Taking the fall

Stage fright will always be a factor when you meet a new batch of students. Will they be discernibly human or a parade of hostile demon-spawn whose primary agenda is to avoid learning?

In adult education, groups bond over their shared displeasure at being forced to take English, mathematics and information and communications technology alongside their chosen course. Teachers in those subjects have to work hard to get students onside.

As an English teacher, one of my favourite icebreakers is to get the students to interview each other and then to introduce their partner to the group. After explaining the exercise, I ask for a volunteer to interview me in front of the class.

The rules are that they can ask me anything within the boundaries of respectability and I will answer truthfully. This isn't about training up the next CNN anchor. Instead, it is a devious ploy to get the class mouthpiece to identify themselves and to make it clear that I have the steel to take them on.

Some time ago I had a group that, on paper, looked like a challenge: 18 teenage plumbers assessed as having multiple levels of literacy and a variety of additional needs, such as autism, behavioural difficulties and dyslexia. Within three minutes I had located the resident gobshite. He was a droopy-trousered boy-mountain with anger management issues, who entertained and terrified the group in equal measure.

Of course, he volunteered to interview me and opened with "Why would anyone be a teacher when it's the shittest job ever?"

Smiling to his groupies he folded his arms and rocked backwards. Seemingly in slow motion, his look of triumph turned to horror as his chair tipped all the way back and he flailed desperately about in an attempt to defy gravity.

Silence gave way to roars of laughter. My maternal instinct went into autopilot and I checked he wasn't hurt before trying to help him up. This further stripped him of status and the class looked on enthralled as he batted me away.

By this point I was experiencing every shade of internal panic. I had undermined the one student I needed on side if there was to be any hope of the group learning anything. He had to have his social standing back.

The class calmed down and I suggested we start again. To my surprise, he agreed. My adrenaline dispersed and I mentally replayed the image of him falling backwards. This time the humour of the situation took hold. I tried to conceal my laughter - this was no way to help him regain his swagger. The students noticed that I was disintegrating, then he twigged: "Miss?"

"I'm really sorry," I replied. "That was just so funny and I'm worried that you're hurt and I'm laughing, and that's really unprofessional."

The power balance shifted and he pointed at me, starting to laugh, claiming his crown as the one who had made Miss lose it.

That group came to be one I looked forward to teaching. Each personality slotted into place to create a perfect balance. They were respectful, hard-working and, most of all, a right laugh.

Sarah Simons works in a large further education college in Mansfield, England.

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