Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Bad Moment

About a fortnight after I’d started teaching, it was at Morrinsville College, a (second-to-bottom Social Studies third form, Pakeha girl asked "can you read French?" "No" I replied. ”Then you couldn't write me a French letter," she said, a real flytrap and I flown straight in. While the thought flared across my mind, “What the hell am I doing here?” I just stood there, rattled, embarrassed, mortified, angry, not sure what to do. One was not allowed to throttle students. At this moment all my high ideals seemed pointless, Socrates and Sophocles providing no help. I snarled "Get on with your work" which in the circumstances was one of the better things to have done. She was with her insolence after the cheap thrill of confrontation and unwittingly if naively I didn’t give her that satisfaction. “You can’t cane me.” “Get on with your work you silly girl. The rest of you.” The ‘silly girl’ comment stung her. Sarcasm she met with sarcasm, but my counter-attack which took me as much as her by surprise was a new approach, she had not yet developed a response. I decided it was a useful weapon to have in my armoury to be used sparingly.

That moment seared itself into my memory-banks. I reported it to the Senior Mistress who was all set to come in and blast the class. I worked hard to persuade her not to do so for I realised I must control the class myself and not rely upon outside support. This group had several hard-boiled, worldly-wise students who challenged my authority all year. What I had to teach first up didn’t help – the local survey. Pointless telling them about dairy farming and factory or fertilizer works. They lived with them. I slowly learnt some tricks, asking did they have any relations who’d helped drain the Piako swamp. Two boys had forbears. I got them to tell us about it – one brought photos. Even the most naughty became interested. What hurt was that the class contained some lovely kids who watched with scuttling eyes the battle. (The military metaphor is correct). Their learning - I was going to say zilch, but that while dramatic would be untrue- was little. That knowledge hurt.

There were no school guidance counsellors then. Looking back at that incident I am sure the girl sought expulsion. She played up with other teachers just as much I soon discovered. Another disadvantage is that I didn’t have my own classroom. I walked from that class to this class which meant I entered the room with them already there. Many of the older teachers had their own rooms. It was the younger ones who were peripatetic. Classes were rigidly streamed. This group had several Maori in it. They did not challenge my authority as the white cohort did. But despite my best efforts I found it difficult to connect with them. I had had not one lesson at teachers college to prepare me to teach them, differences in eye contact, learning approaches. My texts assumed European supremacy. When I asked for help an older teacher said, “if they don’t want to learn that’s their problem, not yours”. That’s why today I support cultural sensitivity in teacher education.

Later I became a good teacher. But it took time and it took effort.

All year I struggled with that group. We had a history text entitled March of Civilisation. I reverted to narrative to keep them quiet. They doodled a lot so they enjoyed illustrating their work - blood pouring from huge gashes in Julius Caesar or a dying gladiator. All the preparation in the world cannot ready a prospective teacher for this experience – an unwilling class. By the winter term we had established some rules. Their forays had probed my weak points. They had learnt my point of no return. And I had learnt to read the signs of impending trouble. I tried different experiments to see what would enable more than a semblance of order. Bribery, flattery worked briefly but interest was the best approach. Hard to maintain. And there were good moments when the majority hissed at the troublemakers, “shut up”.

By December I could say I’d survived. Caning the bad boys was unproductive - they added a further notch to their belts and continued behaving as before. Sarcasm from me only increased the heat, they writhed and retaliated intensifying the friction. Moral intimidation was not my style, despite the provocation. Indifference worked - an act – for inwardly I seethed. I also learnt that if spilled my heart out in the staffroom I got little sympathy. "The beggers don't deserve an education. But you've got to show them who is boss." The isolation of each teacher in his or her own classroom didn’t help. I leant later when I was a senior teacher that if I screwed the discipline lid down very tightly on a misbehaving class they were more likely to blow on the next teacher who was often more inexperienced. Isolate the troublemakers. Avoid confrontation. Keep calm. I kept forgetting my own maxims.

Soon it was break-up day, crying kids, presents for teachers, the boys shaking your hand, "Thanks sir", even the French letter girl with some of her mates called to wish me a Merry 'X-mas’.
"Stop! The last thing I'll teach you this year, is that the word though written that way is shorthand for ‘Christmas’. You still say Merry Christmas."
"Will you be teaching us next year. Neat! Here’s a card, Sir. We’ve all signed it.” They had; sentimental comments revealing the real selves that had been apparently largely untouched by the education they’d received. They’d glimpsed life’s promises only to see them thunder in and peter out on the rocky reefs. Hence the hard shells. There must be ways of getting under that shield.

However, the possession of this new insight did not stop me going off hastily to see the time-tabler before I swung my newly purchased Morris Minor south. "No, we wouldn't do that to you Harvey. We've got an even stroppier bunch coming through to the third form. We'll give you those instead." A joke - but one which left me with a feeling of discomfiture.

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