One of the most common questions I am asked when delivering workshops in schools is ‘Do you still teach’ or rather more rudely (but less often) ‘When were you last in the classroom’. To the first question I wonder what they think I am going to do with 150 of their students for the whole day apart from teach and to the second I normally reply ‘about two hours ago and you?’.
I think these comments underpin one of the fundamental fears and insecurities about teaching which is - how good are you, really? I think Ofsted have made things far worse and parents use of phrases like ‘strong’ when applied to teachers make me wince.
Whilst I do still teach my subject (Geography) in a classroom (of 20 – 30 children) when the opportunity presents itself there is always the question as to whether you have still got ‘what it takes’ in the back of your mind. One could argue that with a well rehearsed performance backed up with a good quality Powerpoint, good materials and a subject which everyone finds interesting then I could sometimes have an easier ride. Plus the fact that I have the element of surprise on my side too.
One of the jobs that I do fairly regularly is to go and visit a school in Geneva. When I say regularly I mean every year. To date the visit has followed a fairly familiar format. Half of the year group do circus skills at a nearby permanent circus site whilst the other half work with me on learning skills in the school in a room which has all that you would expect – chairs, tables, screen, projector, laptop, pens, flipchart, whiteboard. At lunch time the two groups switch over.
The circus skills space is pretty amazing and the kids are either in a state of looking forward to going to this part of the day or are feeling pleasantly tired from the event. Whilst this is an international school and a fee paying institution the kids are relatively well behaved but it is not guaranteed!
The last time I went to the school however things weren't quite as I expected. Without telling me before hand the school and member of staff organising had decided to run the whole day at the circus site. This was all very well as I am used to being flexible and thinking on my feet. However the yellow tent below was to be the ‘classroom’ for the day in which I was supposed to keep two groups of seventy five 15/16 year olds on task for two and a half hours at a time.
If you think it looks a bit ropey from the outside then you would not have believed what the inside was like. It looked like an old scout hut that hadn’t been used for ten years. It was filthy dirty and the tables and chairs were not what you would expect - and best of all there was no electricity!
I realised that I had two choices – to either get on with it or tell them what I really thought and catch the plane home. I decided to go for the former so I set to with a mop and bucket and despatched one of the teachers to a local school to get me a flip chart.
I then proceeded to keep the aforementioned pupils ‘on task’ for the required time.
It had its challenges but by and large it worked. I was very glad that I remembered to bring my trusty set of marker pens and that I started out in this business using only a flipchart to explain my ideas and was not ‘powerpoint dependent’.
The school employs a very diverse range of teachers from a wide variety of backgrounds who are quite a mixed bunch to deal with. They range from the very helpful to those that seem slightly hostile for whatever reason – maybe language or culture affect their interactions.
However as I was packing away and looking forward to getting home - (despite the supposed glamour of Geneva, for me this is just another school with a longer commute at each end and no real chance to see anything particularly Swiss apart from the airport, train station and hotel!) – one of the teachers came forward and told me that they had enjoyed the day and learned a lot – not about learning skills but about how to teach.
Suddenly all the frustrations of the day melted away and it hit me that the day had been a fantastic opportunity to prove to myself and others that yes, I can still teach, and really well.
Walking back to the train station I felt a greater glow of satisfaction than I have done for quite a while and I wonder how many of us could really benefit from being stripped of all the ‘teaching aids’ upon which we so desperately rely or have become reliant upon to realise that actually we can really still teach – and that is why we do!