Another Brick In The Wall

I’m reading a wonderful book at the moment, called The Learning Game by Jonathon Smith, and it’s all about the author’s experiences as a teacher and a student. It is so beautifully written, clear and warm and funny and wise, and if I can’t actually marry Jonathan Smith then I rather wish I could be taught by him. I’ve just finished the chapter where he talks about maintaining discipline over a class, and it brought back so many memories for me. University isn’t the place where you expect to spend your time on crowd control, and given that the majority of my teaching is in twos or threes, it would have to be one determined miscreant who could wreck those sessions. But keeping one’s authority over students is every bit as important, and as taxing, for me as any other teacher.

For instance, we have a one-year taught M.Phil programme with a lecture course on critical theory. I take the feminism class, which means a one hour lecture followed by an hour of questioning, and it’s probably my biggest pedagogical challenge. The graduates have hopped over that first degree barrier and are ready to try out their skills and take you on. Often it’s a lot of fun, but it’s also the kind of situation where some back row smart alec will start rambling on in all earnestness about the influence of the Hegelian dialectic or the Lacanian Real or some such irrelevant nonsense that he figures sounds just fab, and I, the designated smartest person in the ring against all contenders, will have to do something with that, and something that isn’t giving in to my impulse to say ‘Whatever are you talking about?’ It’s all about the balance of the class at that point. I could swat that student down, yes, but then 90% of the class are going to go ‘Ooooh, scary’ and shut up, and the ten percent left will be the have-a-go heroes who will spend the rest of the hour trying to trip me up. Some academics thrive in that kind of atmosphere, but I really don’t want us all to sit around and behave badly, and the temptation to do so is only ever half a sentence away. I know that I’m not at my best when I’m uneasy; it doesn’t suit me. For instance, a few year’s ago, taking this same class, there was a student whose face unfortunately fell in repose into a sneer, and he had a bit of a reputation as an unhelpful subversive (there is in fact a helpful kind). When I arrived that day I was not in the mood to be messed with. I’d had a ‘flu jab 24 hours previously where the nurse had rammed the needle into my arm and wiggled it about a bit. Catching the look on my face (sheer horror) she said jauntily ‘Got thick skin, haven’t you?’ which is not true at any level of that phrase’s meaning. Then she took it out and plunged it in again. I was still a bit traumatized, and worse than that, I had the ‘flu. So, walking into the class I just sensed trouble from this student’s corner of the room, and I was not in the mood to take it. I think I must have delivered the most menacing lecture on feminism that the walls of the lecture block have ever absorbed. As it turned out, there wasn’t a peep out of the student in the whole two hours, and walking feverishly away I reckoned there probably wouldn’t have been anyway. I hadn’t really needed to go in with all guns blazing.

It’s not like I haven’t had experience of proper class situations. When I lived in France I taught at both a college and a lycée, so that means a range of pupils from 12 to 20 or so. I can recall very few disciplinary problems as most couldn’t be bothered to take any aggression they felt out on the English lectrice. I found it quite natural then, as I do now, to try and control a class with humour. I find that if they are laughing, they’re not thinking up alternative ways to have fun. I remember one class, a class of quite young pupils at the college, they can’t have been more than 12 or so, and there was a little boy who was a right cheeky one. He had a whole range of attention-seeking behaviour which he lobbed at me from the back row. After a lesson of this I knew I had to do something about it, and so the next time we were together and he started up, I began to tease him. I said to him ‘I think you want to come and sit right up close to me today, no?’ and I winked at him and gave a proprietorial pat to the empty desk right under my nose (that’s the one that’s always empty). And the next tiniest hint of trouble I did make him move, with the same teasing manner, and whilst he sat there I stayed close and threw him a lot of smiles, so that he should know I meant him well. In subsequent lessons I was prepared to pat the chair without forcing him to swap seats, but he usually came quite willingly. By the end of the term, he’d moved places permanently. But that’s the joy of French boys as opposed to English ones. You can tease them with womanly wiles and they love it. Here in the UK, I’d probably be up before a court of law for less.

