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When little sister meets Big Brother

THERE'S a knack to effective teaching, a secret alchemy which some practitioners have in abundance. It's like successful fortune-telling - if you hit the target your subject is delighted. It can happen with a single pupil or a whole class. These moments of meaningful contact - and remember that trite can also be genuine - are among the best of my professional life.

The ability to listen and take advice is very important. But who knows what the excellent teacher should be doing? The teacher training colleges? Apparently they're not keeping up to date with the latest research on teaching and learning. Politicians? Yes, if they're wanting a game of football. Society at large? Hop into a taxi, tell your driver that you're a teacher and he'll give you the lock, stock and barrel of your job.

Let me digress slightly. The successful teacher of teenagers is the one who is aware of the defining factors in their world: Austin Powers, Ali G and the Budweiser adverts, to name but three recent influences on youth culture. Then there's the influential world of music. Some kids listen to the charts, others have less mainstream tastes - they're all important in terms of understanding their minds.

I am 100 per cent per cent convinced that the route to the learning centres of our students is to build on the knowledge and experience they already have. One way I'm experiencing this process is to work with a sixth-year pupil. This is possible for me because this session sixth-year students with free time are working with teachers in junior classes.

Nothing new in that. For a long time senior pupils have helped with, for instance, paired reading in support for learning departments. What is exciting about our present venture is the way I and my sixth-year pupil have worked together. She - at the age of 17 - is always going to be a winner in terms of her proximity in age t the pupils. She remembers what it was like to sit in a class and be numbed by lessons which never reached the corners of her life. I'm taking advice from her.

There's no threat here to the roles of classroom auxiliaries and support for learning teachers. They have their own well defined niches but, like me, they are much older than the pupils. My sixth-year student has that most valuable of natural assets - the capacity to put herself into the head of these hormone-

ravaged adolescents. In theory, we should all be able to do it; in practice we still impose our own baggage about how and why to learn.

Two quick examples for which I am indebted to my sixth-year helper. While studying Anne Frank with a second-year religious education class, we capitalised on the fact that practically every pupil in the class had watched Channel 4's Big Brother series. How did it feel for the Frank family to be locked away in the hidden annexe in Amsterdam? Who would have nominated who for eviction if such an option had been available?

After the holidays I will be exploring Christianity and science with another class and my starting point is watching an episode of The X-Files. The advice I am gratefully receiving is with the how not the what. No one need feel threatened. Content remains safely in the hands of the professional.

It's been good for my helper's self-

esteem, too. My first-year classes were producing end of term Christmas plays. All the pupils, especially the boys, wanted to be part of the sixth-year student's team. I realised that the years of teaching had brought some maturity when I could recognise why, when the choice was between youth and experience, these kids would opt for youth.

Maybe there was a wee twinge of something vaguely nostalgic but the predominant feeling was the sense of being a team. I unreservedly recommend it.

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