Saturday, 29 September 2012

Another digression: It's all about the psychology, innit?

It's going to be a busy blogging weekend as I am currently collaborating on a blog post about teaching and gender with the lovely @Xris32 as well as having an urge to write this one. 

What has spurred me to ramble on this morning? 

An interesting Friday with my Year 10 (I call them 'bonkers', I mean that in an affectionate, rather than a derogatory way) made me think about the psychological trickery involved in teaching.  

This group are hard work, and would you believe it, I volunteered to be their teacher, madness! Well possibly. I'd taught many of this group in Year 9 and my god they were exhausting, but through shear stubbornness and determination I won them over in the end. For that kind of group, full of fragile egos and emotional problems, familiarity with their teacher is a benefit, so, dear reader I volunteered to take them on at GCSE. Do they issue medals of bravery for teaching? Shouldn't they?

Anyway, Friday Period 1 tends to be our best lesson. They are quiet and calm and seem to turn into this lovely studious group of pupils; I wish I could say the same for all of our lessons. On Tuesday last lesson, which is the last lesson of the day, I'm not sure who is watching the clock more sometimes, them or me. 

We have finished reading Of Mice and Men and I had issued them with a series of 'Thunks' about the whole text based on the fabulous range of ideas presented in @Xris32's blog and something that I think I swiped from @kennypieper (All teachers are thieves, FACT). 

We did one as a whole class: 'To what extent is George's killing of Lennie an act of kindness?'  and 'How will George's life be different now he no longer has Lennie to look after?'  Neither question is hardly ground breaking in terms of a 'Thunk' but it was a lead into the more abstract ones like 'Who would you want to sit next to in class, George or Lennie? Why?' (@dockers_hoops) and 'If Lennie is a horse or a bear, which animal are the other characters like and why?'  (@Xris32)

I started by recapping the George 'Thunk' and slipped into a small anecdote about my dad.  I told them how I had watched him die slowly and horribly from liver cancer, that he had died in my arms and how helpless I felt. I had watched him suffer terribly; it was the most painful thing to watch.  I could do nothing about it. Implying my only alternative was to do what George did for Lennie. Although George's situation is fictional and fictionalised, the moral dilemma he is tortured with is very real. It happens to very real people. 

I told them how much I understood George's actions and above anything else, it made him brave. It took courage to do what he did.   Now, it's not often that they listen in ABSOLUTE SILENCE to anything an adult says, least of all me. They did then.  One even muttered, when I told them dad died in my arms, 'Oh Christ'.  I didn't speak for long and got back to the 'Thunks' fairly quickly. 

The change in the atmosphere in the lesson was palpable. The listened in a surprise silence, which I think turned from shock into respect. A seismic shift for this group, to coin Steinbeck, 'a moment had turned into so much more than a moment.' Ethereally, it came and it went like a cloud in the sky and on the lesson went. 

I told them they needed to be brave and show courage in lessons, to make decisions for themselves in order to succeed. It was my Henry V 'Once more into the breach' call to arms (Look, I shoe-horned Shakespeare in there, don't you see?).

They were given their new 'Thunks' to choose from, and they worked in pairs to do so. They were told an IT room was booked so they had to decide WHAT they were going to do, and HOW they were going to do it this lesson.  They beavered away, calmly and quietly as if they were the top set of the year group. Spooky.

What on earth did I do?

This is what got me thinking. What did my dramatic but personal anecdote do? There's even a thought of, 'Should I have said it?'.  

To these kids I am an authority figure, that for all sorts of complex and understandable reasons, they are hard wired to rebel against. My authority is challenged; I have to work hard to maintain it in each lesson. Most importantly though, it really isn't personal.  Essentially, I am a 'thing' rather than a person. Think about it. It is so much easier to throw a really hard punch at a stuffed, inanimate punch bag than it is a real person isn't it? 

I revealed something incredibly personal to them, a traumatic event in my life, they listened intently.  What did this change? I altered from a 'thing' to a person.  This could be a risky strategy, this could expose me as weak, I don't think it did.  They saw the person behind the title 'teacher' and that horrible things happen to all sorts of people. When they view me as both teacher and person, I am less of a 'thing' and more (cliche klaxon) real. 

NB Apologies for the missing accent on 'cliche' - can't work out how to add it on Blogger.
If I have credited the wrong person for an idea I've stolen, do not hesitate to correct me. 

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