Updated: Dec 16, 2019
At face value, what is a classroom? – a place, the people, the content of the lesson, the presentation, the worksheets, the assessment criteria, the delivery of a lesson plan, the narrative within a scheme of work, a control room for changing behaviour, varying degrees of knowledge popping into and out of existence, admin work, prep for further summative assessment? ‘... we have an exam you know! You best put on your metaphorical armour, sharpen your sword, strategize the weakness of your exam-shaped enemy and learn to know which answers are worth more marks, so you can be most effective in battle. This is it by the way, this is the judgment of your value - your individual achievement that shapes your role in the world, this is where your expectations of yourself and your worth come to a head... welcome to the world soldier, good luck out there. By the way, we’ve stuffed all the exams into a short space to make it…better for you.'
I'm not going to tell you that the purpose of learning is to set students off to become interested and interesting people of the world, any teacher worth their salt knows that - if you don’t know that - please refer to the department of genuine human beings, you’ll be asked to sit down, take a moment and trawl your memory for anyone who’s ever given a damn about you, WARNING during this procedure you may feel a slight tingling sensation, followed by an audible ‘oh yeah!’ - don’t panic, this is a sign that you suffer from human person syndrome - please collect your salt at the end of the day.
But you know what? With all the pressures and demands on teaching and learning, it's far too easy to become blindly focused on assessment success and forget that students and teachers alike bring with them something far reaching and far greater and far more important...
What does the student bring to the classroom?
Paper, pens, calculators, exercise books, knowledge from the last class, a feverish desire to learn more and a desire to challenge what they think they know? (if you’ve got more than three of these things you’re clearly the luckiest teacher in town)
Students bring in much more, so much more under the surface - they bring with them: the fight the’ve just had, the parent that just left, the close friend that betrayed them, the lack of food, shelter and security, that article on the perfect body, the latest terror attack and a heavy fog of confusion about themselves and the world. We forget how the questions ‘who am I?', 'what’s my value' and 'why should I care?' Or 'what should I care about?', 'what can I do that actually matters?’ rings in the ears of students and teachers alike.
What do you - as a teacher - bring to the classroom?
Does this ring a bell? You’re awake, well in reality you haven’t really slept – you poured everything you had into yesterday and you’ve got to do it again today – plus, that one kid really pushed your buttons the other day, and you’re still trying to figure out how to deal with him - no time for breakfast “I’m fine” caffeine is a type of breakfast right?
– out of the house – oh damn I left those worksheets in my other bag, never mind I copied them onto the school's system, I’ll reprint them when I’m there “I’m fine” – commute to work - back on the road / train / bus again – one way or another stuck jammed in by traffic – it’s either car traffic of human traffic, the choice is yours! – squeeze yourself in and out of whatever sardine can is most convenient for you.
– at work, bag on table – oh yeah it’s Wednesday, I’ve got the first period to prep - "I’m fine!” phone pings with a million emails, all your plans from the night before are worthless – got to cover Mr X in ten minutes, they’re off with ‘work related stress.' ...god, how unprofessional… – "fine then” - check for cover lesson plan – nothing, check the online database for resources – the whole school system is down and there’s no internet – check with head of department - one line answer “I don’t know, just talk about the socio-political development of soviet Russia from the perspective of a time traveling mathematician…or something.”
– turn data on with your phone and mine Google, TES and Pinterest for anything even vaguely related - stomach rumbles – two minutes to first period sod it, lunch for breakfast – gobble whatever low-rent sandwich / biscuit / leftover avocado marmite casserole massacre you’ve been eating all week - no time for chewing, hand on food – food in mouth – that’s me done for the day - "fine". Oh yeah and finish it off with a fistful of paracetamol, just can’t shake off this damned cold for some reason …"I’m fine”
– hover over the printer – catch a glimpse at your reflection in the Perspex glass – discover what you would look like if you were an emaciated ghost – printer's jammed, time to use that printer engineering know-how that you don’t have - tap it lightly – nothing – tap it harder – nothing – evoke your inner chimp and smash it as if it were the world's very last crate of delicious bananas – half the paper comes out fine and for some reason they’re double sided and the other side is upside-down “I’m fine”
– rush to class fully armed with laptop, charger, paper and a handful of pens you had to yoink from some other poor soul in your school - "I’m fine". The kids are already at the door– the barbarians are at the gate and you have to squeeze through the horde to get in – you get in, set up and breathe.
– the bell rings and that one kid shouts out “Alright Sir? You look terrible…"
You know it, I know it, we all know it - well-being.
You've probably seen Maslow's hierarchy of needs - perhaps even have referred to it a hundred times. But how often do you think about it for yourself? How can we expect our students' to reach the peak of self-actualisation if we are nowhere close to it ourselves? Students see past your noble "I'm fine" facade. What life lessons did you (unknowingly) teach today?. Nobody wants to be Sisyphus pushing up a rock forever, 'shh...go to bed Camus, you're drunk on your own cognac again'
When you look into a classroom, there is so much going on under the surface - a myriad of issues (theirs and yours) and we’d do well to remember that students don’t just learn the lesson you’re delivering, they also learn who they are going to be and for most of the time during the week, the benchmark to do this with, is you. It's not just Ofsted that observes you and your lessons, it’s students too. If you’re teaching, you’re in the public eye – just your public happens to be a bit shorter, snottier and maybe more belligerent than the average Joe.
The classroom is:
The classroom is a social, cultural environment and like it or not there is a ‘hidden curriculum’ of life lessons being ‘taught’ as socio-cultural norms every day, life lessons that are “learned but not openly intended". If it’s normal for teachers to be stressed, exhausted and over stretched, what lessons are we unknowingly conveying to our students?
Fundamentally as teachers, we are asking students to change their minds and become someone different to who they already are – we would do best to remember that change is scary, that being different is often difficult and that this needs a safe space to do it in. This goes for you too!
What can we do about it?
Apply our life experience and wisdom to the problem.
As teachers we haven’t just graduated from university, we’ve also got a fine education from the school of hard knocks. We know that failure and stress are inevitable parts of the process towards being a functional human being, let alone an extraordinary one.
So what life lessons are valuable for our students?
How about grit beats talent 9/10 and that soft skills are anything but soft, becoming who you can be is hard and always will be.
Classrooms need to be social and cultural spaces, places to experiment, to criticise and interrogate ideas - yes!. But to be places to do so, classrooms must build trust, cohesion, consideration and value who the students are now – as teachers we need this too. It’s common sense that in order to thrive, not just survive - we both need structures that offer sustainable support and stability, because without it - we cannot teach and without it, we cannot learn.
A teacher doesn’t just teach:
"Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. You know, you’re not there just to pass on received information…what greater teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage." (Robinson 2013)
As teachers, we need to be aware and reflect on the wellbeing of our students and ourselves. Equally, the institution and systems we are a part of need to be aware of and reflect upon the wellbeing of students and teachers alike if any real lessons are to be taught today. Let’s make sure that tomorrow's lesson, is a better one.