Talk to them!

Sometimes to take a single word back you would need pages, I remember one Estonian actress say when talking about the power of words. Silence surely can be golden and a virtue and a sign of intelligence.  However, there are just as many occasions when talking things through would ease the pressure and set things straight. Talking about problems, voicing your fears and doubts, expressing your expectations means putting your cards on the table and being honest. It makes you human, it makes you a partner, it means holding out your hand for the others to grab.

It doesn’t only work in couples 😉 It is also an incredibly powerful tool in a classroom! And though it sounds simple and pretty basic I guess many teachers need to be reminded of the magic a dialogue can create.

During the last two years I have experienced two very powerful moments of the benefits of dialogue. In both cases I found myself in a situation where I felt utterly lost and totally frustrated. I started to dread going into the classroom. I felt the ever widening gap between me, the teacher and them, the students. The classroom was slowly  transforming into the creature I have always dreaded. It was a battlefield of conflicting interests and misunderstanding. I wasn’t enjoying myself at all. In fact, I hated the kind of teacher I was gradually becoming. I heard myself nag and threaten and moan. I had become a team of one against them. And boy, how I hate that! It’s the complete contrary of what I hold dear and cherish in teaching – teamwork and sailing the stormy seas in the same boat with my students.

So I began thinking of the options available. What are my strengths and weaknesses? Which moments make me happy? Which groups do I feel completely at ease in and why? The answers flooded in. Be yourself! Be the cheerful person you are! Stop acting like a policewoman! And most of all, put your cards on the table. Untie the knots with your students.

I remember walking into the classroom, looking at my students and saying, “You know what, I really need to talk to you … “

I loved each one of them at the end of that lesson!

This year I had a similar apprehension with the first year students. It wasn’t anything personal, but the incredibly mixed levels in the group started poisoning the atmosphere from day one. Students felt that something was amiss. Certain students felt bored to death, others struggled. So I reminded myself of the wonders talking things through can make. I decided to devote as much time as needed to explaining the peculiar situation we found ourselves in. I drew lines, I pointed out different levels, I illustrated what was happening. You might think that the students had understood it all by themselves, that they knew they were part of a mixed-level class. Not necessarily!  The visual explanation, the fact I was putting the mess into words cleared everything up. They had a powerful heureka moment. And suddenly we were all in the same boat. I told them what I was going to do about it, what tools and techniques I was going to use to make the most of it. And they knew what I hoped their contribution would be. And what’s more, they knew we were a team working towards a goal TOGETHER.

Now, when I go to this class, I feel stronger and more confident. I try different things, I feel bold enough to experiment. And I feel free to discuss things over with them, to ask for their feedback, to TALK! 

Any you? What wonders has talk made in your teaching? Would love to hear about your experience!



it’s tough to be tough

I could smell it right away. I knew what it was but couldn’t tell where it came from.  So I walked from table to table nostrils flared up like a miniature dragon. My feelings were a mixed bag. On one hand, there was disbelief and unease due to the fact that I was caught totally off guard. On the other hand, there was anger at the students’ audacity to think they could drink alcohol during their lunch break, then come to the lesson tipsy and act as if nothing was amiss.

I could have closed my eyes (and nostrils) and pretended that I didn’t know. I could have given my lesson, called it a day and gone home feeling smug and ready for a weekend. But I didn’t. I took the steps I deemed appropriate for a teacher who is responsible for a class of teenagers. My choice of action will not increase my popularity among these students, it might even get me several nasty looks next week, lots of gossip behind my back and less enthusiasm in class. Maybe … But at the end of the day I will feel at peace with myself and proud that I don’t shy away from taking tough and unpopular decisions.

As you all know so well, being a teacher entails much more than transferring the knowledge we already have. Taking up the responsibility of guiding young people means becoming educators in a very wide sense. I have no moralist in mind, far from that. Rather someone older and hopefully wiser, who helps determine limits which create an atmosphere of security. Within these limits a lot is possible. But these limits teach respect, responsibility and the simple fact that all our actions have consequences.

Sounds pretty confident and simple, doesn’t it. But writing these lines is a sort of self therapy for me. It’s not that I completely lack natural authority but I have found this aspect of the teaching profession always tricky and confusing. My first students were adults, so discipline was not an issue. Lessons were always gratifying, laughter constantly present and I felt that simply by making lessons interesting would help me get rid of any behaviour issues.  But then I started work in an art college where students’ ages ranged from 16 to 22. I found myself in an entirely new universe with strict timetables, end-of-the-term exams but more importantly still with sometimes recalcitrant students, laziness, cheating, well-pretended innocence. Well, the usual. And suddenly my recipe of hopefully gripping lessons didn’t suffice.

My first year at the new school was pretty much a chaos. I learned the hard way that old ways won’t work any more, I got cold feet whenever a new conflict was looming ahead, and students didn’t have to try hard to destabilize me. On the one hand I wanted to please, I wished so much to be this cool new teacher in town who would later inspire a famous film director (Michelle Pfeiffer and Hilary Swank, you have a responsibility here !) But on the other hand, I realized very quickly that being cool alone won’t do the job. My students didn’t need a new pal. They needed a teacher who would help them improve their English skills and guide them with reassuring confidence till the final exam.

So I began my journey of growth. I learned from the wiser, I listened to the other, more experienced colleagues, I read and reflected. But most importantly, I started slowly to detach myself from the belief that being a great teacher means being a cool pal.  I cannot say I master the art with ease. Not yet. But I guess I have been able to come a long way. And there are principles I try to stick to. Here are some of them …

  • Set the rules before you begin the game. Some rules can be a fruit of cooperation with your students. Others, like guidelines and marking system might be your expectations as a teacher. Once you have the rules, stick to them.  It can be hard at times. There will always be the smart someone who will try to sneak past the rule (the excuses can be quite « heart-rending » … ) but remember, you did say what is expected. They knew it.
  • Sometimes you will cause frustration. But it doesn’t mean you are a nasty witch. It means you help your students learn to handle the tools that will help them later.
  • Your target is not to increase your popularity. Your aim should be helping the young to become indipendent and responsible adults.
  • Clear rules and limits create the safe space where creativity can flourish.

You know what, I feel much better now.

What about you ? Do disicpline issues cause similar inner fights in you or have you mastered the art yet ? What is your golden discipline rule ?