Funnily enough the worst discipline problem I ever experienced was with one translation class. Generally I love my translation students. I have 12 at a time and mostly the problem is that they are utterly cowed by the level of language skills required of them, and the whole faintly competitive class situation. Just the fact that they have to call me Doctor sends a chill through their hearts. Generally they cling to the back of the class and hope to get away without saying anything. That’s fine; I sit on the front desk (in the spirit that they can run but they can’t hide, I’m going to teach them, whether they like it or not) and make them all speak and encourage them all to encourage themselves and each other. But this particular year was bizarrely and unpredictably different. The very first class went fantastically because I had an entire group that was ready to speak up and speak out. I was delighted at first, but very quickly they threatened to get out of control. I had too many strong characters all together and they egged each other on and wound each other up. Every hour I was struggling to keep order and I absolutely hated it. I had to psych myself up before I went in and really the whole year passed without my ever getting properly to grips with them. I kept wondering whether I should give the whole class a talking to, but I was afraid it wasn’t the right tactic, and so I kept just churning out the translations and making them work. I have never before or since been actively glad to see the back of a class, and when they left for the final time I realized the huge difference in our relationship. I felt that I didn’t much like any of them, and I was forced to realize how much, generally, I simply and genuinely like students. I like them, I want them to do well, and I’m on their side. Under those circumstances, no one need ever think about discipline.

The issue in the university is far more often to do with disabled or unstable students. But what you need to do there is more clear-cut. When I had an autistic student in my translation class, I received clear guidelines from the university disability center as to how to deal with her. It’s tricky because you can’t say to a class, ‘this is our autistic student, please be nice to her’. So I knew the first few weeks I just had to hold it steady while they fought the temptation to giggle and tease. And in fact that class bonded beautifully and worked well together without a hitch for the entire year. Give me those situations any time rather than an ego-driven student with a taste for anarchy. When I told my husband I was going to write this post he said to me kindly, ‘You’re good at dealing with the mad people and the difficult people. You have an affinity with them.’ I rest my case.

14 thoughts on “Another Brick In The Wall

  1. That was delightful, Litlove. The lessons of life are not lost on you. You have such a gift for the telling detail, the quick characterization, and your sensibilities are so finely tuned to the politics of the classroom, you bring us all into the lectures with you. The character that comes across most vividly is your own, and it’s of just the sort of teacher we all valued most if we were fortunate enough to get her: the teacher who loved her job and her students and knew how to transmit the joy of learning.

  2. What a wonderful husband you have! I think what you portray here is how we never know what anyone’s job is really like, even when we think we do. This always strikes me when I read about teachers in the media or in fact whenever any of my friends with a variety of jobs tell me what it’s like. This is particularly true when there is industrial action. Sometimes I’m not sure if the dispute I’m being told about and the description in the media are happening in the same universe. Controlling the crowd is always complex, as the crowd is always changing. Just as you may have a toothache or worries, so do the students. You often know things the class doesn’t. They won’t understand your apparent ‘soft‘ approach to an individual, because of some traumatic but undisclosed event underlying their behaviour, and you can’t even explain your, to them, unfair partiality. Even if you know no specific cause, those who regularly play up and seek attention that way, are frequently reacting to some past or current difficulty. Most common are the ones who have developed disruption as a means of hiding their academic failure. Given their attitude how can they be expected to gain good marks, etc? It is a disguising and diversionary act and once they have embraced it it is hard for them to escape without losing face among those peers where their influence lies. They can’t see themselves as joining the motivated achievers and that group probably think they are stupid or simply hate them for messing up lessons, which could be more fun without them. Humour can go a long way, as can the creation of interest, which is what all teachers strive for (I hope), but so many children have an antagonistic attitude by the time they reach high school these days and the curriculum can be so enslaving, that it can be tough going. Teacher training should probably include a course given by Derren Brown on mind-reading and mind manipulation. Now there’s a man who could probably handle the crowd, no worries.

  3. I had no idea that professors consider the dynamics of a class so closely. I’m a double major in English/History and the professor for my English capstone course (the big one where you have to prove yourself) kept using the fact that I was a history major to single me out. I felt as if I was a bit of a foil. But it taught me to stick up for myself and I think that was her intention. It was a fantastic class. Plus I got in some digs of the positive subversive sort.

  4. Dear David – I would be delighted to have you in any of my classes. Please sign up for one immediately. Bookboxed – you’re right that it’s hard to keep up with everyone’s changing needs and issues, and manage to keep on top of the teaching all at once. I’m very fortunate in that I teach mostly supervisions, and everything’s possible with two students for one hour. I did laugh at your comment about Derren Brown. How brilliant that would be – a real life Demon Headmaster! Stefanie – I’m so glad you say that because I laughed a lot when he said it too. No one like the members of your immediate family to help you keep it real. Ian – your teacher probably felt you could take it and that somehow it would help her to focus and manage the class. Good on you for rising to the challenge! I also think that positive subversion shouldn’t be underestimated. It can be just immensely helpful. Would you like to sign up for one of my classes too?

