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Toppled to the beats of 'Copacabana'

A hostile class take-over caught Sarah Simons off guard – but it also taught her a thing or two about self-belief and confidence

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A hostile class take-over caught Sarah Simons off guard – but it also taught her a thing or two about self-belief and confidence

What’s the most humiliating thing you can imagine happening as a teacher? Well brace yourselves comrades, I’ve got one to add to your worst-case scenario list. 

I teach many different types of groups in the community. Some groups have their age in common, some have similar disabilities, some are united by their cultural heritage. I am matched with the group depending on their interests and my skills. I teach a range of topics at basic levels – arts and crafts, drama, movement, filmmaking, healthy living and fitness classes, as well as other English-based subjects at higher levels.

My very first teaching experience, years before I was in FE, was as a fitness instructor. I’d had loads of professional dance training, so took an industry level teaching course and got myself qualified. It was good fun and brought in a bit of cash between acting jobs. Though now I’m by no means cutting-edge in my fitness practice, I know enough to safely teach very basic classes.

I recently taught a short exercise course to a large group of older people, fascinating individuals for whom I have great respect. The group is a valuable asset to the community and have been meeting weekly for decades. Teaching any group who know each other really well has its pitfalls. Long-standing groups have their history and interpersonal dynamics that a new person couldn't possibly imagine. And there can be overt resistance to change, even though my presence in a group, is to bring about just that – a break from the old routine. Sometimes what a group actually wants is simply a new deliverer of "what we always do". 

Music requests

I had started the exercise warm-up to the exact music they had requested, at a volume that one of the members diligently policed. Hovering over my speakers. Just to check. We were five minutes in and I thought we were having fun. People were smiling and participating in the call and response schtick I do. Suddenly, two women bulldozed through the throng, sandwiching a third between them, someone I hadn't met before. A tiny, very elderly woman with a steely look about her. She approached me and began speaking as if I wasn't at that very moment in the act of teaching the 25 or so people facing me, all of us trying to continue our routine to the rhythm of Barry Manilow’s Copacabana.

The room became heavy with atmosphere, the source of which I was clueless, though it swiftly became crystal clear. I was informed that this lady was a member of the group, just back from her holidays. The more pertinent information was that she was their former movement teacher. She had been teaching them a specific exercise routine every week for the past decade. She told me to stand aside, and that she was going to take over from me, right there and then. I was confused. Was this some sort of intervention? Had the group formed a rogue quality control militia, so outrageous even the dodgiest Ofsted inspector would consider it "a bit much"? I couldn't believe this was actually happening.

The charming dictator leading the ambush firmly informed me that I should step back and become her student. I must simply learn her moves, and teach the group this exact routine in future sessions. She hadn't been sent by my superiors, of course, this was an informal, in-house uprising.

One-two cha-cha-cha

Glancing around, I could see that most of the group was as confused as me. I relinquished my post and joined them, in time to the music. I can state proudly that I didn't fluff one step of Copacabana during the entire humiliating take-over and continued to one-two cha-cha-cha like my life depended on it. Who’d have thought that the toppling of my teacher self-esteem would be underscored by the story of Lola’s showgirl demise?

I zipped on a happy face as stiff as a death mask, holding back the emotion that was flooding in while simultaneously appreciating the comedy of it all. My usurper had a unique line of instruction, with moves I have never seen before.

After I had endured the session, many members of the group, sensing what they had witnessed – me taking a massive boot to the proverbials – asked if I was okay. Like a politician with propaganda to sell, I repeatedly reassured them that I was "really excited to learn". And while I genuinely mean that, I am also aware that pretty high on the things we expect of our colleagues (I say colleagues…I’ve no idea who the hell she was) is that undermining fellow teachers while they are standing in front of their group trying to teach is poor teacher etiquette.

I don't know why I relented so easily, but believe me, it’s hard to argue with a tiny old lady who tells you with supreme confidence that she is better at your job than you are. And while I was not impressed by her methods, she could definitely teach me a thing or two about self-belief.

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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