Lesson plans are easy – until 30 students get at them

The Secret Teacher: The classroom is no place for control freaks

If you let a class chat, you run the risk of inciting the wrong hyped-up or chilled-out mood. Illustration: iStock

If you let a class chat, you run the risk of inciting the wrong hyped-up or chilled-out mood. Illustration: iStock

 

Just when everyone is finally in place, Mark announces he can’t find his homework and disappears into his bag to keep looking. Anna thinks hers is in the locker, and says so as she ventures out the door. She’s not disrespectful, but has clearly never conditioned to doing anything on anyone’s terms other than her own. Sean says his is in the locker too, but in fact it’s very unlikely that he even did the homework.

Do I let him out to get it, or would it be more appropriate to hold him while I actually have him and hope he benefits from being present for the correction? Not letting him out means being a copybook short and another student won’t have anything to look at, so maybe he should just go and get it. And if I don’t let him out he will be quick to point out the discrimination that’s at play: Anna got out, didn’t she? Chances are that saying the homework is in the locker is just a ploy to get out, so it might be best to try to beat him at his own game and hold him there – but that means definitely no work, whereas letting him out might just mean he comes back with something. Plus I’d avoid accusations of sexism. Tough call.

Rian, Enda and Roisin have only managed about half of the work and are keen to explain in detail where the difficulties arose. Eamonn thinks there is a mistake in one of the exercises – there isn’t. Sorcha has an elaborate story about a lost locker key, and while she’s telling it Brian walks in. I hadn’t even noticed anyone was absent, and if he hadn’t walked in I might have completely forgotten to input my roll on the school system. Brian has an excuse note for the homework, and while I’m signing it I can hear Sorcha whining that I’m not listening to her. I start to become anxious about the fact that time is ticking merrily on and we have not started today’s actual lesson.

They imagine the teacher at the desk, quietly reading as she doesn’t have anything else to do

That was my class of second years the other day. Nothing out of the ordinary but utterly at odds with how many people see teaching. They imagine 30 heads down, everyone beavering away at a written task. The teacher is at the desk, quietly reading – The Irish Times, perhaps –as she doesn’t have anything else to do. There should also be a steaming hot mug of tea beside her, otherwise the tranquil scene just wouldn’t feel complete. It’s never been anything but calm, as the pupils arrived quickly and quietly, the last within about 20 seconds of the first.

There’s really nothing to this teaching lark when you have only ever experienced it as one of the students, and probably decades ago.

In reality, teaching involves working with people, lots of them, and they are young, high-energy and demanding. The popular anecdote about the bus only running to schedule if it doesn’t stop for passengers holds in the classroom too. A lesson plan always looks top-notch until 30 or so youngsters and their baggage (both literally and metaphorically) get at it.

Correcting the homework may have a modest allowance of five to 10 minutes if the pupils are correcting their own (self-assessment) or each other’s (peer-assessment), but that won’t necessarily happen in that time, as one might assume. At this point some readers will only be fixated on the fact that the it isn’t the teacher correcting the homework, and will add that on to the list of reasons why we have such a cushy number.

It’s best if we don’t correct the homework until the pupils have arrived, and ideally all of them, but don’t fool yourself into believing that only takes 20 seconds. There are many routes to class and the fastest and most direct is the road least, if ever, taken.

Teachers do not have a great deal of control over the circumstances that arise, but we have reasonable hopes  that what we have planned might actually take place

If they have a practical lesson just beforehand, for example in home economics, pupils can be delayed clearing up; a similar story if they have PE and need to shower and change. When a teacher is really unlucky one proportion of the class will have had the previous lesson right next door and another cohort will have to come from the furthest possible point on the campus, potentially a journey of several minutes.

What do you do with the first few while waiting for the last ones to arrive? It’s not the time to teach crucial new content or correct the homework, but if you let them chat you’ll be inciting the wrong hyped up or chilled out mood. The classroom is no place for control freaks, that is for certain.

Teachers do not have a great deal of control over the circumstances that arise, nor should they necessarily, but we have reasonable hopes – which are frequently dashed– that what we have planned might actually take place, as well as the consciousness of what the inspectors will want to see when they visit.

These are secondary to the pupils, who are at the heart of the whole teaching and learning process and entitled to their input.

Teaching is therefore a delicate balancing act between being true to one’s own training and preparation, while remaining conscious of the department’s expectations, and letting the pupils invest in what’s going on and feel that they too have a contribution to make.

Easy really, when you think about it.