Pearls of a long-forgotten wisdom

28th January 2005 at 00:00
In 19 years of teaching, I've learned how to draw blood out of a stone and force-feed my passion for my subject to unwilling teenagers. So it has been unnerving this year to discover my pupils listening in silence, all eyes on me. On a couple of occasions I've even checked my blouse buttons just to make sure their rapt attention doesn't have a more earthly cause. But no, I'm intact. Philip raises his hand, and I prepare mentally for the question I've heard so many times before: "Miss, why do we have to do this? S'boring. We're never going to need it."

But, instead, he makes an intelligent connection between today's topic and something he saw on BBC news last night. Have I moved to Eton? Have the pupils undergone a motivation transplant? Neither. I'm gradually realising, after almost two decades, the joy of teaching - in English.

I am a languages teacher. I love languages, I have only ever taught languages, and for most of the week I still teach languages. But with MFL becoming an option after Year 9, I was left last summer with a gap in my timetable and was given the shock news by the deputy head that I would be teaching four hours of geography instead - a subject I'd given up in 1973 because it was so tedious. Gloom descended on my summer holidays; how unbearable would this be?

To my astonishment, I found that when you deliver a lesson in your class's native language, the world's your oyster and the pupils your pearls. All the strategies I had gathered over the years to inspire xenophobic MFL classes work doubly well when they are not in French. The song and dance act I have perfected to pass my enthusiasm to language learners is easily transferred into geography, and cunningly conceals my lack of interest in the subject (I don't think they've sussed me).

With the barrier of communication lifted, the possibilities for successful learning outcomes multiply. It's like a rebirth. Having for so long considered myself a teacher of French, I now see that I am in fact a teacher of almost anything, because the skills take precedence over the specialism. Instead of tearing my hair out over Year 9, set 3's inability to grasp the perfect tense, I am calm, keen and looking forward to the next day. These four hours are like an oasis in a sea of stress. I'm seriously considering going, Oliver Twist-like, to my deputy head, timetable in hand, and asking for more.

Of course, I have a lot to learn: how best to link my learning objectives with the key stage 3 strategy, and what level of literacy or analysis is acceptable. (In the past I've been delighted if my classes could manage a simple paragraph in French.) My main problem is that I am not a geographer.

I can extemporise from personal experience but then, mid-flow, come to a halt because I lack the basic subject knowledge. The teacher's book stays close to my chest and I have yet to resolve that sinking feeling when someone wants to ask a question and I fear I won't have a clue about the answer.

It happened last Friday. I was halfway through the North Atlantic drift (which I'd only discovered the night before) when Jason raised his hand.

"Miss, can I say something?"

My face tightens. "Is it to do with the lesson, because I want to move on?"

"Yes, Miss." Tension in my shoulders. "Is it important?" Jason ponders for a moment: "Well, I think so." No escape then. "OK Jason, what it it?"

"Miss, I think you're a really good geography teacher."

Mary Cooch teaches MFL (and geography) at Our Lady's Catholic high school, Preston, Lancashire

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