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Douwe
 
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Experiences of a teacher

03 March 2014, 10:00

As promised, herewith one of my teaching stories.

On the first day as teacher in a new school, the class of grade nine girls sauntered into the classroom. After what seemed like a considerable length of time, they were all in and standing next to their desks. They were supposed to wait for me to tell them to sit down. Instead I stood still, waiting for them to stop talking. Mockingly they started singing the school song and the national anthem, clearly wanting to test my reaction.

I stood and watched. They finished singing. I still stood and watched, silently. They became increasingly uncomfortable.

“Can we sit down?” one of them asked.

“Yes, you may,” I replied.

Then I started speaking. “I have been appointed to teach you science. If you co-oper­ate, I will do so. If you don’t, I won’t.”

There was some laughter, and many of them started talking again. I sat down at my table. They talked for the rest of the period, and I did no teaching that day.

I had been warned that this was a di?cult school. It was a technical school, and the classes were either all boys or all girls. Walking down the corridors, when I had come to fetch my books, I noticed a deep restlessness among the learners. This was ampli?ed by the sounds of teachers shouting in the classrooms.

Seeing the utter futility of teachers screaming at children in order to discipline them, I decided that I was not going to do that. It was not going to be easy, but I made a decision. It would be a challenge.

The next period I had with this class was a close repetition. Although they did not start singing again, they were very noisy. I made no attempt to keep them quiet, and did not teach. The third time it happened, I went to the sta? room and had tea. After that I stayed in the classroom, chatting to some of the children, but making no moves whatso­ever to discipline them.

Eventually, one or two of the girls asked me some questions, which I answered. Soon, while the rest of the class was having a ball, I was teaching a few girls sitting in the front row. Occasionally I would chat to the class as a whole, and they began asking questions unrelated to science, and told me all kinds of stories. Soon I knew all the underground details of the town.

The girls started drawing on my black board. The board became an expression of the kind of things that generally occupy the minds of 14 and 15 year old girls, and the creativ­ity that emerged was astounding. I regret not having taken photographs.

I also became a kind of cupid. The girls asked me to tell the boys they were in love with of their feelings and vice versa. Several romances started in this class.

It went on like this for about four months. By now the head of the science department was seriously concerned, as the learners’ test results were not very encouraging, to say the least. But I refused to shout and scream as many of the other teachers were doing, and so we continued. I was lonely, because I could not discuss what was happening with the other teachers. I was challenging the norm. Anyway, they were probably too caught up in their own fears to understand what I was doing.

Test dates were always written on the board, so that learners knew exactly when they had to be written. One such date arrived, and I started handing out the question papers. Suddenly there was an outburst.

Mary (not her real name) shouted at me hysterically.

“You should have kept discipline! You are a useless teacher! I wanted to become a pilot, and now I won’t be able to anymore!”

When she quieted down, I said, “Have you ?nished, Mary?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Then here is your test.”

The class average for that test was somewhere in the region of 10%.

The next day a few of the girls, led by Mary, came to see me.

“Sir,” they said, “something is very wrong. Won’t you please give us extra lessons?”

“Sure,” I responded joyfully.

We arranged a time and about half the class pitched. As we were about to start, I heard a number of girls whispering. Something about smoking. Smoking was an issue at the school and, of course, the more teachers suppressed it, the more the learners smoked.

“Do you want to smoke?” I asked.

“Yes!” they replied.

“Then go ahead!”

Out came the cigarettes, and most of them started smoking. But now they felt un­comfortable. “Please, sir, won’t you lock the door?” they asked.

I did. Only later did it strike me what the consequences could have been if another teacher had tried to come into the classroom at the time, only to ?nd me locked up with a class of smoking grade nine girls! And this was still under the previous regime!

I started the lesson.

Some minutes into the lesson, I suddenly recalled the smoking and looked – not a single pupil was smoking anymore. Instead they were all listening with utmost concentration. The lesson was about pressure, and I was explaining how pressure was distributed evenly in a liquid. Sally, whose reputation was not of an academic nature, jumped up, opened the tap on my desk and pushed her thumb on one of the many drops of water.

“Is this what you mean, sir?” she asked.

“Exactly!” I said, remarking on how aptly she demonstrated the principle.

“But this stu? is easy!” was her reply.

It turned into a great lesson. We were joking, but they were concentrating. We had fun.

I covered the whole term’s work, and then gave them a test. They scored between 50% and 80%, higher than some of them had ever scored for a test before. What was even more important was that their answers revealed insight into the principles being tested, rather than the usual meaningless regurgitation of parrot-fashion learning.

I had no discipline problem anymore. Our relationship had been rede?ned, and for­mal teaching after this was impossible. They had clearly seen that it was not necessary to have class after class of laborious and boring worksheets, and hours and hours of lectur­ing in order to learn. Moreover, the e?ciency of teaching had increased dramatically.

Teaching became teaching, instead of a major e?ort to overcome resistance.

I was fascinated. Why this remarkable change? How had teaching come to be the hell it increasingly has become in schools all over the world, when it can actually be fun? I am not the ?rst educator to ask these questions. Many educationalists, psychologists and others have asked them. Some have been ignored; some have had their ideas changed into new ideologies.

For me, two signi?cant issues seemed to have emerged:

Firstly, from the moment the girls walked into my class, the relationship between us was automatically de?ned as a power struggle, based on the existing norm in the school. In this power struggle, it was up to the teachers to get the learners to learn. In practice, however, the power struggle prevented both e?ective teaching and e?ective learning. These grade nine girls were an extreme example of the power struggles that are inherent in any compulsory education system. It cannot be otherwise when it is up to the teacher to make learners learn. When the power struggle was relinquished, in other words when the learners decided of their own accord to learn, learning not only happened, but the ef­fectiveness of it increased dramatically to a level generally considered impossible. I was able to teach in one hour the amount of work that would normally take three or four months. (Of course, ‘power struggle’ is never mentioned during teacher training. Hence the common observation by new teachers that teaching in practice is entirely di?erent to what they had been taught!)

Secondly, I did not change anybody’s behaviour. Something happened in this class that made the girls change their own behaviour. How was this possible, especially since I had apparently done nothing?

When the pupils entered my class, they expected me to maintain discipline, but were ready to counteract any e?orts I would make to that e?ect. When I refused to dis­cipline them, they became unruly – in what could be seen as an (unconscious) e?ort to force me to do so. They were trying to push me into a complementary relationship de?ned by my attempts to keep them quiet and their resistance to those attempts – the norm at the school.

It’s like a lion charge (which, as a wilderness guide, I have experienced from time to time). A charging lion knows exactly what to do when you run away – catch you and eat you. When you stand your ground, however, and just look at or shout at the lion, it (usually!) becomes unsure, hesitates and stops. You have changed the pattern. Not by trying to change the lion (or the pupils), but by changing your own behaviour by acting from your own authenticity rather than re-acting with fear.

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