Even the whizziest school or college CPD programmes sometimes bang out a duff session. When my boredom takes hold it can go one of two ways. I can either channel all my concentration in maintaining a rictus mask of polite interest while surreptitiously clock watching. Or I can go rogue.
I keep my fingers crossed for the first option, as the second one isn't pretty and always results in regret. Without any planned malice, I can accidentally derail a whole session by subjecting the poor deliverer to a Line of Duty-style interrogation of their work. Or even worse, I can completely regress to full adolescent knob-headery and muck about with my mates.
I'm not proud of this behaviour. It’s rude. Though I know I'm not alone in this response. I've witnessed usually reasonable colleagues, embark on the similar lines of hostile distraction in boring CPD sessions, so I know I'm not the only one who’s been taken over by the teenage arsehole version of themselves.
'Perceived loss of power'
The best of us can fall foul to pointless stick-it-to-the-man style regression when placed in the position of student. Maybe it’s to do with a perceived loss of power? Maybe it’s rebellion against time being wasted? Maybe it’s down to having an off day and spoiling for a bit of argy-bargy?
One of my favourite things about teaching adults is reminding them that they have the choice to behave in whatever way they want. My students and I have all been around the block, we’ve all made mistakes, and have experienced the consequences of our choices. So, if they think my class is rubbish, they have the power to get up and leave. If they choose to be rude to me, I have the power to ask them to leave. We all have choices.
Luckily I hardly ever have a student that I don't genuinely enjoy spending time with – even the really complicated ones and the occasional pains-in-the-bum are interesting folk. My students are referred to my class from Job Centre Plus. They have to come. If you think some kids are resistant to English and maths, imagine the potential for pushback from those who might have their benefits cut if they don't attend. Saying that, most seem to embrace the opportunity for free classes and a bit of time to socialise with new people.
The importance of explaining why
When teaching students who've come straight from school, I've pulled out every behaviour management spell in the book to persuade and cajole them into engaging with work that they refuse – a task they find boring, or difficult, or that they just can't be arsed to do. I haven't the time, energy, or interest in doing that dance with my adults, and have gone for a totally different approach. It still has a whiff of mind-trickery, but it’s very liberating and it seems to work.
There’s one caveat. It will only bear behavioural fruit if, at every point through the lesson, with every new activity, every new subject, I have explained why I'm asking them to do the work. There has to be a solid reason.
Conversations go something like this:
Student: “I'm not doing this, it’s boring.”
Me: “Fine. You know why I’d like you to do it, but it’s your choice. Let’s not fall out about it. It’s up to you whether you do the work or not… I’ll leave it with you.”
Then I walk away and leave them to it.
Passing the power back
I suspect repeatedly using “you” is important in subliminally passing the power back to them, but I'm no expert on linguistic-based jiggery pokery. Usually the initial reaction at my pretend couldn't-care-less attitude is surprise, then they get on with what they've been asked to do.
Of course, were the conversation a more honest one, with some self protective layers unpeeled from both of us, it might go like this:
Student: “I feel like you are taking my power away from me so I am going to reclaim it by doing the opposite of what you are telling me. I find this difficult and I don't want to admit that. Also, it’s a bit boring.”
Me: “I want you to do what I am telling you because I have put a lot of time and effort into working out what might help your English improve. I am irritated that you won't just get on with it. Also, you have hurt my feelings by telling me that my class is boring.”
Sometimes, dishonesty is the best policy.
Building confidence through learning
For all students, but particularly for adults who are working at lower levels of literacy, the aim is to help them build confidence through learning, while making sure they keep a tight hold on their dignity throughout the process.
I want them to know that they are coming to me so I can help add to their understanding, not plug their deficiency. I’m not there to mend them because they aren't broken. Becoming literate is so inextricably linked with essential primary level knowledge, that disentangling it and framing literacy as just another skill is always a challenge. I’ve made a point of learning about my students' lives, and they have about mine. I know an area of expertise or a shining quality that each of my students has and we often discuss them. I'm keen to point out that English is my thing – I can't do wallpapering, or fix my car, or care for even a few small children without quietly losing my rag.
And though the professional relationships I have with my students can never be on an equal footing, I try really hard to make then as even as they can be. Even for the ones who tell me the lesson’s boring.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons