Importance of being earnest

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Trying to be mates with your pupils may not win the approval you seek, Reva Klein warns.

Looking back through the mists of time at the teachers who stood out from the rest, I recall one high school creative writing teacher who stood out all right - but not in the way he would have liked. Alan Phelan was a universal joke, but his story provides a salutary lesson for new teachers unsure of how to package themselves.

There are different reasons why teachers become the butt of their pupils' cruel humour. One of the classics is suffering from a tragic affliction, and top of the bill in this category is bad dress sense, followed closely by odd speech.

I recall a physics teacher who, to the delight of his young tormentors, obligingly combined the two. He wore the same tweed jacket and green bow tie every day, even in searing 95-degree summer heat.

Me and my friends called him Mr Virtually because he frequently used that word with pupils who proudly wore their inarticulacy as a badge of hippified superiority. (This, of course, was several millenia before Virtual Reality enhanced the vocabulary of virtually every child on the planet, if only by a single word.) But I digress. Mr Phelan was different. He wasn't a sad nerd like Mr V. No, what we guffawed at him about was the fact that he wanted us to like him so much that he tried to be like us. Later, I was to learn that there is a clever term for this: it's called going native.

Back in the Sixties, this meant that this poor, flabby, fortysomething man ensured that what hair he still had left was long and straggly, that his bottoms were belled and that he was available to smoke illegal substances with us after school in the park once or twice a week.

He wore peace symbols, had anti-Vietnam war posters all over his room at school and allowed us to say f*** as much as we wanted, which on an average day amounted to every 30 seconds.

At first we adored him. What a find! We coolly called him by his first name and totally confided in him - and in those days our 16-year-old confidences were hea-vy. But after awhile, it all began to pall. We got sick of Al. We called him a phoney behind his back. We stopped trusting him.

While the word "wrong" did not figure elsewhere in our vocabulary back then (except when referring to the fascist dictatorship under which we lived, otherwise known as the United States government), we felt that there was indeed something wrong with the way that Al Phelan behaved.

In retrospect, what me and my friends reacted against was the fact that Mr Phelan was a teacher with whom there were no boundaries. And although we would have never admitted it, boundaries were precisely what we needed. We wanted a teacher who was kind, who understood us and knew something about the culture in which we were immersed, but he had to know where to draw the line. It was fine for him to let us know that he had just bought the new Jimi Hendrix album and that he was reading Siddhartha, but we wanted him to relate to us as a responsible adult who could sit back and be detached, who could draw on and share with us the wisdom that he had acquired over the years.

As new teachers, you will be aware of wanting to be liked by your pupils, of wanting to show them that you inhabit the same world as they do. References to football, the Spice Girls and Eastenders, if dropped appropriately and not too frequently, will get across the message. But they have to be delivered from the position of you as a teacher, not as someone who wants to be their mate.

As a teacher friend of mine sagely puts it: "What kids most like is for a teacher to fit their image of what a teacher should be: to be human, to crack a boring old joke every now and then, to be well planned and firm. It is important to project yourself as a genuine person but to do so in the role of teacher, not as someone pretending to be one of them or, at the opposite extreme, of being really tough."

It all comes down to confidence. And looking back, I suppose me and my buddies had a lot more of it than poor Mr Phelan.

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