Questions are fine, answers are frightening

29th July 2011 at 01:00

Questions are good. They demonstrate that a student is sufficiently engaged to pursue a topic further or challenge the concept of the session. Students must have total confidence that their teacher has expertise or the unwritten deal that accurate knowledge is being passed on, is off. Thankfully this type of mistrust is rare. I have only once encountered a student who was so suspicious of my subject mastery that he loudly enquired as to whether I had indulged in some lunchtime drug abuse.

Trust is essential in the relationship between student and teacher; it is the reason why, unlike me, Mr Miyagi was never accused of "smoking crack" as a reaction to his "wax on, wax off" teaching technique.

Trust in the hierarchy of authority will always be questioned by teenagers - it is the essence of rebellion. However, students must feel reassured that we are using our position to guide them towards their chosen goals, not as a stick to beat them down. If they doubt this, the relationship is destined to flounder.

I sometimes employ a high-risk strategy designed to quietly reinforce belief in a group's good character, also known as "the handbag manoeuvre". This works when students are on the brink of buying my shtick, but it could still go either way.

I make an excuse to leave the classroom and deliberately place my handbag on the desk, asking if they would mind guarding it in my absence. This works best with students who are unused to being awarded trust and responsibility (I may be optimistic, but I'm not naive. I lock away anything I would be upset to lose). Nothing has been stolen yet.

As mutual understanding grows, I enjoy learning from students. As an English lecturer I have a pathological curiosity in the wealth of unfamiliar words I hear in class.

By asking for their help in translating this foreign language, I hope they see that I'm interested in their culture, words and codes.

They also get a free pass to point and laugh at the old dear having a go at modern young persons' speak. It's a win-win.

This curiosity recently led to my learning more than I needed or wanted to know. The group was small and in its second year with me. A word I didn't understand had been uttered. I asked. The definition was a derogatory term for members of a specific gang. The students went on to volunteer information about gang culture in the city where I live and work that left me reeling. I asked them to stop. Though no specific names or events were divulged, any further detail would put us both at risk.

All cities are complex. There are suburbs of great wealth within a 10- minute walk of acutely under-privileged areas. Until recently I was unaware of how violently protective of their neighbourhood's reputation some residents can be.

I learnt quickly never to ask students publicly where they are from during sessions at the beginning of term. "Postcode issues" arose in one of the first classes of my teaching career, as a student seethed with testosterone on hearing that a fellow learner came from a rival area. Horror at accidentally inciting gang warfare within the classroom led to my making a panicked speech on the importance of community harmony.

I inform my students that they cannot tell me anything that is illegal. If they do I have to pass it on to my line manager. They know this and yet still the line that divides approachable teacher and confidante is occasionally crossed in such a way that I am compelled to break the trust I have worked hard to win.

Developing professional relationships with students based on mutual trust encourages a positive educational experience. Questions are good, but sometimes the answers give us a view of the world we would prefer not to have.

Sarah Simons teaches functional skills English in an inner-city FE college.

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