Comment - Do I dare tell my students that our romance is all an act?

7th May 2010 at 01:00

Brilliant teachers are born, not made. For the rest of us, there's training - learning the tricks of the trade. These tricks aren't limited to teaching of course; in any business they are vital.

Communication and presentation skills are high up on employers' wish lists. Teaching presentation skills to my students meant letting them in on all the professional secrets, sharing the tricks. I knew then that the scales would fall from their eyes, and the romance we had enjoyed would end. I had wooed them and won them and, once they knew the strategies employed, I would no longer enchant them.

Our talk of techniques, of how to win friends and influence people, would release them from my spell. "Reward your questioner," I'd say. "Make sure you use their names - people like that." Or "Don't be afraid of the awkward pause - use it to your advantage."

Ah, the webs we weave, they'd discover, and regard me as somewhere between a double glazing salesperson and a charlatan.

The more I let them in on the techniques of managing groups, the more hurt they would feel. "Is that what you do?" someone would inevitably ask in a small, hurt voice. They had thought they were special, and it turns out it was all an act.

Only it's not. Sure, you need to learn the tricks of the trade, but they are just the support mechanisms that allow you to get on with the real business of encouraging, motivating and making students happy. And actually you are on your own with that. There's no set rule for engaging with students. They are all different, each day is different and you rely on feedback and quick thinking.

Teaching is an act - and you can't get away with a duff performance. It's variety time. You have to allow for different learning styles, to use a range of activities, and note that talking at your students is not valued.

Maybe we are trying too hard. We need to rein in our passion for showing off how much we know about teaching and how skilful we are at the job. Yes, we are all pretty much a one-person band with cymbals and drums and mouth organs on wires. But just because we can doesn't mean we should. Let's face it. Most students hate ice-breakers. Many students hate role play. Some students just want quick and dirty.

Many of my classes were taught in discussion, and the idea was to lead them there in a process of discovery. Kenny, however, was always a problem. When I tried to draw strands together, he would rumble on, commenting on every word, and thinking of amusing and irrelevant anecdotes which always began - "funny you should say that, `cos my mate . ".

Until, in Lady Bracknell mode, I heard myself tell him: "Kenny, I am following a train of thought here. As you see, I have no notes and I would like to pursue the thought uninterrupted."

That silenced him. And the rest of the class, too. Ah, well. Rules are meant to be broken and Kenny and the class survived to enter into dialogue another day.

Brilliant teachers are born, not made, and the rest of us - well, we just have to learn the lines and not bump into the furniture.

Carol Gow is a former college lecturer in media.

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