  5. I love the idea of the positively subversive student — those ones can be truly wonderful, and can change the whole dynamic of a class, as can the annoyingly subversive one, of course, and in a very bad way a lot of times. But a student who questions and challenges but does it with good humor or is simply looking for you to play along, now that’s a student to wish for.

  6. I like what you say about discipline not being a problem when you genuinely like your students, are on their side, and want them to do well. I don’t teach, but I spend a lot of time with kids, and I’ve never found them to be a problem (even babysitting “rivalrous” brothers and sisters), because I enjoy them so much, and I think they know I’m always empathetic and on their side. You probably remember how hard it was to be a student and bring that memory into the classroom with you when dealing with them.

  7. This rang a lot of bells with me. I’m in adult education too. Theoretically adult education. *Grins* The dynamics thing is a real blast – as the course I teach on is the same and repeats after a month (every month) thge only thing that keeps me sane are the people and the mix of people on the course.

    I’m afraid I have a tendency to say ‘Whatever are you talking about?’ though. A student was recently describing my and my colleagues styles of correction. “X,” he said, “takes the approach of ‘you aren’t wrong but you could be more right’. Sol is more… direct.”

    Anyway. I have afixed a large poster to the back wall of the classroom that reminds me to be charming. This seems to help. Everybody.

  8. Litlove, this made me laugh with recognition.

    I think I also try to use humour to control a class.

    I try not to stomp on anyone’s questions. In fact, I like positively subversive students who come up with alternative analyses. My one exception is when one person tries to monopolise a class totally with questions of limited relevance. There are some very opinionated law students who want to test their mettle by questioning the lecturer on absolutely everything. This isn’t fair to the rest of the class, who want to get through the material. If I have to stomp, I try to do it “gently but firmly”, although I’ve only had to do it once or twice in about 10 years as a tutor and lecturer.

    Class dynamics is an interesting thing. One person can make all the difference to a class – in a negative or a positive way.

  9. Litlove, you are clearly a superb teacher and I would love to see you in action. The key, of course, is this question of actually liking your students and wanting them to do well, putting them before yourself. They soon know,whether they’re five or twenty-five, if you don’t. The worst situation I ever encountered (and I’ve been training teachers for twenty years, so I’ve seen a few!) was actually a colleague. I walked in to take over a session from her only to be hit (almost literally) by the paper aeroplanes that the students had made from her handouts and were throwing round the room. Fortunately, I caught the one that was coming straight at me and threw back what my eleven year olds used to call ‘that look’. ‘That look’ is enough, believe me. But what do you do in a situation like that? Talk about embarrassing.

  10. I wish I could take one of your classes, Litlove!

    (I am so desperate to get into teaching, and it’s so discouraging reading all of the academic job search books — with funding cuts, supposedly the competition is fierce for even the most lowly positions. Sigh. So, this book will be a good jolt of inspiration. Thanks!)

  11. Dorothy – I absolutely agree with you. That student encourages all the others to open up in class as well, and come out with the useful questions and suggestions they would otherwise have sat on and taken home with them! Emily – you’re spot on. I can remember the exhilaration and complete disorientation of being a student as if it were yesterday. And I’ll bet you’re a huge favourite with your family’s children! Solnushka – I did laugh at your comment! Being direct doesn’t work for me, but you’ve clearly got the technique perfectly. It’s good for students to have teachers they’ve got to really work hard for – it’s an important part of their learning. Legal Eagle, oh yes, that one person who wants to dominate! That can really be a tricky one. As you say, it’s a relief that it doesn’t happen too often! Ann – oh my goodness, those paper aeroplanes! That’s a bad one. A teacher when I was in France told me about her large male colleague who was so afraid of his class that one day he locked himself in the store cupboard! And Jonathan Smith talks about The Look, and says it’s a brilliant weapon in the teacher’s arsenal. I would love to see The Look on your face. LK – I’d be delighted to have you in one! Do read this book – it’s absolutely delightful about teaching and learning, and perfect training for you, for when the ideal post comes up.

  12. Pingback: Writing Group Dynamics « Smithereens

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