On Teaching

Well here I am. Older than most – eighty-five to be specific. For fifty of those years, as a teacher, I helped people fashion their future. Now I’m in my own future, that uncertain time so dependent on whether you can keep on breathing.

What now? Categorised by the powers that be as beyond my use-by date, I often find myself these days like Winnie the Pooh: sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.

As for the thinking part, I thought I might today share here my thoughts about the classroom as a place of learning. Why not? It’s such an important place. The real nucleus of education. That class at work is close to the only setting where you can truly judge a teacher. Validly and reliably that is.

It is where essential learning journeys begin; where the young bird flies for the first time; where words become wheels in motion; where the penny drops and the mind comes to life.

So here I stand. The following are my ideas gathered through time about teaching behaviour. Do what you like with them.

We first need to answer important questions before we start teaching. What is a classroom? What is a class?

Every classroom is an infinite cauldron of competing forces. Every class is a bubbling pot of individual differences close to boiling point on the day you take over. So when you begin you need to say to yourself, “This is serious. Learn to teach or else!” You might also be aware of the old axiom: “To teach is to learn something twice.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Emile or On Education, has an interesting general principle to start you off:

I have already said your child must not get what he asks, but what he needs; he must never act from obedience, but from necessity.

Interesting. Those “needs” are the key. Should they be elitist ideology or genuine universal requirements. Your immediate task ontaking over? To determine, as best you can, the precise, true needs of each child in your care.

Testing therefore will be important. Real teachers, as opposed to upwardly mobile politicians, know the difference between a diagnostic test and an attainments test, and use them both well, certainly not to create league tables and myths of superiority. So the initial teaching time, say the first six weeks, can include something like this:

Initial Attainments TestInitial Diagnostic Test

TEACH

Retest AttainmentsRetest Diagnostic

RE-TEACH ∞

It’s all basic logic. You need first, as the great educational drama guru Brian Way once said, “to find where the child is at.” You can then apply teaching that is appropriate to age, social status, home background, pupil mental and physical health, past achievements, gender, student ambition, available resources and the teacher’s professional awareness. Yes. The role of the teacher is extremely complex.

Testing will always be a part of that complexity. To be avoided at all costs however is a system of public ranking that in itself becomes the main focus of learning. Have you noticed the huge market for so called test panaceas? Worried about NAPLAN? We can fix it. Do these things and win.

Once you have established how close to the chronological age the mental age is, for each student in your care, you are ready to begin your vital work. If you are an infants or primary teacher, you are a generalist and your assessments and diagnoses will be many and varied. You will have developed your own, professional variety of tests. I have found the “getting to know you” short essay from each pupil a very good starting point. It can reveal many things including information from the Affective and Psycho-motor Domains.

I want to talk now about some of my classrooms. The memories remain.That is how I will share my visions of virtue and folly.

My First Class.Class 4B Boys Primary January 1953 45 Pupils: Sydney, Australia.

I was with those boys for a whole year – day after day after day. Each of those days began with a hymn: “Now Thank We All Our God,” and a creed: “I honour my God, I serve my Queen, I salute the Flag.” That routine and comparative order usually moved quickly into chaos. To create a learning climate in such a big class was a challenge for pupils and teacher.

I had so much to learn about classroom management. I would shout above noise, demanding silence. I would bang my desk with a large piece of wood for the same reason. I would blame and punish far more frequently than I would reward virtue. I would delay feedback with written tasks because of the large number of children in my care. It was a hard way to begin my fifty years of teaching.

Abilities in the group were so mixed too. Some were quite bright and many were well below the norms for Year 4. Average age was about ten yet there were two twelve-year-old strugglers who could not read. You had to program, teach and test a plethora of subjects: craft, English, music, maths, science, history and geography, physical education. The inspectorial system was used then. Once a year for the three years of your probation, you were visited by a learned inspector who watched you work and judged your worth as a teacher. At the end of the third year I passed and was awarded a teacher certificate. Such a challenge with but two years teacher training. If I were to begin teaching that class today, their lives would be so much better.

In A One-teacher School. Classes K-6 plus 2 Correspondence; Girls and Boys Primary 1958 19 Pupils: Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia.

