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What I Missed About Teaching

I’m handing back Year 9’s exam marks. They’ve filed in. Pretty confident. They pick up their exam papers. They are outraged. “Is this an A?” Mmm. Since when did a ‘D’ look like an ‘A’? Only the supremest optimist could hope so. “No. It’s a D”. He is genuinely shocked. How could he get a ‘D’? “Well. You didn’t answer the questions.” “What do you mean?” “Look at the paper.” “Yes, but…” “There is no but. It’s multiple choice. Your answers are wrong.” He looks at me like I am mad. The rest of the class are, pretty universally, similarly astounded. “You didn’t teach us…” “Well, I did actually. You remember that day when I asked you to write down the Elements of Drama? Some of you wrote them down. Some of you took photos with your phones. I pointed out that these would be part of the exam but most of you, in fact 90% of you, weren’t paying attention. You were…” I thought “fucking around” but being a teacher I said, “Mucking around.” The outrage grew. A rebellion was in the air. Then I remembered ‘X’. I’ll call him ‘X’ for obvious legal reasons. “Ok. ‘X’. Read out your answers.” ‘X’ read them out. He got most of them right. He ended up with an A+. He was amazed and so, frankly, was I. Somehow ‘X’ had managed to not only copy the answers down but he’d also managed to learn them. Therefore he got most of them right. Funny that. The rebels weren’t appeased. They wouldn’t accept the black and white reality of their failure in front of them. They started arguing. Teenage bush lawyers arguing the inarguable. What they didn’t realise was that, not only was my heart beating a little faster than usual but, I was having a little internal ‘crisis of confidence’ moment. Even though I’ve spent most of my life in front of classes of teenagers a revolt of this nature was still unnerving. It made me question my teaching practice. Had I been clear? Had I let them down? Was it my fault they hadn’t answered the questions correctly? That’s what we’re like us teachers. When our kids do badly we blame ourselves. So do they. So do their parents. That’s one thing we all agree on. These thoughts were coursing through my mind when the bell rang. The bell. It was over. They would depart disgruntled and I would be left to ponder my inadequacies. Oh well. You can’t win ‘em all. Then something quite extraordinary happened. As they filed out they approached me and offered their hands. “Thanks sir.” It was like at the end of a football game when the whistle blows and two teams that have been bashing the crap out of each other shake hands, exchange pleasantries and head off to their respective dressing rooms. I have to admit to being a little stunned as I made my way to the staffroom. I’ve been out of teaching for a few years. Face to face, lesson to lesson, teaching. The work I’ve been doing in schools has been of a ‘fly in fly out’ nature. Nicely cocooned from the reality of day in, day out, teaching. There is a rawness, an honesty, about teaching at the coal face that is exhilarating. It’s challenging, often confronting and it certainly keeps your heart beating. I’d missed it. Weirdly, I’d also missed writing reports. I hate the generic reports that are now in vogue where you choose a standard issue, cliché ridden, meaningless comment that will neither offend nor inform. Writing reports is like having a conversation with the parents and, hopefully through them, the student. Like parent/teacher nights they are an opportunity to tell it how it is. The main difference being that not all parents attend parent/teacher nights but all of them receive reports. Even if, it has to be admitted, they don’t all read them. I had clearly struggled in my first semester in this new teaching position. There were a few moments when the horse had bolted and I’d been desperately hanging on for dear life, wondering what the hell I was doing. But there were other moments when everything seemed to be working and we were all heading in the same direction. Breakthrough moments when kids produced work that surprised me. When they got what I’d been banging on about. The fact that these moments were so hard earned made them all the sweeter. As I wrote the reports I was pleasantly surprised to see how much progress a lot of my students had made. Kids who were literally shaking when they first stood in front of the class had gained enough confidence to hold their own in scene work. Others who hid self consciousness with inappropriate behaviour learnt to focus enough on the task at hand to produce inspirational moments of improvisation. These are not “measurable achievements” but, interestingly, those who made the most progress “on the floor” also did well in the exam. This is what I’d missed most about teaching. Watching kids develop, overcome personal hurdles, conquering fears. It’s what teaching’s all about.

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© 2020 by Ned Manning.