To be or not to be ignored

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Bin your lesson plan and jump on your desk. Well, it worked for Carol Hedges.

Teaching is like driving a car they told me. To start with it's all new and scary and the last thing you feel is in control.

After a while though, you start doing things automatically, you just get on with it. That's what teaching's like, they said.

I was told this by experienced hands who also informed me that this blissful state generally occurs somewhere in the second year of teaching.

For a long while - the whole of my first year and several months into my second, I didn't believe them. But, looking back, they were unequivocally right.

I was 46 when I re-trained to teach English at secondary level. I did it because I needed the money and enjoyed working with teenagers. I believed that I had something special to give.

I started my teaching career with grand visions of imparting gems of wisdom. The pupils were empty vessels waiting to be filled. What I did not realise is that teaching is a two-way street. The process has to be bilateral and sometimes it's you that has to do the learning.

I learnt this from a class of 30 Year 9 pupils; a "mixed-ability" set, with the emphasis on "mixed". It was in my second year of teaching, the last lesson on a cold November afternoon.

I was dragging them through an introduction to Elizabethan theatre before starting Julius Caesar. They were mentally digging their heels in. Here was a bunch of 14-year-olds bored out of their skulls, and there was still 20 minutes left.

So, recklessly, I abandoned my carefully prepared lesson plan.

"Let's pretend we're at the theatre, OK?" A couple of pupils nodded in agreement.

"And I'm William Shakespeare." This was so palpably untrue that a few more started to look slightly interested.

"And this is the stage of the Globe Theatre," I went on, climbing on to my desk. Now I had their attention. Even the "underachievers" (eductional speak for lazy little sods) looked up from their unspeakable activities at the back of the room.

Flushed with success, I started to wing it. The kids were entranced. Suddenly, for the first time in my nascent career, I had a whole class in the palm of my hand. I began to feel dizzily euphoric - although this may have been partly vertigo.

For the next 15 minutes I held forth on the pleasures and pitfalls of the life of an Elizabethan actor-manager; everything from the amount of ale the actors consumed before and after the performance, to the problems of having your theatre closed by plague, and they sat and listened.

I finished with an elaborate bow and, to loud applause and some wolf whistles, stepped lightly and nimbly off the desk ... straight into the bin. There was a moment's silence. Then the whole group burst into laughter.

"Wow, miss that was well wicked," a sarcastic voice called from the back of the classroom. There were a few giggles. "Bet Shakespeare never done that last bit, did he, eh Miss?" the wag continued to more laughter. "He did it all the time Robert," I said, my equilibrium flooding back.

"He even wrote about it in a famous play called Hamlet. Hang on, how did it go?" I feigned deep thought: "Ah yes.." I went on, assuming a Rodin-like pose: "to bin or not to bin, that is the question." At which point, fortunately for us all, the bell went.

The next lesson I had with that class was special. Something had happened to our relationship: the shared witnessing of a potential disaster averted.

The "me" and "themness" had become "us" and it was magic. That's when I knew I liked teaching.

I am now in my third year and looking forward to what the future holds. Fewer mountains, hopefully; more magic, certainly and ... who knows? You can't predict the unpredictable, but that's the joy of teaching.

Carol Hedges did her PGCE at the University of Hertfordshire

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