Here the social role of the teacher was important. It was an isolated community and the teacher was a star of recognised social status. Links with parents were vital as was an awareness of pupil home duties on the farms. Life had taught the older pupils very valuable sibling management skills that were used by the teacher with a number of learning tasks, coping with the age and subject variety – all in one room. ABC radio broadcasts for music and social studies gave valuable assistance. We did lots of story telling for the whole group. Drama also worked well across the grades. Henny Penny for example:

One day an apple fell and hit Henny Penny on the head.

HENNY PENNY: The sky is falling. I must go and tell the Queen. Henny Penny met Goosy Poosy.
HENNY PENNY: The sky is falling. I must go and tell the Queen. GOOSY POOSY: I’ll come wiv ya.

Participation was the aim, not necessarily perfection. Which brings me to a major issue with the contemporary child.

The cyber age has drastically reduced interaction between people in real world contact situations, free of computerised devices. A serious consequence of this is a lack of practice with vital communication skills. I mean gesture, eye contact, the smile and other facial expressions, posture changes linked to meaning – they all tend to disappear in the cocoon of chat group or the SMS. Even Skype is artificial and not the same as a meeting between people without artificial links.

I believe with all my heart therefore, in the vast and present need for drama in classrooms. I mean Theatre in Education (TIE), educational drama, readers theatre and children’s theatre – all required now with constant use.

Another Primary Class After Several Years Of Teaching.Class 6A Girls and Boys Primary 1961 32 Pupils: Maitland, New South Wales, Australia.

A lovely classroom climate. Pupils working busily all the time. No shouting and banging of my desk. A gentle pause instead when necessary, waiting for silence. Important instructions were often given in a soft voice. Listening thus became a reward and helped each good listener’s progress. The effect on classroom climate was important.

One of the pupils from that class recently visited this web page and linked up with me. It was a joy and an honour to meet her. Where does a teacher’s influence end? One of the boys I taught in 1953 also found me in the same way. He was a successful sportsman and teacher. It was also an honour to share coffee and memories with him until he passed away two years ago.

A GA (General Activities) Class.This is a special category of students with limited ability in high schools, staffed by primary trained teachers. My class: boys Median Age 12-14.11 1963 17 Pupils: Sydney, Australia.

The curriculum for this group was focused on everyday survival skills. Teaching time was all-day not 40 minute periods, and in a single room. This was my entry into secondary teaching. I was studying part-time for an Arts Degree so later taught English and history in that and other high schools, and later became an English/History Master. My GA lesson notes:

Spelling: Danger, Poison, Beware of the Dog, Keep Off, Give Way, Wrong Way, Go Back, Halt, Trespassers Prosecuted, Wait Here, Do Not Touch, Electricity, Police, Ambulance, Hospital, Emergency.

Mathematics: Addition of Shopping Bills, Distance Measuring, Easy Fractions, The Four Processes: × ÷ + −.

Social Learning: Electoral Rolls, Emergency Behaviour 000, Police Functions, Interpreting Advertising, Our History and Geography, The Rules Of Good Manners, Job Seeking.

There was a fundamental need for these young people lingering at school until the leaving age of 15. It was self respect. A major strategy required was to give them support to live their debased lives. One of them said early in my time with them, “Gee Sir, you can’t be very bright having to teach us dumb ones.”

We were friends, those seventeen lads and I, and found ways of succeeding with practical things. I met one in the street after he had left the class. He was very excited and wanted to share with me the news that he had found a job with a panel beater.

Is it not an essential duty of all educators to strive to avoid isolation, despair and varying degrees of self contempt in the young? That is a call to arms for us all.

HSC High School English Class. This was a final year class with students from several cultural backgrounds. Year 12 Mixed Gender 1997 27 Pupils, Sydney, Australia.

One of my students, a young man from this class, one day gave me a poem after a lesson. It was a very good poem, hand written. So good I asked him where he found it.

“I wrote it Sir,” he said.
I heard his words with genuine surprise.
“It’s a very moving poem,” I said. “Tell me about it.”

“Well Sir, I am a Kurd. I have lived if four countries counting this one. It makes me very sad because I have not felt that any one of these places is my home.”

There he was, as I observed, a young eighteen-year-old refugee, sharing his anguish with me as a friend. I wondered what my country had done to him to make him feel so much an alien. My humble contribution was to offer support and give him more power to analyse and write in English.

Year 10 History. This was a class with students from several cultural backgrounds. Year 10 Mixed gender 1997 30 Pupils: Sydney, Australia.

