Sudden Black-out

Something many pupils and students know, unfortunately. It is uncomfortable, embarrassing in front of the audience and might even have negative consequences (a bad grade or, worse, its reoccurrence at the next test situation).

Everybody hates it.

Yesterday it happened to me.

I was teaching and we were translating a text together. I have become confident enough to not always prepare and pre-translate every text anymore, which usually works well, but yesterday proved to be a mistake. It had been a stressful week with many committee meetings, a lot of admin, some exams and some private planning as well. This was my last lesson, the class were agitated and noisy due to an exam they’d written earlier and my powers of concentration were to a large extent gone, my brain addled.

I got stuck.

So stuck, in fact, that I couldn’t make any sense of the sentence before me at all.

So what do you do in a situation like this?

I decided to go for honesty, rather than trying to mask it. The class have known me for long enough. I apologised to my pupils, told them that this was my own personal little nightmare that had finally happened and suggested continuing with a different kind of exercise for the rest of the lesson, until next week, when I will have done my homework properly. They were really nice about it too: of course they laughed a bit and asked me how I expected them to be able to make sense of a text if I couldn’t do it, but they also said it didn’t matter to them and that it was actually reassuring seeing a teacher struggle with translation. All good.

Of course, after the bell had rung I looked at the sentence again and it immediately made sense and was not difficult at all anymore. This is how much our brain sometimes messes with us and how the intense and taxing atmosphere that sometimes developes in a classroom can influence us.

Two lessons learned: Be properly prepared. And when a pupil has a black-out consider the possibility that they might in fact be perfectly competent to solve a task; only not right now.

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Appreciation

I really work for little, mostly. Appreciation can be reward enough.

When last year my pupils asked me if we could take a city trip for a few days I was faced with an old dilemma: my course is filled with kids from different classes and there is a rule that I cannot go on a trip with just a fraction of those classes. Considering that I would then have to take the whole classes (fifty odd pupils) instead of a moderate group of 10 kids, the motivation to organise such a trip is meagre.

However, there are loopholes for the ones willing to sacrifice.

I offered to use our mutual holidays for the trip. That involves me sacrificing my free time and also paying for most of the trip myself (instead of having it refunded). But I didn’t mind.

And of course it was good.

One of the biggest advantages of a voluntary trip during time off is that only the motivated kids will participate. They know exactly that I am doing this as a favour to them, so they will probably not try to be rebellious.

And that’s exactly how it was: We had fun and covered an immense load of points and sights. I only had responsibility for a handful of kids instead of a whole class, which made moving around and general organisation a lot easier and also gave the group a different feel of actually taking this trip together, instead of small clusters of kids wanting to wander off by themselves.

We usually had dinner together, they got enough free time still, of course they complained about all the walking (and other things at different points), but at the end they were all super-happy and I received lots of stunningly positive feedback.

And yes, all this is worth it. I’d rather work for appreciation and little to no money (provided I have enough to survive, ofc …) than for money, but no appreciation at all.

Ding ding! Round five!

Wow, time flies! It is September again and that means I am starting my fifth annual cycle. This has me wondering whether the term “young teacher” is still applicable…..(of course it is – I’m not new to my job anymore, but I’m still young).

Many things have become routine, I have come to understand many of the HOWs, WHEREs and WHYs of the institution (not of the system, though), I have seen the fruit of my efforts and the first of my classes leave school after a simply brilliant graduation…

BRIEF RECAP OF LAST SPRING: Like many of my colleagues I spent many hours of my free time sitting down with my students and preparing for the exam. I firmly believe in clarity and transparence, so I told them exactly what to study and how to study it. They still have to deal with their workload, but they know what to expect and the burdening feeling of uncertainty and worry about the looming unexpected is gone, at least to some extent. The situation itself of an exam setting where they’re being interrogated in front of a board of well-dressed and semi-important, partly unknown people who are assessing them is stressful enough.

I told them not to forget that it would still be me who is asking the questions and deciding on the grade and that, if they were well prepared, they’d have nothing to be afraid of. One of the lads was still quite nervous when he was called in. I just flashed him a grin and went “Hi!”. This seemed to do the trick: he visibly relaxed, sat down and delivered an excellent exam.

