Evening classes taught Anne Hardy the ups and downs of life as a pupil

1st September 2000 at 01:00
It's autumn, which means new groups of students and new learning opportunities for teachers. Lifelong learning is the current buzzword, and teachers can learn lessons too by joining an evening class. During my 20 years in teaching, I've gained some extra classroom skills through computing courses and FE qualifications. More importantly, I've reminded myself what it feels like to be a pupil again.

I joined a pottery class to be with a friend. It was not my first choice, but making soup bowls might be useful, I thought, and there would be interesting applications of chemistry (my own subject) in the form of coloured glazes.

The first session involved making a thumb-pot. The tutor was exemplary: she gave the demonstration, she repeated the instructions, she let us loose. It seemed simple enough. All around me, my cheerful chatting classmates worked on their lumps of clay as the tutor moved enthusiastically among them. The relaxed, creative milieu was just what an evening class should be. I, however, was all thumbs and no thumb-pot. Collapsed and useless, just like the pot, I sat clock-watching until the time was up. There was nothing in this class for me. As for the soup bowls, a 100-mile drive to the nearest IKEA would be infinitely easier.

Fortunately for me, I need never do this subject again - unlike an alienated pupil at school.

I was also a slow learner in the computing class. A scientist is not automatically an IT expert, and I was a computer dyslexic, struggling with a visual overload of icons and jargon. Nothing made sense. This was a hands-on course, and once again mydefault mode was numbedincomprehension. I waited forthe tutor to rescue me.

However, I stayed the course this time because I was more motivated and needed some basic IT skills to use in my own teaching. I also learned to admit to my own stupidity - not easy for a teacher used to being in control - and to ask for help with my homework from colleagues, offspring and even my students. I found that the best "teachers" here were the patient oneswho kept things simple,guiding me through ratherthan taking over.

A professional development ourse came next, and the tutors delivered one unintended lesson. Their much-repeated mantra was "feedback": always tell your pupils how they are doing, and tell them quickly. As teachers we all know this, and marking is our biggest chore. As students, we slaved over our major 2,000-word assignment, waited for the results, and finally, after many weeks, the feedback came in the form of a single tick - a clear case of do as I say, not as I do. Like politicians, teachers should be wary of sending conflicting messages.

My most recent and most engrossing evening class was not a considered choice at all. Browsing through a prospectus, I happened on an English literature course. Curious about those many unread classics, I signed on. Much to my surprise, this casual start led to a full-scale literary seduction, and eventually to a part-time degree. So I now have a BA to balance my BSc. Perhaps in my case ripeness was all - at school I had hated English literature in all its manifestations, from the line-by-line analysis of Shakespeare's speeches to the grimness of the First World War poets. As a teacher, I now know that pupils sometimes do not learn because the level or timing is wrong.

I also know how daunting it is to be a pupil, ignorant in front of both expert and peer group. As the pottery class dunce, I could laugh at my limited dexterity. But exposing one's mind in the English lit seminar is so much more risky: will I sound naive, inarticulate, stupid? However encouraging the teacher, such feelings are inevitable. No wonder many school pupils prefer to keep quiet, and let the opinionated have their say. As a student I too have experienced mental paralysis in class and exam room panic. Now,as I take my turn at doing the invigilation, I'm much moresympathetic.

What next? On the principle of a healthy mind in a healthy body, I suppose it should be something like aerobics or the intriguingly-named Tums, Bums, and Thighs. And if the class isn't rewarding, I'll just stop going. Unlike those of captive schoolchildren, my classes are voluntary.

Anne Hardy teaches A-level chemistry at Padworth College, Reading

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