved teacher.

In 1979, I taught an all girls class. Thirty-two students. The commercial stream. That is, they learned typing - on mechanical typewriters - and shorthand instead of some more academic pursuit like another language. They sat in four long horizontal rows facing me. I would usually stand on the dais, given there wasn't much room to move among the students. If they needed my assistance, they came to me. My wooden desk was in the corner in front of what had been a fireplace, now sealed up.

In the middle of about the second row sat Vicky, an unruly, threatening fifteen year old. It was early in the year. Arms crossed defiantly, Vicky was sprawled back in her chair, sneering at me. She scared me. Think I'd already told her to remove her feet from the desk. She was wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses which she refused to remove claiming they were prescription.

'What are you staring at?' She snarled, because I'd dared to look in her direction.

'Don't know,' I quipped. ' I haven't got my animal book with me.'

This was one of the lines I'd throw at my sister, or vice versa, when we were fighting. At the time, in that class, it was hilarious and even Vicky joined in the laughter. The class dynamic improved immediately because I'd somehow got Vicky, the disruptive girl, on side.

At 22, I was still a kid myself, seven years older than these year 10 girls. I was teaching instinctively. I'd been raised on sarcasm. My teachers training hadn't taught me how to build students' self-esteem, rather than insulting them, nor how to manage a class without somehow subduing the students, which I found I could do through humour rather than terror.

I certainly wouldn't make a comment like that in 2016. I don't think a graduate teacher would either. 
I know better now. (Thank you, years of experience, professional development, self-education and parenting.) You need more in your teaching repertoire than a good sense of humour, but it certainly helps.

However, one thing remains the same: if your students don't respect you, you can't really teach, no matter how qualified you are. And if you don't really like kids, please leave the profession. (Educator Rita Pierson, says it far more eloquently than I.)