In the end there were tears of joy, hugs and laughter and I got the feeling that I am on the right track with what I’m doing.

 

BACK TO THE START: A new year has begun and what is new about it is that I have been sleeping well and plentiful for a change, I am not overly stressed or nervous and into the second week it has already felt like routine. There are no new settings or situations for me to expect this year, I already know most of my pupils and right now it feels like I will have time and energy to get more creative. Let’s see!

Optimising Options and Opportunies

I am a big fan of options. Coffee hot or cold, with or without milk/cream/soy milk/sugar, in a big mug/a small cup, etc.Or read a book you actually like as opposed to one you have to read.

Options in school have many advantages and I don’t think I have uncovered them all yet, but I’m trying to provide as many optional elements for pupils as I can somehow manage to deal with, even if that means more work for me.

Why?

Because kids get the feeling that an optional task is not compulsive (no pressure), but that by still doing it they can improve their grade (and, of more interest to me, their skill). Therefore a number of them leap at every opportunity presented to them and keep improving on their own accord.

At the same time the fact that a task is optional means it’s less work for me, because only the motivated ones hand in something that I will then correct. Coincidentally, the work of the motivated is also the more interesting to look at and I do not have to plough through piles of badly executed tasks.

What I like besides extra work are special opportunities: Give kids extracurricular options and they will appreciate the effort and spare some of their free time to join you in a trip to an archaeological site or the theatre. My free time, their free time, no pressure, just common interest. Sometimes I just show them books they might want to read, or tell them about a local event I am planning to attend. Some of them might also go by themselves or just tag along, if they cannot persuade anyone else to go.

Recently I asked a class, whether they would be interested in ordering in organically grown fruit and veg as additives to their lunches and they took me up on it, so the class now receive a veg box once a week. That has nothing to do with their lessons, but shows them ways of getting good food fairly cheaply and helps them eat more healthily. And they seem to like it (I’m still evaluating..).

So basically it’s always a win-win situation: I only get to deal with the interested ones, I get no complaints from the others, because it doesn’t bother them, and they get the chance to deepen their knowledge or pursue something they might not have found or done by themselves. Isn’t that what teaching should be like? I firmly believe it is. It takes up time and energy, but right now I find the investment worth it.

An ode to flexibility

It’s about time I wrote something appreciative about my job, for a change:

I love the fact that I can mainly choose WHEN to do my out-of school work. When it’s sunny I might want to spend my afternoon eating ice cream with friends or reading a book in the park.

I also like that I can choose WHERE I want to do my out-of-school work:

  • take exercise books and exams to the park and correct them there
  • hang out at a coffee shop and do my prep work to the sound of coffee cups and spoons jingling
  • spend an evening in a bar and mull over the content of a prospective exam with a colleague

 

I love it that I can plan a project if I feel like it and not plan one if I don’t. And that I can pick my partners as I like, or work by myself, if I so prefer.

I like that I can pick methods and content as I see fit, rather than having to stick to a fixed set and schedule.

I like the fact that there is no fixed dress-code, too. I can basically wear what I want (depending, of course, on how much I want my style of dress talked about..).

All these little perks are very precious to me and I sometimes forget that they’re not something that can always be taken for granted. So maybe it was about time I wrote this list.

 

Matters of Style

(from “stilus”, Latin for “pen” [albeit a very basic metal one, used for engraving wax tablets])

I guess every teacher tries to define what kind of teacher they want to be. I have done so in previous posts (about strictness and discipline, mainly). We all invent ourselves, in a way, be it by a very conscious choice of clothes, the way in which we design work sheets and power points, the way we talk to the kids and act in class, little extra gadgets, like special fountain pens, a white lab coat, a leather bag, an ipad et cetera.

By a certain choice of clothes, make-up, jewellery, gadgets, stationary, facial expressions and signature phrases we (sub)consciously create a caricature of ourselves, a way of how we want to be perceived and remembered: “Ah, do you remember our Maths teacher? She would always wear a leather jacket, regardless of the temperature.” or “You know how our Biology teacher would always raise his eyebrow in his own special way?” or “Do you remember our English teacher’s watch collection? One to go with every outfit.” etc.

