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Thursday, October 6, 2011

The girls who taught me how to teach

Sometimes when I read back over my past posts, I wonder if I give the impression that I'm a painful know-it-all. I always seem to be giving people hints on how to do things better, or telling of some little triumph of mine, as though I'm some mighty guru.

Of course, from my end, things look a little different. I'm painfully aware of the mistakes I've made along the way while I learned how to teach and how to parent. And I'm also aware that I'm nearing the end of my working life; if I haven't learned a few things by now, well, it's getting close to too late! Not that you ever stop learning, of course. When you stop learning, it's time to die; that's my view.

But it's only fair if, every now and then, I share some of my bad times with you too; and so today I thought I tell you about some of the mistakes I made when I first started out, and how I learned a better way to teach.

The first two years of my teaching career were sheer hell, because I was in such unsympathetic environments that I didn't get a chance to learn to teach. (Yes folks, here's a secret they don't tell new students: you don't learn a thing about teaching until you have your own classes.)  The first year I had a head of department who referred to the two newest females on his staff as 'tits one and tits two'  (no I'm NOT joking) and hauled me over the coals for using the musical instruments with my classes because 'they might get broken'. (Yep, I was a music teacher who wasn't allowed to use the instruments.) The second year I had a head of department who epitomised the public servant who could see retirement at the end of the tunnel; all he wanted was a peaceful life, so he crushed everything innovative and demanded his educational train run along the same flawed tracks it had always used. That didn't sit to well with a creative person like me; I was easily crushed in those days.

But of course, it's not all about the environment. If I'd already been a good teacher, I would have found my way around these obstacles- but I wasn't.

Oh, I tried to be a good teacher. I knew my subject pretty well.  I prepared every lesson faithfully and hopefully.  I turned up on time and did my best.

But I hadn't realised yet that it's all about the kids, not about the boss.  I hadn't learned the knack of connecting with students without trying to be their friend; I was honest about the wrong things. It's a common mistake in young teachers, who aren't much older than the children in their classes.  They don't realise that they've crossed an invisible line and are now Not One Of Us to their students. Teenagers don't want a teacher to pretend to be a friend. If you try to be a friend they eat you alive. It's amazing I have any limbs left after that two years, and the same applies to the other young teachers I started out with; we all made the same mistake. You have to learn a new way of relating to children, and nobody teaches you that at university or teachers' college.

Thank heavens for my next teaching post.  I was lucky enough to be chosen for a position at an exclusive, private, selective school.  I'd done nothing to deserve it. It was pure nepotism- I was an old girl of the school, so they trusted me more than a stranger to be smart and diligent. And threw me completely out of my depth by putting me in front of my first Year 12 class, a dozen 17-year-olds with minds like steel traps and a bone to pick with me.

Now, I didn't have a clue about their secret agenda. Many months later, someone thought to inform me that they'd worshipped their previous teacher and resented me mightily for not being her. Completely unfair, yes!- but that's teenagers for you. I was, unbeknownst to me, the Wicked Stepmother in this classroom.

But how lucky I was. Those teenagers were smart and articulate, and by being so curmudgeonly and incisive, they unwittingly taught me how to teach- most importantly, they taught me how to relate to my students.

The first thing they did was to beat all the ego out of me. If I made a mistake- and all young teachers make factual mistakes now and then- they jumped on it like a lion who detects a crippled antelope.  I learned very quickly to listen when someone challenged me. I learned how to be humble and admit I'd made a mistake. (I learned to prepare better.) I learned to respect the intellects and abilities of children.

I might add that all my classes at that school were a bit like that. I've had kids come up to the board unbidden, mark an error in something I've written and correct it. (That was a 14-year-old, and she was dead right.)

When they weren't beating the ego out of me and teaching me to respect them, my Year 12s were sitting in stony silence with their arms folded. In retrospect, I realise that this was something that they'd planned, because every girl in that class conformed to the deathly stillness. When I asked questions, nobody answered or moved a muscle. They were effectively having a stop-work meeting every lesson. Maybe they thought that if they were horrible enough I'd leave, and they could have their beloved 'Cammie' back. (Yep, she even had an affectionate nickname.)

