Bestworst lesson

18th January 2008 at 00:00
Best: My first appointment was teaching environmental science on a small island in southern Australia. After a week or two, I noticed that about half of my class had rather severe literacy problems, something I perceived to be a major issue. Angry that I had been dealt the "dud class", I took my problem to my mentor as well as the school's special needs officer, hoping some kind of extra literacy work could be arranged. Instead of offering support through special needs, both suggested that I teach my next class on coastal eco-systems on the beach behind the school.

I found this solution rather puzzling and grew annoyed at the prospect of a year of spelling and grammar correction, but I took the class to the beach for a day - out of the classroom if nothing else.

We sat in the sand and I began to teach. When it came time to do some work, I found the pupils had nothing to write on - or with for that matter. As I thought about how I could solve the problem, one of the girls put her hand up.

"I think I know the answer, but I have to show you over there."

She pointed to a rock pool in the corner of the beach. We all went over to the pool and the pupil began to explain the concept of food chains, pointing out primary producers, herbivores and carnivores swimming in the water. It dawned on me that I had been incredibly ignorant in thinking these pupils were not up to the mark. I had been focusing on their weaknesses instead of trying to find their strengths. At the end of that class, I'd learnt the biggest lesson of all.

Worst: For my first assignment as cover teaching in Britain, I was dispatched to a boys' school for pupils with "some behavioural issues".

Alarm bells began to ring as I walked towards the school, which was encircled by 9ft-high steel picket fences topped with razor wire and smeared with greasy black anti-climb paint. It turned out that I was to play zookeeper in the science faculty for the day without so much as a tranquillizer gun. I was suitably overjoyed.

"Who's this prick?" A voice hissed from the doorway 15 minutes into the class.

"Out." I said.

I followed the pupil and gave him a suitably angry explanation of why I disagreed with his late entrance. We returned to the class where, to my surprise, his peers were relatively silent.

I turned to the board to continue the lesson feeling rather smug that I'd triumphed over the rowdy class. As I refocused, a lab stool bounced off my desk and into the board I was writing on, missing me by inches. I spun around and found myself looking at 30 16-year-old boys grinning innocently.

My tardy friend held up his workbook, took out a cigarette lighter and set it alight. "Will you be needing another book?" I asked.

"No, Sir, I don't think so," he replied. Unfortunately, this was one I was not going to win.

Michael Sharkie teaches in Birmingham.

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