Why do people do that? To be perceived as ‘cool’, ‘strict’, ‘motherly’, ‘sciency’? To become their own kind of superhero in the story of their lives? To distract pupils’ attention to the superficial and keep everything personal hidden behind it? To create the memory of an eccentric? Or just to select the box they want others to put them in?

Before I started teaching I pondered this. I thought about buying a selection of jackets to appear very professional every day. I decided against it, because while jackets give me a feeling of professionalism and authority (mainly because others project it onto me) I don’t feel very comfortable in them and I would only get them covered in chalk dust anyway. So what to wear? How did I want to come across? The amount of thought that went to my clothes every day in my first two years, the time that went into putting on make-up sometimes make me laugh now.

These days – now that I have obtained some routine and my pupils have gotten to know me – I dress according to how I feel and don’t usually bother with make-up anymore. I probably have some kind of personal style, but I don’t put much strategic thought into it anymore. If I do feel the need for some reinforcement or some protective armour, though, I sometimes revert to formal attire and high-heels. Simply, because it can make some things easier, especially at the beginning of the year or with new classes.

 

What is teaching? (January Blues)

… a lot of structuring and planning

… a daily battle with a pile of stationary and a lack of time

… an attempt to train a group of people to behaviour that makes 50 minutes worth everybody’s while

… a struggle to meet deadlines for legal reasons or simply to facilitate administration

… administration, administration, and more administration, as well as incessant note-taking and -keeping

… the enforcement of partly non-sensical, partly even harmful, partly necessary rules

… constant assessment. That’s supposed to become ever fairer and more objective, yet more individualised (spot the contradiction!), more measurable and tangible. Except it doesn’t.

… endless negotiation and arguments over grades I don’t even want to give

… an attempt to make and see sense

It’s January and I can feel it. It’s a time when I strongly start to question.

 

 

sleep or no sleep

Last week school started again after Christmas break. Many dialogues between teachers ran like this:

A: Happy new year!!

B: Same to you! How are you?

A: Well… couldn’t sleep at all last night. You?

B: Me neither. Don’t know why..

C: What, you too? I had trouble sleeping too!!

D: Well, I for my part started taking pills years ago, because that’s a problem I don’t want to have.

a.s.o.

 

Seems teachers everywhere share the same fate: constant sleep deprivation combined with a disrupted sleeping pattern due to a crazy schedule that turns itself around whenever a few consecutive off-days occur: During the holidays everyone sleeps as much as one can (it’s like people who don’t know when they will eat their next meal cram everything they can find into their mouths). At the same time, we revive or deficient social lives and stop going to bed early(ish…). Then, as soon as school is about to start, we get all nervous about oversleeping and spend the last night awake, just in case. It’s a vicious circle.

Lessons with no content

When I teach I don’t always teach. Sometimes I stand in for a sick colleague who had no time or opportunity to set me a task. Sometimes 70% of my pupils are absent due to projects, illness etc. In these cases there is very often very little point in going through with the original plan, so I am mostly ready to abandon it and do something completely different. Like taking them for a walk, for instance. Or, if it’s a bigger group of smaller children I take them outside to play ball games.

Having to sit and listen all day they have never declined that offer so far, but seemed rather happy to get outside (this is true for all age-groups, even the rather lethargic 17- and 18-year-olds).

I’ve found I can also teach while walking, if I’m so inclined OR the time and opportunity are very well spent on other conversation, often school- but not subject-related. Very often this has been helpful for the kids, because they could ask me for advice or my opinion on matters they had to deal with and for which we usually have little to no time otherwise, or the opportunity just doesn’t present itself with the whole class present.

The whole asking-for-opinions-process works both ways, of course: In this more intimate setting pupils are also inclined to speak more frankly.

Also, I get to go outside for a bit.

And the next teacher is usually grateful because the kids are able to concentrate again.

Win-win-win. 🙂