Autumn and the joys of teaching.

I was in an exceptionally good mood today. Nothing to do with the approaching weekend, I’m sure, nor the fact that we have finally had a little of the mellow September weather that I really like…

At this time of the year, teachers are fresh, the honeymoon period with new classes hasn’t really worn off, and the pressure of exams still seems a long way away. It’s a pleasant way to spend a day – and what a difference it makes, to feel relatively relaxed with the pupils, to have the time to respond to one or two of their off-topic but interesting questions and to pull someone’s leg a bit; it’s all good humoured and the kids enjoy it, none more so than some of the less-than-angelic ones, who often have come to expect rather different treatment.

I’m more than ever convinced that successful teaching is about relationships. My good humour rubbed off on the whole proceedings all day long. This does not mean falling over oneself to curry favour with the pupils, and certainly not trying to be their ‘mate’ – there will always be times when some steel is needed, but good relationship-building can help avoid serious breakdowns. It’s a bit like a bank account – there are times when you pay in, and times when you need to draw on your capital.

The personal relationship one develops with one’s classes counts far more in my experience than any number of gimmicky activities. Children are not circus animals, to be made to perform novelty tricks; what they seem to appreciate is someone who openly likes them, has time for them – and if this is right, pretty much anything is possible. Even those who make you tear your hair are often more easily managed by disarming their misdemeanours with humour. And it’s not only the pupils’ stress that is defused by this approach… I have observed this in Switzerland, where relaxed, cordial relations between teacher and pupil seem to be cultivated more actively then in the U.K., where the pressure is on to perform.

It seems to me that children crave knowing that their teachers are human; natural nosiness accounts for some of it, and one’s privacy is important – but judiciously tapped, even one’s own foibles can be excused by self-deprecating humour; they’ll forgive a lot! So – albeit with care – I have been prepared to share a little of my personal thoughts and interests with certain classes. I can sense some frowns appearing at this point. True, one must indeed be careful, but the authenticity gained by showing children that you practice what you preach is a winner.

It seems to me that modern life is depriving many children of really warm relationships; even caring parents can so easily end up hovering anxiously, helicopter-like over their offspring, which in my view is actually rather vicarious. I suspect it can even kill the warmth in those relationships – parents should be very careful indeed about sending their relationships down the contingent, aspirational route. Children need space to be (or find) themselves too.

Education now takes itself so seriously that relaxing in this way is not the done thing. Despite some over-the-top pallyness, teachers have in some ways become more distant, more manipulative, less authentic. The system is so focused on results that wider personal interaction is not really approved of; have a chat with your pupils and your lesson will be criticised for ‘lacking pace’. But the investment in building relationships is more than worth it, and will pay dividends if and when the going perhaps gets more difficult. This is more easily done when people feel contented: things that please teachers will have a good effect on their students; things that don’t, won’t. Yes, we should try to rise above this – but we’re only human.

It’s also true, this does not work in every case – judging when to adopt a certain approach is part of the teacher’s skill – but for all I sometimes hark back to traditional teaching, I for one am not afraid to adopt a much more approachable and personable stance with my pupils than in the old days. Building those relationships makes the job more pleasant for all concerned.

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5 thoughts on “Autumn and the joys of teaching.

  1. I completely agree. So many teachers seem to think there are two possibilities – 1) Be strict, show none of who you actually are as a person, be a ‘teacher’, be in a position of authority. 2) Be relaxed, be ‘human’, be your students’ ‘friend’, but in doing that have no control of command no respect… Why can’t there be, let’s say 1.5 – somewhere in the middle – a relaxed ‘human’, working with students as a partner in their learning, maintaining clear boundaries and being genuinely respected in the process? I see too many teachers that try to be too much one way or the other.

  2. I like position 1.5! I think the current regimented approach to teacher training is responsible for some of that outlook. But 1.5 can only work when teachers have had enough time and space to work out what is their own real classroom persona – not one they have been told to adopt.

    I read your own blog on allowing children to discover things. I agree in part, though I think more formal teaching also has a place – expert guidance is sometimes necessary! My view is that if the relationships are right, the teaching techniques adopted become less critical, and can be safely evolved between those actually in the room.

    • Great to hear from you. In regards to ‘not teaching kids… Let them learn’ maybe it’s another “1.5” opportunity! Perhaps we should take a 1.5 approach to most aspects of teaching- teacher strictness, relationships, learning and teaching styles, classroom management, content, etc. I like your use of the word “evolved” and yes, the people “actually in the room” are the ones living and breathing that class culture/community so who are outsiders to judge.

  3. I think you’re right. I’ve seen enough swings of the pendulum in my time to know that the truth is rarely found at their extremes. No matter how quasi-scientific teaching becomes, at the end of the day it’s about interactions between human beings. Those work best on the basis of reasonableness, empathy and consideration, all of which are matters of 1.5-type judgements, not impersonal absolutes.

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