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Experiences of a teacher 2

06 March 2014, 09:00

I was quite amazed at the generally positive responses to my previous blog. Thank you.

To those who accused me of stealing the story from another website, I have an admission to make: I did. Not from another website, though, but from a book. It’s called From Intellect to Intelligence: A Radical, Natural Human Alternative. The author happens to have the same name as me. Rest assured, though: I gave myself permission to do so. And I didn’t insist on copyright.

You see, it’s like this: I think I wrote that book mainly to sort out my own thoughts. Even though it was, as a friend called it, “a rational argument against rationalism,” it was very intellectual and not the kind of book most people want to read just before they go to sleep. Hidden within the book, however, are a number of stories like the one in the previous blog that many people seem to enjoy. What’s the use of hiding them in a book inaccessible to most? So I decided to use them in blogs.

The following event happened at the same school as the one mentioned in the previous blog.

The boys in a particular grade ten class (labeled the ‘dumb’ class) were extremely restless and almost violent when I arrived. They would continually stand up, walk around, hit each other, and throw each other over the desks, never settling down. Some of them were about to be expelled for vandalism, having broken water pipes out of the walls. I was expected to teach them science, which wasn’t exactly their highest priority in life.

Soon after I started, various items of science equipment started disappearing. I kept trying to get through to them, without success. More and more items disappeared. I tried a di?erent tactic. Each time I noticed something missing, I wrote it on the black board. From time to time, I asked the boys to please return the items. Other classes asked me what the list meant. They thought I was bonkers. I didn’t care. I was busy with an experiment that I believed was going to work.

Then the boys had to go to ‘veld school’ and I volunteered to go with them. Yes, this was still in the days of veld schools. At the veld school, each teacher was allocated as a mentor to a number of boys. From the start, my group complained.

“Sir, the food is bad.”

“Sir, the teachers treat us like shit.”

“Sir, ...”

Each time my response was, “If you have a problem, why don’t you tell the teachers about it?”

“Oh no, we can’t, sir. They will shout at us and we’ll get into even more trouble!”

“Well, then you can’t really expect things to improve, can you?”

“No, but you must talk to them.”

“So you want me to take responsibility for you?”

“Yes, they’ll listen to you, they won’t listen to us!”

“Well, I’m not going to. If you have a problem, it’s your responsibility.”

It went on like that for a few days.

At each mealtime, it was compulsory for a boy to say grace. One of my boys made a joking suggestion of what to say.

“I dare you to,” I said.

Lunchtime came, and he had to pray. He chickened out, but another, bolder one took over: “Rub-a-dub-dub,” he started o?, “thanks for the grub!”

I froze, pretending to know nothing. Some other teachers were furious. The boy was immediately called aside and severely reprimanded. He had been proposed as a leader before (guess by who?), but now they wanted to remove him from the list.

“This boy is a troublemaker! He is a bad in?uence!”

“But surely that means he is a leader?” I respectfully intervened.


“Well, he may be doing ‘negative’ things, but he has guts, and his peers regard him as a leader.”

“Well, we don’t need those kinds of leaders here!”

He remained on the list. He was a leader. But my popularity stake with the teachers took a bit of a blow.

My popularity stake with the boys, however, had risen dramatically. The fact that I had given one of the boys caught vandalizing the bathrooms the key to the safe with all the valuables in it and put him in charge of all access to the safe had probably also contributed. I don’t think he’d ever been trusted with anything before. And that’s the funny thing with human beings: we act the way we are expected to act.

Back in class, the boys settled down.

“Sir,” they said, “we have made a fuck-up. Now we want to work. Teach us.”

The relationship had changed, and they were ready to start learning. I started teaching, spending the ?rst period explaining the periodic table.

“Wait, sir! You are going too fast! We must first write a test on this!” They wrote a test on one lesson’s work, and they got good marks! These boys had not known what it was to get good marks before.

Now they determined their own pace, and really worked.

They didn’t get distinctions, but we got through all the work, and as far as I know all of them passed (I left shortly afterwards).

One by one the items that had disappeared mysteriously started re-appearing on my desk. A ?ask here, a meter there: almost everything came back (about twenty items or so). Only my electricity meter never re-appeared, but I happily made that little sacrifice. Nobody said a word. I never knew who had taken what, but the experiment had worked.

I had experienced the power of forgiveness in practice.

The change in relationship to one where we could work together as human beings resulted in a signi?cant increase in learning e?ciency. I had e?ectively demonstrated that another way is possible.

But I had simultaneously effectively shown up the system. With that, I directly experienced the reason why it is so di?cult to change a culture – any culture. I had stumbled upon the dilemma expressed in the movie Dead Poets’ Society: di?erence, even if this entails success, incurs resistance.

Soon after all these experiences, I resigned, gave 24 hours’ notice and left. Why?

The decision to leave has probably been the one decision I have regretted most in my life, and I have frequently chastised myself severely for it. I left at a stage where I really had the kind of relationship with the learners portrayed in the movie. When I told the pupils that I was going, many came to beg me to stay. I didn’t even teach all of them! Yet, it was as if I had just closed o?. Nothing would convince me. My underlying anxiety and insecurity overrode all the rational evidence that I had actually achieved tremendous success. Although I had wanted nothing more than (exactly that) success, at a deep underlying level I had great difficulty simply accepting that.

When I went to the headmaster to hand in my resignation, he said, “Douwe, now you’re really letting us down.” At that instant I realised that, contrary to what I had been thinking, I had actually had his support! Because he, of all people, knew what it was like to lose control …

In fact, he was apparently fired soon afterwards and passed away not long afterwards. He was not a bad person. Not at all. He had simply lost control.

Only much later did I realise what had happened. I had managed to change the norm in my classes by establishing a climate of trust in which teaching became much more e?cient. In terms of my own criteria, I had been highly successful. In terms of traditional criteria, however (‘keeping discipline’), I had failed. And with the way the human psyche seems to work, I experienced myself as a failure. The words of John Steinbeck in Cannery Row come to mind: “‘It has always seemed strange to me,’ said Doc. ‘The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the ?rst they love the produce of the second’.”

In a next blog I’ll write some more about the experiences with one specific boy in this class.

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