In a class of my own: a dynamic lesson

It was George Bernard Shaw and not Oscar Wilde who first spouted the shrewd wisdom that ‘Youth is wasted on the young’. It is an insight that could be applied to teachers. What good is being a student teacher when you have no experience of those you will be dealing with in the classroom other than your own schooldays? Give a mature teacher such a luxury of time and see the great use they would make of it.

My memory of teaching practice is of a divide into two factions: those who turned up for it bleary-eyed and flying by the seats of their pants and those who spent ridiculous swathes of time preparing immaculate lessons that they could never hope to produce in a real time teaching situation.

Whenever students are on practice, practising teachers look forward to the experience for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that they bring new energy into the classroom and their involvement can reduce pressure on the class teacher’s role. But students also bring in new ideas and this can act as a means of updating methods and approaches.

A student named Hugh was as keen as mustard, bursting with new ideas he wanted to try out on my Second Year English class. What could possibly go wrong? He was competent, had a nice manner with the pupils and, anyway, I would be in the room overseeing.

Among the class’s number was Frank, a boy large for his age who could be misinterpreted as sullen if the judgment was based purely on his facial expression. Frank’s dad had walked out on the family and at age 13 Frank was left as the alpha male, a position he did not find easy. Maybe that was why he was a bit ‘clingy’ with me because I was the male teacher he saw most of. Frank was keen to be a monitor and help me in any way possible.

I had been doing a unit of work with my second years (Year 8 these days) about formal and informal English. We had considered the use of language for instruction and recording and one of the examples had been the formal setting that exists in a courtroom.

Hugh was a hands-on type who favoured learning by doing rather than reading about it. That was no problem as I was all in favour of active learning that gets the kids involved at first hand myself.

His idea was this. I would be taking a normal English lesson looking at some poems and he would ‘unexpectedly’ enter my classroom in an angry frame of mind. The cause of his anger would be that I had given a negative report on his teaching practice to his tutor which he had just learned about.

His anger would spill over and he would pretend to get so wound up that he gave me a push that caused me to fall over. He would then storm off out of the room, pretending to return in a fury to the staffroom.  Once he was out of sight, I would stand up and reassure the shocked class that what they had just witnessed was a choreographed incident and that nobody had got hurt or lost their temper. It had all been planned.

“We scripted the whole thing” I would tell them “including him pushing me over”

Hugh would then return to the scene of the crime and the lesson would then proceed with the class being cross-examined by the two of us to see whether their written and spoken accounts were an accurate record of what had actually occurred. As we had a script of the incident to hand, we would soon be able to compare what really happened with the children’s account.

Good idea, huh?

We reckoned without young Frank.

Frank was a big boy for his age and a keen participant in my lessons. He came along to the Drama and Running Clubs too.

Perhaps we acted out the scenario too well for Frank cottoned on quickly that Hugh was in no mood to take any prisoners. Holding a pretend tutor’s report in his hand, Hugh gestured angrily:

“You’ve probably wrecked my teaching career by what you’ve written here” he protested.

“Like what?”

“Saying that I hardly ever marked the children’s books and that I hadn’t picked up on spelling mistakes…”

“Well, I only spoke the truth. Am I supposed to lie for you?”

Hugh moved in close and raised both hands ready for the assault.

“You think you can just say what you like and get away with it.”

But before he could strike, Frank was up and out of his chair and grabbing hold of his shoulder. Hugh caught off balance, not to say unawares, fell over on account of Frank’s intervention. The whole premise of the lesson had collapsed about us.

We had no alternative but to admit the truth to the class and call the whole thing off.

The moral of the story is… well, there’s no moral actually. You can teach in a passive way. Sitting kids down and ramming into them historical facts, great literary quotes and all the scientific and mathematical formulae. They might listen and learn and they might not. Unless you invite them to participate you will never know what they have learned until exam time. Even then it might be the text book rather than your teaching that got the result.

Or you can teach actively so that pupils take a part in the lesson rather than just receiving it. Of course, this approach is dynamic and the word dynamic has the same roots as dynamite. In other words, it can explode and, as shown on the day in question, sometimes does.       Chemistry Teacher with Students in Class

© Alan Combes, 2019. All Rights Reserved

Alan Combes