Fingers and Toes

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I guess I won’t be telling anybody anything new when I start this post by saying that teaching is difficult. It’s not an easy thing to do, whatever subject or whatever level you’re doing it at. Is it worth while? Definitely! But there are going to be days when you feel that it isn’t, days when you feel like all you’ve done is bang your head against a brick wall again and again. I’ve had those, and I’m guessing you might have done as well. As terrible as those days can feel, hang in there! Because at the end of the day, the truth is that your love and enthusiasm for teaching will help you through. And if you’re as lucky as I am, you also have a flotilla of friends, family and classmates looking out for you as well. This post is about one of those people:my wonderful partner, who has helped me through my blackest days with little tricks like the one I’m about to tell you about.

I’d had an awful day. One of my classes had been particularly difficult and it was all I could think about. My partner came home from work and found me slumped on the sofa in a terrible state. After I’d bawled on him for a minute (or, err, fifteen!) he asked me to tell him why I was so upset. I told him about my difficult class and everything that had happened that I couldn’t get out of my head. He then asked me to tell him about the good things that had happened in the day. I’d had other classes that had gone much better, so I told him about those as well. It was mainly full of little things; my first years had done well with their essays, I’d gotten some good feedback from another teacher on my third years, a pupil had told me she liked my dress, things like that. After I’d told him everything, my partner said ‘I’ve been keeping count of everything you told me. Do you know how many bad things you told me about?’

I shook my head, but I knew it had to have been hundreds to have upset me so badly. He showed me four fingers and said ‘Four bad things. And do you know how many good things you told me?’ I guessed maybe seven. And my wonderful partner bent over, pulled off his socks and slippers, wiggled all his fingers and toes at me and said with a massive smile on his face ‘Twenty! Twenty good things about today!’

The effect was instantaneous;it put a smile on my face as big as his and I felt immediately better about the day. Sure, it hadn’t been perfect – but twenty good things was phenomenal! It really put things into perspective and made me see how easy it was to let a handful of bad things throw off your entire perception of one day. I’d given so much attention to the things that hadn’t gone well and had completely written off the things that had made it a good day. For whatever reason, my brain will always cling to the negatives over the positives, and that’s what upsets me. (Does your brain do that too? Please feel free to comment, I’m curious!)

I won’t advise you to completely disregard things that go wrong – you won’t learn how to be better if you do – but nor can you let those things beat you up and upset you. Constructive reflection is how you do that; be as objective as you can about what happened, work out why it may not have been as effective as you were hoping, and then come up with a plan to make it better. As my partner has told me, you’ve only failed if you haven’t learnt from your mistakes. And you will make them, I’m sorry to say; it’s part of the job. But that’s not a bad thing, as long as you use your mistakes to adjust your practice and become better.

So don’t let a handful of bad things ruin your mood; constructively reflect, make a plan, and then let them go. Because the chances are that there have been plenty of positives that you may have forgotten about!

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The Art of Give and Take

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So this is a post about That Class. You know the one I mean? The class who send you running for your finest bottle of Japanese whisky (or whatever comfort bottle you run to!) at the end of the teaching day? Who maybe raise your hopes by randomly listening to that one lesson at the start of the week before cruelly dashing them by being little gits again the next? That Class.

If you don’t have such a class, then I commend you – well done! But chances are you probably do, and if you’re anything like me then you’ll probably have spent many an evening desperately racking your brains for something that’ll make a difference. And, like me, you may have found yourself considering The Reward System. You know the type of thing; if your class behaves well, they get a sticker. The more stickers they get, the closer they get to some fabulous reward. I’d toyed with reward systems as a student teacher with varying results: I had a lovely second year class who adored it, and a not so lovely second year class who may as well have set my carefully structured reward chart on fire for all the improvement it made to their behaviour. But this time, I figured, it can work. It’ll turn around That Class. So I printed off charts and a display, prepared my stickers (smiley faces) and went in. We discussed the rules, which I’d kept deliberately simple, and I even gave them their first smiley face for free given the massive improvement in the class’ behaviour. ‘We still had a couple of hiccups’ I’d said, ‘but we were better today. Well done!’

So you can maybe understand my optimism when I went in for my second lesson with them. And that too, was a good lesson. I called home in utter ecstasy – ‘I think I’ve cracked them Dad!’ To which my dad, very wisely, replied ‘You shouldn’t say that about any class, but well done.’

He wasn’t kidding. By the end of the week, the class had me in pieces again. My other second years were stacking up stickers like there was no tomorrow; these lot had defaulted back to ‘Little Git’ mode. It got to the point where they had three stickers on their chart; two of them had been freebies for the initial improvement in their behaviour and the other had been given to them for the lesson we’d had a full fire drill where they’d managed to spend twenty whole minutes in class without breaking any of the rules. I’d been advised to stand by my guns, to insist on the standards I’d set, not to yield a single thing. Me teacher. You students. Me In Charge.

After a few weeks with no progress, I decided to scare them. Our Friday class feedback question was an out and out declaration of war. ‘Your teacher is seriously considering getting rid of the reward system.’ the board read on that Friday, ‘Should the system stay or go? Why?’. After verbal confirmation that yes indeed, their teacher was being serious, the class wrote their answers down on their post-it notes and we had a discussion about it. It turned out to be one of the most constructive class discussions I’ve held so far.

Most of the class were horrified at the idea that my other second year class could earn Cake Day if they couldn’t, but they also accepted that the system wasn’t working to improve their behaviour. A few of them were for ditching it completely as they weren’t convinced that the class could ever pull together, behave and get enough stickers to earn Cake Day. But then one girl put her hand up and made a brilliant point. The current system meant that once a member of the class was given a warning, and then a Level One, the class couldn’t have their sticker. At my school, a warning and a Level One amount to pretty much the same thing – there’s no additional sanction at Level One. So what was happening was that the same suspects were consistently hitting Level Ones and then the rest of the class was thinking ‘No point in behaving now, we’re not getting our sticker anyway.’

Why don’t we change the system, she suggested, to accommodate Level Ones to give the usual suspects more opportunity to amend their behaviour before the sticker went out the window. Rather than stamp my feet, insist on my standards, pull the plug – I listened. And said ‘Hey, that’s a good idea. What does everybody else think?’. The class were keen: Cake Day could be saved! ‘Ok, so let’s trial it for today, and if it works today then we’ll trial it for next week and see where we go from there.’

They got their sticker. And they kept on getting their stickers. And now, we’re two stickers away from Cake Day. I don’t dread teaching them anymore – they may even secretly be my favourite class. Full credit has to go to learning how to give and take. Unmovable Miss. Teacher didn’t work; the more I imposed my view of how things should be on them, the more they seemed to fight against me. But by meeting the kids half way rather than insisting on maintaining unyielding control over them, we’ve made progress. They’re still a bouncy, unruly class at times, but I’ve not had to crack open a Level Two (yet!) because they know they’ve been given a second chance and have had a say in how things work. While I’m not planning on forgetting my dad’s words however well things have gone recently, I also think that me and my class have worked something out together.

It’s just like I told them, in true inspiring movie teacher fashion: ‘This cannot just be about me standing here telling you stuff. We have to work at this together, or it’s not going to work. This is our classroom and we have to make it work together.’