What did that teach me? It taught me that there was NOTHING as important as being engaging. It wasn't only about what I was trying to teach them- it was more than 50% about how I was teaching it. There was absolutely no point in ignoring the attitude, lecturing dryly about my subject for forty minutes and assuming they'd absorbed everything.  One thing I did know about teaching was that if they hadn't engaged with the material, they would neither understand nor remember it.  So I had to accept the challenge of their attitude and pull out all the stops.

Faced by the silence, I had a choice of options. I could cry, I could rage at them, or I could laugh. Fortunately I allowed my natural sense of the ridiculous to triumph. Already they were teaching me to be authentic; I have a wicked sense of humour and a twinkle in my eye in my natural state, but they hadn't seen that. I wasn't going to get away with separating myself from them and being what I thought a senior teacher should be. I had to take risks, be myself and engage.

And so the next time my questions were met with complete silence, I started talking to the inanimate objects in the room instead. 'Hello walls. Do you have an opinion? Ceiling? What about you, chair? Isn't it great the way these girls are refusing to answer? I really don't know what it's about. Do you?'  When I heard someone snicker, I realised I'd found a chink in their armour. I'd accidentally discovered something about their personalities; they had a sense of the ridiculous too. And for the first time, I was giving them an honest reaction to their silence and showing them that I was a person too; I wasn't just a wall to throw their anger at.

For the next week or so, when they wouldn't answer my questions, I pretended to bang my head on the wall and discussed the answer with the curtains. I was going to have a dialogue about this question, even if they weren't going to take part, and I let them know what I was doing.  (I think at one stage I even started teaching to the side wall instead of the class.)

They started to laugh openly. And eventually, a human being joined a dialogue good-humouredly when I purposely, and obviously, said something that wasn't correct. Bingo!

They never really liked me, you know; they'd given their hearts to Miss Cameron.  But eventually they thawed enough to start learning, and began to argue and openly challenge the way I was teaching them  (it was something of a revolution not to hand out reams of notes).  That taught me to welcome challenge.  After all that silence, any response was welcome, even if it was an argument about teaching method.

They'd already taught me that every lesson is a performance, and you'd better not leave anything in the bag- you'd better give it your all if you want engagement and response.  Without engagement, nobody is learning. And they taught me that laughter is irresistible.  It's the best tool in the bag. When kids laugh, they remember.

I knew I'd cracked the teacher-student relationship code when one of the girls sought me out after class one day.

'We don't like it when you call us kiddies,' she said. 'It's patronising.'

Yes, spot on; in one moment of frustration, when they'd reverted to silence again for no apparent reason, I had said 'Come ON, kiddies! This is silly!'  And it was patronising, and it wasn't respectful.

But they trusted me enough to tell me so.

And so they'd taught me another vital lesson about teaching: accept negative feedback as a good thing, and change your practice. I apologised, and tried never to use that tone, or that word, again; if I slipped up I apologised again, and told them instead that I was finding their attitude frustrating.  Yep, they kept me 100% honest and 100% authentic.

So I was lucky to have met this difficult, challenging, bloody-minded group of young women.  They probably don't remember me now, because I still had a lot to learn about being a great teacher, but I remember them.

I particularly remembered that class the day another student, several years later, came to me after class and thanked me for letting the class know at the start of the lesson that (a) I was in a really bad mood and (b) it wasn't about them.

"I wish all the teachers would do that," she said.  "Sometimes we don't know if we've done something wrong or if we're being punished for something that's happened to the teacher that's got nothing to do with us."

Would I have realised the effect my anger might have on my class if those Year 12s hadn't taught me to be authentic, to show what I was feeling, to respect the students as human beings? I doubt it. Those girls didn't let me get away with anything. And you know, it woke me up to what I looked like from the other side of the line between teacher and student.

So what makes a good teacher, beyond knowing your subject?

Acknowledge that children are people too.

Be authentic.


Admit your mistakes and do something about them.

Don't be afraid to use laughter as a teaching aid.

Accept the challenges with good humour.

Thank you, girls.


  1. One of the things that draws me to your blog is your authenticity. Thank you for sharing yourself with us, Annie.


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