Up your game with a little ritual humiliation

31st August 2007 at 01:00
Gina Crowley teaches in a Gateshead special school

The problem with teachers is that they are too clever. They learned to read at four, could do their tables at eight and never forgot their PE kit once. They never found learning difficult, so how can they teach children with learning difficulties? How can they comprehend the barriers to learning or understand the emotions of a pupil who cannot read?

The answer is a new sort of continuing professional development (CPD). It goes like this: once a year, every teacher is forced to learn something that they are blatantly rubbish at in a very public place while their peers, who happen to be excellent at the activity, watch. For at least an hour. The ensuing humiliation, anger and refusal to continue (masked by self-deprecating humour, if they are sufficiently socialised) will give them an inkling of what many of their pupils feel every day.

I invented this CPD after being forced to participate in a whole-school singing Inset session. I cannot sing. No doubt the thinking behind the project was laudable: singing is good for people, and teachers who sing together ... um ... can't remember that particular point as anxiety kicked in then.

I could have coped, just about, with singing the same as everyone else (ie, very quietly), but the group leader made us sing in a round and urged us to listen to each other's voices. I went bright red, my larynx shrivelled till nothing came out but occasional, pathetic squeaks. People looked. At the end of the session, I left as quickly as I could, drove home in half my usual time and vowed never to sing again.

Later, I puzzled over the strength of my reactions and was reminded of similar discomfort during an ICT course decades ago. The course assumed basic knowledge that I did not have. I felt stupid and despite desperately trying to catch up, could not. After two sessions I stopped going.

Being left behind is horrible. But now I'm pleased to have suffered such discomfort because it gives me a partial insight into what it must feel like to have a reading difficulty. Being forced to do something difficult that others do with ease is painful. Having to do this every day in most lessons must be damaging. Some eventually refuse (and this is probably a sensible option); others use evasion and hide their difficulties. Self-esteem falls; some degree of alienation is inevitable.

Reading is the most important thing a child needs to learn at school. Forget maths, Brown: you can get by using a calculator. Being bad at maths is almost socially acceptable, but not being able to read messes you up for life. We need to put more resources into reading at every level. But no resource will work if the feelings of learners are not taken into account. Emotions and motivation are the keys to learning.

So, who would like to try this new form of CPD? The training delivers frustration, anger, exposure, humiliation and resistance, but it could make you a better teacher.

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