A few days ago, a much younger colleague of mine in her first teaching year was complaining about how difficult it is to be a teacher and how stressed she feels when entering a classroom full of 14 year-olds who sometimes give her a really hard time. Too absorbed by my own problems, I left the teachers’ room without a word.
I went through “the business of the day”, got home, cooked something, had lunch and took a nap in the afternoon. When I woke up, my first thought was: “I’ve been teaching English for as long as she’s been in this world, she’s half my age and she’s got no experience, of course the 8th graders are a handful!”
The next day I sat down in the teacher’s room and invited her to sit next to me. We had a whole hour in front of us before our next classes, so we could afford a chat.
“I happened to be in the teacher’s room yesterday when you were complaining about the 8th graders”, I said. “Are you OK, now? Have you managed to get over your anger?”
“Yes, I’m OK now”, she said. “I just can’t help getting annoyed whenever I have classes with them.”
“What exactly is it that annoys you?” I asked. “What do they do?”
“I’m not sure”, she said and she frowned. “It’s not like they do something to annoy me on purpose, I actually like them, I like all my students and children in general, that’s why I chose to be a teacher!”
Good point!, I said to myself. Now we’re talking!
“It just happens that, somehow, they get carried away in discussing things”, she continued, “based on a question I asked, a question which could have been answered in one sentence and I would have moved on to the other question and finish the exercise. But as soon as I ask a question and someone answers, there are always at least three students contradicting the one who answered, or commenting, or asking further questions and…”
“In English or in Romanian?” I interrupted her.
“In English”, she said “and then…”
“Is it always the same three students doing this?” I interrupted her again.
“No”, she said, “they’re not. But it’s all like a pay-back game among them! If one student contradicts another one’s answer, they are sure to get contradicted back as soon as they’re the first to answer another question! And it really gets on my nerves because I would like to finish that exercise quickly and move on to another activity, and I feel like they’re not letting me do my job, so I try to intervene, they raise their voices and continue their conversation, and I end up shouting at them and telling them they have no respect for me, and I hate it when they make me do that because they look at me startled and… hurt!”
“OK… calm down, there’s no need for you to get so excited, we…”, I said, but she interrupted me:
“Of course I’m getting excited, I get excited whenever I remember these moments in my class and I resent how I feel when this happens!”
“I see! How do you feel?”, I asked.
“Stupid! Powerless! Incapable of making twenty-five kids respect me and treat me as the teacher I am! Unable to control them! I feel so frustrated that I could burst out crying… I talked to the other teachers of this class and they all said they had no problems with these kids! And you know what? I didn’t have any problem with them in my first months in class, but I sort of liked them better than my other classes because they’re intelligent and spontaneous and I thought I would loosen up a bit and that’s when things went wrong and, in time, it became obvious that they have something against me, that’s why they do not respect me, because they don’t like me… ”
“Now-now… “, I said to her gently patting her hand while I asked myself: How could they not like her? She’s young, tall, slim, she’s got beautiful blond hair, superb eyes, she’s elegant and classy… They’re likely to love her even if they wouldn’t understand a word she says, which is not the case because her English and her pronunciation are very good! She definitely misunderstands some things and there may also be some miscommunication turning into a class management problem.
“Let me tell you a little secret”, I said. “Students’ love and respect for a teacher have nothing in common with class behaviour! Do you really think that some of your other classes, with quieter students, love you and respect you more? I’ve got news for you, dear! They don’t! They just fear you more, they’ve got less to say and they’re less confident with their English. Which of the two would you favour: quiet, insecure students fearing to open their mouths or loud, confident ones, expressing their opinions and exchanging ideas?”
“Well, of course I’d prefer the latter”, she replied “but why don’t they just do that in a more respectful way?”
“Respectful? Don’t you mean ‘organised’?”, I said.
She didn’t sense the trap.
“Yes, organised”, she dashed to answer.
“Well, class organisation and class management, dear, are a teacher’s job, not students’ proof of respect…”
She sighed in surprise and blushed. Good!, I thought.
“Tell me, have you read Lord of the Flies by Golding? Or seen the film?” I asked her.
“Yes, both”, she answered, her eyes staring at my face as if she were looking for clues to help her understand what I was hinting at. I’ll never know what detail on my face inspired her but a few seconds later she said:
“Oh! I know what you mean! The conch shell! The boy holding the conch shell was the one to speak, the rest had to listen to him! I should give them this rule and an object to pass on as they want to speak. What if anyone else interrupts?”
“They won’t be allowed to speak for the next 10 minutes or they lose the right to express their opinion on that issue”, I said.
She was smiling, no shadow of tension on her face now.
“Thank you”, she said.
“No, dear! Thank Mr. Golding for writing the novel! And thank yourself for being so sensitive to teaching that you’re asking yourself questions! Brace yourself ’cause there’s a whole career in front of you but remember this: NEVER shout at your students! Shouting is no proof of your love and respect for them! And one more thing: I’m here whenever you may have questions you can not answer yourself…”
She gave me a lovely smiley and a warm hug and left the teachers’ room. I stayed there for some more minutes, analysing my face in the mirror: could it have been the nose?…
I have been teaching English for 25 years, level K-12 in state schools and adults in LLL programmes. For the last 15 years I have been teaching mainly high school students (9th-12th grades) and adults.
Between September 1, 2007 and August 31, 2009 I was a county school inspector with Constanta County School Inspectorate, Romania.
Now I’m full-time back among my students, enjoying every minute of it!