1. The Boy in the Giant's Body
In my first year as a teacher I had a Grade 7 class with students aged 12-13. By Grade 7 boys and girls are in the midst of puberty and physical differences between students can be stark. In this particular group there were some boys that looked like they could have been in Elementary school and then there was Thomas (not his real name) who was already shaving, had a deep voice, who towered over me and had a hand that could swallow mine in a handshake. He presented as a man though he was only 13 (nearly 14). Because he presented as a man, I subconsciously treated him like a man. I had no idea that I was doing this until his mother, whom I now consider one of my greatest mentors, informally told me that Thomas had the feeling that I didn’t like him. I was truly surprised to hear this as it couldn’t have been further from the truth. She then proceeded to give me some of the best feedback I have yet received as an educator. She said, “Even though Thomas looks like a man, he is just a boy like all the others.” This naturally caused me to reflect on my interactions with Thomas and it was quickly apparent that I did treat him differently. I was more blunt in my criticism of his foolishness than with the other boys, firstly because his transgressions were easier to see because of his size and secondly because I had a subconscious sense that he should know better because of his size. Of course this was foolish; he was physically more mature than the other boys, but not mentally and not emotionally. He was bigger, not older. I also spoke to him differently because of this bias. When correcting misbehaviour I spoke to the physically smaller boys with greater care as though they were more emotionally fragile. Because he looked like a man my feedback was more direct with less care for emotions and with less explanation of why his misbehaviour was a problem.
The conversation with Thomas’s mother and my subsequent reflection was massively transformative of my teaching. Looks can be deceiving and particularly in Middle School, where children grow into young adults. In this case, where I was too young to understand child development in a practical way, Thomas’s mother was able to give me a perspective that no child psychology textbook or lecture could.
2. An Updraft can End a Career
Again, early in my career I was assigning an important summative assessment and I wanted to make the students feel less anxious about it. The room had been arranged in formal manner with individual desks placed in rows and as students entered the room they were randomly assigned seating. This lead to a tense atmosphere so to help them relax I joked with them as I passed out their test papers. I handed them out individually so that I could give each student a little pep-talk before the quiz and, knowing the students well (they were my Grade 6 homeroom), I knew who needed me to be serious with them and who would appreciate a little levity. As I passed out the one-page paper I began to slide them onto tables as a card dealer would just for fun and as I came to one boy the page caught an updraft as soon as I let it go and the sheet, with pin-point accuracy, flew directly into the boy’s eye. It happened so quickly he didn’t have time to blink and I can still hear the “dink” of the sharpness of an A4 page’s edge hitting his pupil like a bulls-eye as I write about it all these years later. Sure enough he had a small paper-cut on his pupil but miraculously, he decided that it was not a great issue and he completed the test after a quick inspection by the nurse.
In this instance I was just terribly unlucky to have caught that updraft. Where I got terribly lucky was that I happened to know the family of the boy well and they reassured me that “accidents happen”. It could so easily have gone another way with a different family and if they had decided to pursue the incident with an unsympathetic administration, well, it could have ended up in dismissal or at the very least a written warning. Equally, as is the law in Germany, the family would have been within their rights to charge my insurance company with any costs arising from the incident (called Haftpflicht in German). This mishap was challenging because though I was fully responsible, it was an accident and though it could have been avoided, it was committed with the best of intentions. I am often playful in the classroom and I consider levity a key tool to possess as an educator. That incident did cause me to reflect upon how I manage my classroom but ultimately it did not change my practice too much because no matter how careful one is, accidents will happen.
3. Volume Control
I had a Grade 7 class that had serious behavioural and social issues. As a homeroom they were rather neglected and something of a “survival of the fittest” mentality was deeply engrained. It was common for there to be bullying issues in the group and an anti-intellectualism had taken hold, where anyone who would dare risk showing interest in any classroom would inevitably be heckled with calls of “Streber” or swot. I had the misfortune to have this group at very inopportune times only. I saw them three times a week, once directly after morning break, once directly after lunch and once the last period of the day. In other words I had them hyped up, hyped up and tired. As a novice teacher I had not yet learned the coping skills necessary to deal with such a group. Indeed, nowhere in my teacher training or placement had anyone even hinted at just how great an impact environmental factors can have on student performance. When I saw the group after breaks a great deal of time was wasted in trying to settle them down and get them into the mindset for working. It did not help that there were two students in the group who were not yet diagnosed with ADD and who found it particularly difficult to settle to a task after coming off the yard. They served as an ideal spark for the general anarchy that caused me to be two whole classes behind my parallel Grade 7 class by Halloween. Something had to change. I tried various techniques. I experimented with seating arrangements. I greeted students at the door with calming words and exhortations to work. All of it proved unsuccessful. One afternoon I arrived in the classroom (it was on the first floor) to find students shouting out the window at those who were dragging their heels and going to their lessons elsewhere late. Some of the students below were attempting to throw snowballs into the classroom. I arrived to this scene and it angered me. I felt it was disrespectful and in a firm, stern voice I told them to come away from the window and take their seats. This marked a turning point for me. I realised that raising my voice would solve nothing so I needed a different strategy. I tried the opposite.
Without any useful suggestions from colleagues or from my training, I had to experiment with how to deal with behaviour management. My first realisation was that environmental factors played a large role. Because students arrived in my class overly-stimulated twice a week and tired once a week I experimented with light and sound. After breaks, I closed all blinds in the classroom and only put on soft lighting. Sometimes I experimented with instrumental or classical music. Students were told to lay head-down on their folded arms with eyes closed. When everyone was ready I asked a student to count backwards from ten slowly. The first few times I talked them through how to steady themselves. Deep breaths through the nose and out through the mouth. I experimented with creating different mental images. I talked them through focusing on a pleasant experience from that day or a memory that made them happy. Other times I would talk to them about what our learning objectives were today and how we would achieve them. For their evening class I experimented with bright overhead lighting, teambuilding activities and stretches. Before long, unlikely as it may seem, the students had adopted and adapted these routines. By Christmas we had caught up with the parallel class and behavioural issues were drastically reduced. I had stumbled on a solution that worked. The experience caused me to experiment with environmental factors as one means of fostering positive student behaviour and enhancing learning. It was only later that I found research on exactly the relationship between classroom environment and learning. Essentially this trying experience caused me to be industrious and sparked my interest in evidence-based teaching and learning. What this experience also showed me was the brute reality of teaching and how, even now, so many teaching programmes leave novice teachers woefully unprepared to deal with a classroom of pubescent nearly-adults, the social and emotional problems that get in the way of learning, not to mention the pitfalls of parent politics.
Teaching is uniquely difficult because of the known and the unknown challenges that you will interact with daily. If you are to survive in the profession it is important that you manage stress by being as efficient as possible with the known pressures of the job: planning, teaching, assessing, recording and goal-setting. For those unforeseen instances that will arise it is important to be realistic with yourself by accepting that you will make mistakes but that is part of the learning process. It is most likely that you will be lucky (as I have been) as people are usually forgiving when accidents happen. Sadly it is not always the case that you will have supportive parents and administrators; however you can mitigate against your future errors by fostering good relationships with parents where possible, by being open with administrators when you do make mistakes and by accepting that some people will, no matter what, demand reparations for any wrong. Importantly, not only will you be unprepared for many of the worst mistakes that you will make; in many cases, it is just not possible to be prepared. Just how, exactly, can a teacher education programme or a placement prepare you for a quiz sheet to the eyeball? Therefore it is essential that throughout your career you remain flexible, you retain a willingness to evolve, to research and to implement new approaches to teaching, learning and classroom-management when and if needed based upon your negative – as well as your positive – experiences.