My subject one day with this class was the outbreak of World War I. The specific topic was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip. Part of my tale of the assassination ran thus:

The motorcade mistakenly turned into a side street where Princip happened to be hiding. The first three cars began to reverse to the main road giving Princip a chance to fire two shots at the archduke from point-blank range. Within minutes the Archduke and his wife Sophie were dead. Three weeks too young for the death penalty, the Serbian Black Hand member Princip was sentenced to 20 years gaol. He died in that gaol of tuberculosis in April 1918 aged a mere 23.

A day or two after that lesson I was approached by one of my pupils.

“Sir, I’m having a hard time after that lesson about the assassination of the Archduke. Some of the class are bullying me because I’m a Serb and they say I caused World War I.”

This was a shock to me. Suddenly I had to look at my history narrative from a different point of view.

It had been so easy up to that moment to classify “goodies and baddies” in clinical categories. Now one of my pupils was actually threatened by my black and white tale.

I told the troubled lad always to walk away from unfair criticism with head held high. He was not guilty o anything.

“Every nation has a dark side to its history,” I said. ”Austria-Hungary and the Bosnian Serbs had been in dangerous conflict for some time. But don’t waste your time fighting back with events for the bullies to be ashamed of. Just walk away. Learn more history and you’ll find no nation is totally free of shame. Yes. Walk away and learn more. That is your best defence.”

University Class: MA In International Relations (1 Semester 1993) . This was a public-speaking course for diplomats. There were 21 students from many nations.

The teaching strategy here was to immerse the students in great speeches and give them practice through group work largely, in analysing the material for emphasis, pauses, suitable high and low volume, varied speed, connotations, gesture suitability, appropriate posture and valid core themes. Discussion and debate were important aspects of the teaching.

Among the texts were Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Hamlet’s soliloquy, Mark Anthony’s speech on Caesar, 1 Corinthians 13, and texts contributed by the students. Interaction and peer support were noticeably a feature of this teaching program, in short “learning by doing” as drama pundits tend to say.

University Equity Program.This was a Federal Labor Government funded one-semester equity course I taught at university for non-matriculated applicants seeking entry to university. The literacy section included definition, comparison and contrast, description, scientific discourse, valid argumentation, public speaking and exam technique.

Nine Intakes, 20-30 Students, 1989-1995 a University In NSW, Australia.

The core of this program was an awareness of the power of analytical writing. Students were required to write one essay a week throughout the semester. The result was 10 essays of 250 words, based upon university model questions, all with feedback within one week. Exceeding the word limit was heavily penalised, as was failure to keep to the set question. Students learnt to get to the point quickly and keep to it without padding or irrelevancies.

I taught the nine generations of this program whose graduates achieved higher results in First Year than any other identifiable undergraduate group. Graduates later included a University Medalist in Psychology, several PhDs and many honours degrees across all faculties. Such is the power of precise, analytical writing and supportive, rigorous, ongoing guidance.

As a teacher, I can say my life intertwined with many of
these lives. One example is a single mother beset with a husband failing with alimony payments. She wanted to get into university and become a lawyer. That dream of hers came true, as did the dreams of many other such students.

My Last School.A High School In Western Sydney, Australia

When I retired from university teaching, I worked in this high school from 1996 to 2004. This poem reflects on some of the outcomes.

Vive l’école

A school is not an inanimate thing.

I found this out today

When I visited a place

Where in my yesterdays I used to teach.

‘Hello Sir’ came the voices,

And their looks of recognition

Seemed to tap me

On the shoulder

As I walked across that playground

At recess time

Into the hollow hallways

Where I heard again the footsteps

Of the past

And in its briefly empty classrooms

I met the echoes of my words

And the reflected sounds of yesterday’s pupils

With their sighs of learning struggle

Their misdemeanours

And their Ahas! of the once in a while

When insight sets in.

It was a weird experience this…

A haunted house without ghosts

Not spooks

But thoughts and words

And struggles and despair and hope

And growth and disobedience

And little triumphs over learning curves

And breakthroughs to understanding

And punishment and distraction

And anger and hatred and inspiration

And penalty and injustice and impossible tasks

And, when the last bell rang,

Memories of transformations that never end.

A school is not an inanimate thing.
 

  November 2004

Note: For images, my thanks to Creative Commons.

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