Each morning I look for signs of fatigue in class. I almost always find one

The Secret Teacher: I am painfully aware of the burdens on some young people

Media coverage favours the delinquents and the highest achievers, and as a result I rarely recognise those I teach. Photograph: iStock

Media coverage favours the delinquents and the highest achievers, and as a result I rarely recognise those I teach. Photograph: iStock

 

When 30-odd youngsters collectively collapse into gales of laughter, I’m torn between joining in and panicking that an inspector will walk in.

When we get them early in the morning, hopefully well-rested and well-fed, children are ready to give their all to the day.

We teachers are the lucky recipients of that enthusiasm. We may be producing the lesson plans, but it is the children who, day in day out, inject life into the classroom.

You would probably be interested to know that one of the first things I do when I start a class is scan the room for evidence of fatigue or unhappiness. I almost always find someone.

I don’t necessarily follow it up until the “scanner’” detects the same face regularly, but I am painfully aware of how burdened some young people are.

For anyone who thinks this isn’t in my remit, and that I should stick to teaching my subject, I would respectfully suggest that while youth mental health services are so challenged we should all be doing whatever we can to watch out for our young people.

Perfect balance

There are so many things that I wish people knew about my job, chief among them how privileged I feel to spend so much time with lively and entertaining youngsters.

On the very best days in my classroom we strike a perfect balance. We spent 85 to 90 per cent of the class time getting the job done, but from the moment the first students arrive till the last one has everything out and is ready for work, we exchange views on some on some topical issue or world event.

These opening moments, when we are getting the house in order, are very precious, and when used wisely a phenomenal way to build a rapport with a class.

This activity allows a student who does not shine at my subject to wow me with political insights or knowledge of current affairs, and because this happens he will perhaps dread his least favourite subject just a little less.

The diverse needs of any class group mean that there has to be more on offer in a lesson than the subject itself. Enabling the students to see, maybe even like, the whole person behind the subject teacher, and to experience more than just the (possibly hated!) subject, also lures the students nicely into being eager to please, or perhaps just keen to avoid displeasing.

Either way, once they have taken the bait, the teaching and the learning benefit, and that is always the goal.

Fluctuating hormones

They juggle academic work, extra-curricular activities and social circles, all of which place a strain on their ever-changing bodies and fluctuating hormones. Little wonder that teenagers can be challenging both at home and at school.

It appears that only the opposing extremes of young people’s behaviour merit public attention.

Media coverage favours the delinquents and the highest achievers and, as a result I rarely recognise those I teach.

My 200 or so students are for the most part a credit to their families. I often regret that parents and guardians are not there to witness some of the extraordinary kindnesses that our young people show each other when they aren’t even aware anyone is watching.

For all the bad press today’s teenagers get, schools the length and breadth of Ireland are filled with undocumented examples of young people on their best behaviour and making the most of the opportunity our education system gives them.

Surely they, too, are newsworthy, and far more deserving of the airtime and recognition currently devoted to their teachers’ shortcomings.

They aren’t the only ones who get bad press. Teacher-bashing is such a widely accepted social norm that I hardly need argue the case.

The vociferous criticism that has long faced the profession means that the general public is very well aware of its shortcomings. It’s only the occasional lone voice that mentions the positives, and I wonder if this is ever heard.

Or is it that when people have decided what they think they don’t want to know otherwise, and remain entrenched in their views regardless of what they see and hear?

Infinitely rewarding

Teachers have many positive things to say about why life in the classroom is so appealing and how infinitely rewarding it is.

We live in a culture where getting at teachers is so prevalent that we barely notice it, or are expected to put up with it in return for great holidays.

But a lack of respect isn’t a price anyone should pay for doing the job they love, certainly not those entrusted with educating children.

A further, tragic consequence of teachers not getting a hearing is that our account of what is happening in classrooms all over the country has no access route into people’s perceptions.

The mass dismissal of what teachers have to say strikes me as a startling waste of a valuable resource. Imagine what could be learned about young people from those who literally spend hours a day in their company, and over a sustained period of time?

Classroom life makes for a fascinating social study, and there is a wonderful research-in-action aspect to a teacher’s observations in everyday classroom situations. So why are these so rarely discussed or documented?