This is really where lessons are learnt

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
Mick Kitson has given up life as a newspaper reporter to be an English teacher. As he starts his probation year, he reflects on his college lectures and his training on placement. It may open the eyes of new student teachers

One rule of behaviour management that is not mentioned during initial teacher training is to not let the children know they can make you laugh.

The news that my wife came from Aberdeen was greeted by howls of amusement from the third years at Mainholm Academy, in Ayr, during my placement. One boy then told me the funniest joke I've heard for a long time, which emanated from the pupils' perception of north-east Scotland as an impossibly backward place where most meaningful relationships involve livestock.

The pupils were hardly urban sophisticates themselves. Most of them came from the grim 1950s sprawl of Ayr's Whitletts Estate, a place you could describe as a tough neighbourhood.

When my fellow teaching students and I were allocated our placements, a look of relief came over their faces when they knew they were not the ones going to Mainholm Academy.

However, teaching there was one of the most rewarding and inspiring experiences of my life. The kids really made me laugh. They told the best jokes and had the best one liners and patter I have ever heard.

The third years' delighted discovery that I could be made to snigger at rude jokes and shared their adolescent sense of humour was exploited more than any other tool in their arsenal.

At college I was being taught to be a "reflective, self-evaluating professional". At Mainholm Academy I was being reduced to helplessness by the wit of a 14-year-old. This was just one of the many discrepancies between what they teach you at college and what actually happens in school.

Another was the need for complex formalised lesson plans which we had to construct on unwieldy A3 grids.

My colleagues at school looked on with a kind of bemused pity as I studiously filled in my planning grids. "They look impressive," one said.

"What are they for?"

It was a good question. They were intended to be used in lessons and to represent a planned sequence of work where well defined learning outcomes were married to measurable methods of assessment. I think I may have missed the lecture on how to fill them in properly. (We had several on how to fill in forms, including how to write our name and address on our final profile.)

When it came to "those bloody grids", as we ended up referring to them, I kept mixing up my objectives with my aims and my formal with my informal assessment. My learning outcomes were not specific enough and my teaching and learning approaches were too detailed. Under "resources" I wrote words like "pencils" and "book", which was not right either.

I found it really hard to use a planning grid during the merry cut and thrust of a second year lesson on A Midsummer Night's Dream and resorted to making a bullet point list of what I wanted to achieve and cover, ticking it as I did it.

The most useful thing that happened to me in terms of improving my teaching were the constant comments from the principal teacher and even, once or twice, from the headteacher.

After one particularly hairy first year lesson, I proferred my lovingly prepared grid for the principal teacher's approval. He smiled sweetly and said: "Very nice," before pushing it aside and continuing, "Right, this is what you did wrong I" All the staff I met at the school gave me a stream of really simple and effective ways of preparing and delivering lessons which I would never have thought of. Watching them, I witnessed teaching and classroom management that left me open mouthed with admiration.

We trainees had to write evaluations of most lessons and our lesson materials and overall evaluations of each placement in order to meet the strictures of the course. My mistake was writing an evaluation of the placement which contained a mild criticism of methods of planning that were drummed into us on the course.

What I thought was a fairly reasonable comment on the use of the grids was taken as mutinous arrogance by the course co-ordinator and I was rewarded with her fury and a fail grade for professionalism. (I got an A from the school.) However, by that time I had survived a seven-week placement at Mainholm Academy and found that it really took an awful lot to scare me.

I have spent most of my working life in newspapers. I've been abused and spat on and chased and kicked and threatened. I've been beaten up. I've been hauled up in front of a judge for contempt of court. I've had to deal with the worst kind of bullies and arrogant drunks. I've been in the middle of riots and train crashes. I've chased celebrities and asked people for pictures of their dead children. I've worked long hours and had to hit tight deadlines.

Before I went into teacher training, I have to admit I thought I was fairly tough. But I defy the hardest, seen it all, done it all hack not to melt to jelly when a bottom second year class begins to career out of control, when it is the last period and they are pumped up on hormones and Irn-Bru and, despite all your careful planning and attention in behaviour management lectures, you lose them.

They won't sit still, they won't be quiet, they won't listen. They want pencils, they want help, they want to go to the toilet, they want to know why you speak strangely, they want to know what your dog is called. They won't stop shouting, they won't stop throwing rubbers, they don't want to read this stupid poem ...

I can't honestly say that I was fully prepared for lessons like this by my knowledge of the correct way to academically reference my assignment on "factors which influence effective teaching in S5S6".

But nor was I fully prepared for the up side of teaching.

I found at Mainholm Academy that for every 50-minute horror there were 10 lessons that worked well and I had that strange and rather wonderful feeling of actually teaching and getting through to the pupils; of engaging them in something and having them come along with me and sharing a sense of excitement and discovery.

I was taking an S2 writing lesson which involved us looking at the story of Ivan Mishukov, a six-year-old who was found living on the streets of Moscow in 1998 as the leader of a pack of wild street dogs. There was something about the story of this abused feral boy, a kind of modern day Mowgli, which fascinated the class. They were quiet, they were reading, putting their hands up and asking interesting questions, planning what they were going to write and starting their writing.

Despite my moans about the pseudo-scientific nature of the lesson planning grids, I know that the reason this lesson worked was because it was well planned. I was confident about what I was doing, I knew where it was going and I knew how we were going to get there.

I found that if you can engage the children and have the confidence and skill to keep them on task (which is what I saw several other teachers doing), they are a delight, a bursting, sparkling ball of energy and enthusiasm. When everything was going well, I can't think of a feeling to beat it.

Just as I can't think of a funnier joke than: "What do you call a sheep tied to a lamp-post in Aberdeen, sir?"

"I don't know, Robert."

"A leisure centre."

(Apologies to Aberdonians.)

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