This week I taught some really boring sessions. The content was pointedly dull and the delivery was of the no-frills budget variety. I could frame the whole exercise as a retro-experiment, or say it was some dodgy action research and attempt to measure the outcomes of going back to 1970s-style teaching. But it wasn’t. The motive was purely, viciously, brutally unprofessional. It was revenge.
I try to teach my adults in a way that I hope empowers them. For some, it’s demeaning enough to be threatened with a loss of benefit payments if they don't attend. The least I can do is show them respect by giving them the learning autonomy they’re due. I like to be taught by being guided rather than told, so why wouldn't they?
My students are working at entry levels 1, 2 and 3 in English, but that doesn't mean they work at entry levels 1, 2 and 3 in their thinking skills – in fact, many have really spiky profiles even within their English. So I push them to form their own ideas. I question them relentlessly. We discuss politics and current affairs. I ask them to continue whatever theme we’re looking at by doing some (heavily scaffolded) research on the subject.
Making amazing progress?
We have some dead interesting discussions and a few differences of opinion, but they’re making amazing progress. However, I'm not always convinced that they all enjoy being taught in the way that I like to learn. What if I’m imposing my methods on them, rather than giving them the freedom from schoolroom infantilisation that I assume they want?
I picked up subtle hints that a more didactic way might be the way forward from one of my students. Admittedly, she has a firework personality and can just as easily explode with frustration as enthusiasm, but she works really hard and I secretly think she’s ace.
Last week Madame Gobbo told me for the umpteenth time that she just wanted to sit down, do worksheets and ask me questions in order to improve her English. She DID NOT want to talk about the news or do projects, or go on computers to find out about “world shite” because she didn’t learn anything about English by doing that.
Teaching by stealth?
I explained how I sneak in the boring stuff by stealth teaching and listed all the things that she could do now that she couldn’t, or at least didn't feel confident doing before the session started – all of it underpinned by what she sees as irrelevant “world shite”. She conceded. But still, I didn't like it.
I don't mind if any of my students question my methods. It keeps me on my toes. The problem was that she didn't feel like she'd learned anything, even though the evidence showed that she had. All things considered, is that really a problem? Ummm, yes. Maybe it is.
I thought about why it might be a problem. Lots of my adults have a fixed idea of what learning is, based on the last time they were in education, which for most was at school, 10, 20, 30 years ago or more. Maybe me pushing towards autonomous learning is not the most helpful approach for them? Maybe they would feel more confident, more secure and more respected to be part of a room where there is a very clear hierarchy?
When revenge backfires
One where the teacher-student relationship is based on strict boundaries and clear instruction. Where I tell them what to do because I know best. I don't like the sound of that at all, but I wanted my students to remember just how tedious the worksheets-and-silence way of learning actually is. So I thought: “Right. I’ll show you."
The first step was to work out what I should do differently. I’ll hold my hands up, one of my biggest teacher failings – and you’ll be shocked by this – is that I talk too much. So I’d have to pack that in for a start, and keep a beady eye on the time to stick to the following rigid plan.
I state a topic. Punctuation, for example. And not your coy apostrophe or your look-at-me exclamation mark. No, only a sturdy, dependable full stop would do. I explain the topic for two minutes, then ask related questions. We look at an activity or worksheet for two minutes and I take questions on it. They then complete said activity or worksheet. And, finally, we mark the bloody thing. Rinse and repeat (until one of us loses the will to live).
And that’s what we did. I framed it as a “recap class” so they didn't twig on that I was just being petty. Of course, I was there to help when needed; I didn't go the whole “fictional 1970s teacher” hog, slurping a Maxwell House, smoking a fag, and leafing through a copy of The People’s Friend.
It is with great regret that I can inform you that the lesson proved a success. My revenge completely backfired. They’ve asked if we can do more classes like that. I'm bored already.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons