Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Teaching at Thames

While at Thames High School to assist my English teaching I did further English study extra-murally from Massey University. Marlowe was a delightful discovery - Tamburlaine and Faustus with their gaudy language and outrageous images; and the later plays of Shakespeare, especially The Winters Tale. The paper qualification probably helped my confidence, but what did even more was my improving competence.

I thought about the lesson both before and even more importantly after it, but seized the opportunity of a student comment, morning radio news, staffroom banter, the previous lesson or my latest reading to create variations and interest. I made a rough lesson plan but would alter that to follow where the learning was leading. It was not scientific but it worked. Because of my assurance the kids accepted my leadership.

I had relatively few discipline problems but always a few would challenge authority for a variety of reasons. Harold Wilson's advice on government, "keep the bus moving so fast no-one has time to get off," was useful. Tantalise with tit-bits and surprise. Praise and reward effort. Curious myself, I tapped into the kids' own curiosity. I used image and metaphor a lot in the process of the lesson. A sense of fair play meant I tried to involve the whole class.

The inspectors commented I questioned widely. I moved around the whole territory of the classroom. One of my surprises when I joined the inspectorate was to discover how many teachers seemed desk and blackboard bound. Early on I experimented with group work. If it was successful, one could sense the buzz of learning, the growth of understanding, the appreciation of having one's own voice heard. The teacher set the task and a deadline. Otherwise the group time-wasted. Keep changing the personnel. Break the rules if it was not working well.

It was not all success. There were botched up lessons derailed by unforeseen circumstances or by one’s own wrong decisions. Sometime one lost the thread in the confusion of tongues and the chaos of activity. There was wet duty lunchtime and stroppy kids and irritable colleagues. One’s own fallibilities surfaced unexpectedly. Some days one just slogged on. There were sessions with a child, or a group, who had committed some misdemeanour, their flushed, evasive gaze indicating guilt, or their scornful, straight glare denoting innocence, (or were they acting?)

The knowledge that maybe I, the teacher, the judge and the jury could get the evidence or the behaviour wrong added to the awkwardness of the situation. Once a boy swallowed a shilling during a lesson. "Will I die, Sir." "Probably." He burst into tears, turning my irritation into chagrin. Then there was hurt when a bright kid would inexplicably bomb out in School Certificate. Had I failed him or her? The system? The wheel still spinning, I would clamber on again to try to do better. Always the challenge, another day, another class, a fresh text-book.

Sometimes we misunderstand reasons for bad behaviour. One student had a reputation for cheating and for being short-tempered and squabbling with her peers. She was in my hockey team, a strong, determined player. Once she was in a potential goal-scoring position but her back was turned to the play. The ball was hit in her direction. Despite her team-mates' shouts she didn't turn round. I joined in but she did not respond. The ball shot past her and over the side-line. Attention gained, she trapped the other side’s put in and sent her team on to the attack again. Puzzled I pondered over this - suddenly a thought.

Next Monday I tested her. She was deaf. She lip-read. She cheated because she had no other way of knowing what to do. No wonder now and then she exploded into anger - her frustration level tested all the time, her silence not a sign of sullenness but a survival mechanism. Her parents did not know. Her teachers did not know. Nor did her class-mates. She had got to the Fourth Form and her disability had never been discovered. Little surprise that her IQ score was low. No wonder I was crabby recently when a middle-aged yuppie told me that the system I worked in was so much better than the one that educated him. Crap.

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