On my last night in Peterborough I had a long chat, over dinner, with Andrew and Kim. I didn’t bring up the topic but they, being the wonderful hosts that they were, allowed me to pontificate on my favourite subject – teaching.
Sometime many years ago a young green graduating teacher rang me. Uncle John, he said, presuming much about which I was innocent, I am having trouble in my classroom with students who don’t want to learn and who won’t do what I tell them to do. Can you put in one sentence just what your secret is?
You’d have to be joking! It would take a book!
Anyway, first mistake: Of course they won’t do what you tell them. Have you ever thought it would be better to ask them. By telling them to do something you have just drawn the lines of battle. Asking them means you and they are in it together.
I haven’t got time to read a book. Maybe two sentences!
I’ll think about it. How’s your mother?
Fine. How is Katrin?
Fine. Goodbye. I’ll get back to you.
So I thought about it. And in the end I got it down to one sentence. So I rang him. His mother answered the phone, sighed and put him on.
OK I have one sentence.
You have to love the kids and they have to know you love them.
If you do that they’ll do anything you ask them to do.
You can’t use the word love these days.
All right then. Change it to care for.
You have to care for the kids and they have to know you care for them.
Go and work on it.
An hour later there was a knock on the door. It was him. He came in and sat down. I brought you a bottle of whisky. One sentence isn’t enough. What do you mean care for?
So we talked and argued and then I sat at my desk and wrote a bit down.
How do you know what this means? Ask the students. Sit down with the class and start a discussion. You can invent a hypothetical teacher from your own youth. I had a teacher once who really seemed to care. Then you ask your students what is it that they would like to be cared for. Or put bluntly, why should someone care about you?
Some of the consequences of a teacher caring for his class as a whole and each individual student one at a time is that you have to defend them from the enemy. So who is the enemy? That makes for a long lesson. The enemy can be the teacher they have for another subject, the headmaster, their parents, the employment agencies et al.
In the end you have to make it clear that you are on their side. You are a team all working for the one object – their success.
You and parents.
One of the most successful and rewarding things I developed with my classes was the home visit. Most schools these days involve Parent/Teacher evenings. The students don’t like them because they are worried by what the teacher will say or what their parent will say. Often it becomes a confrontation.
So, while I continued P/T evenings with most classes I stopped them with my class. “My Class” refers to the class that you are developing a special relationship with. P/T meetings don’t work because of Territoriality. The classroom is my territory. In my territory I have control. In my territory the parent is at a disadvantage. And that doesn’t help. (Read ‘The Territorial Imperative by Robert Ardrey.)
So I asked each student in my class to have me invited to their place for coffee. There are many stories about these visits of mine. Each was successful. On only a very few occasions did we discuss the student. But because I was the one at a disadvantage, I was out of my territory, the parents had the advantage.
What was interesting was that after each meeting the behaviour improved considerably.
It may be that some parents will not be happy. Maybe they are ashamed of the place they live in. Or some other reason. Then go for neutral territory. Maccas or Cosco.
That’s enough for now. If you want more just ask. Maybe you want me to elaborate on a point. Next time I will tell you how I got the worst class to do Shakespeare and Shelly or Coleridge.