Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Everybody is a Genius

Yesterday, my son Ben headed off to school for his first day of Year Four with a bag full of brand new books and stationery, butterflies in his tummy and a smile that spread from the far corner of one cheek to the other. As we got in the car he told me: "I'm the most excited person in the world right now".


As I was driving home from dropping him off at his new classroom and meeting his new teacher, I realised that not only was it his first day of upper primary school, but it was also the six year anniversary of the very first time I stood in front of a classroom of high school students and taught a lesson all by myself. 

It doesn't feel like six years ago; it feels more like twenty. So many changes have happened in that time. The little three-year-old boy I had in those days is now nine. The daughter I didn't even dare to dream of back then is now sleeping in the room next to me. She'll have her first birthday in less than five weeks from now. In the last six years, Ben and I have lived in seven different houses on two different continents, he's been to six different schools, I've had eleven different jobs, not all of them in teaching. Six years ago, I'd never met my partner; never even imagined that I'd ever meet anyone like him. 

But these are the tangible changes in our lives. It's the intangible ones that make those six years feel like a lifetime ago.

Six years ago, I thought I knew how to be a good teacher, because I had report cards that told me I was an good student teacher. Six years ago, I had a vision of becoming  an inspirational educator, the kind that turns kids' lives around. I dreamt of being able to light the fire inside of each them. I aspired to have the kind of impact on their lives that Robin Williams' character has in Dead Poet's Society

I imagined being able to awaken students who had never read an entire novel before on their own to the joys of literature. I truly believed that I could inspire teenagers who claimed they hated to write to discover a means of expressing their teenage angst through the written word. I was going to teach them to see the world from an angle they'd never even knew existed before. My passion for learning was going to be infectious. I was going to change the world.

It didn't take long for the idealism of the naive teacher that I was back then to take a tremendous plunge. I did love my job and although I dived into it with such energy that I exhausted myself virtually to the point of insanity within less than a year, I had many wonderful moments in the classroom. But there was one class of young men (it was an all boys' school) who, although I tried in every way I could, I just could not connect with. 

The class comprised of twenty-four boys in their second last year of school. They were sixteen years old and were studying a pathway of English that would not grant them entrance to university. If they passed the course, it would help them gain entry into a technical college or an apprenticeship. From the very first to the very last lesson of that year, they gave me a hard time. They did not like a young, female teacher trying to make them concentrate on a subject that they detested. For the most part, most of them disliked my teaching methods, no matter how creative I tried to be. Activities, games and behaviour management strategies that worked well with my other four classes fell flat at best with these boys and, at worst, failed miserably.

Regardless of the approach I took, their motivation to learn and to improve ranged from minimal to non-existent. This frustrated me enormously, as did their literacy levels in general, which were appalling low for their age.

One weekend, I was having a cup of tea with my mum after having just dragged myself through the mentally exhausting process of marking a class set of one of their assignments. I started to vent to her about the attitude of these boys and their inability to construct basic sentences, despite most of them having been educated in the private school system for over a decade. Where was the root of this problem? I ranted away to her. Was it an issue with the school system? Had they been promoted from one year level to the next year after year when they should really have been made to repeat one of the early grades and as a result they were never able to catch up? Or did these problems originate at home? Did their parents fail to encourage reading, place little importance on homework and were they responsible for their children's inability to concentrate because they had allowed them to play thousands of hours of computer games?

Nothing could have prepared me for the response my mum gave me. I was ranting to her because I was convinced she would agree with me that the level of literacy of these boys and their disinterest in improving it was a travesty. You see, when I was growing up, books were currency in our house. We didn't even have a TV. Although I wasn't an avid reader myself until I left school, my mum read aloud to me every night for the first eight years of my life. When it came to grammar, my mum was a tyrant. If I came home from school and said something like: "Mum, Rodney done something bad to me today", her first response would be: "Rodney did something bad to you today", and if I continued with: "yeah, but he hurt me really bad!", she'd respond with: "No, he hurt you really badly". So what she said that day in answer to my rant was the very last thing I was expecting her to say.

"Don't be too quick to judge those boys, Elizabeth', she said, "They might not be any good at reading and writing, but every one of them can do something that you can't do. Some of them can make amazing things out of wood, some of them can fix cars, some of them can kick a football the whole way across an oval. Everybody's got things that they're good at and not good at and reading and writing just isn't what these boys shine at. That doesn't make them dumb".

Of all the teaching advice I've ever heard in lecture theatres or read in text books or discussed at Professional Development days, that one conversation is the one thing that had the most influence in the evolution of my attitude towards teaching. Maybe my mum should have told me that's how she thought a long time before that. Or maybe she was waiting till exactly the right time and told me when I needed to hear it most.

I started to focus less on changing my students' attitudes and started to focus more on being interested in what was important to them. Many of them played basketball, so I went along to some of their matches. In the classroom, I started preaching less and listening more. At the end of the school year,  I organised the class into teams, took them to the cooking rooms and had a bake-off. They had so much fun they didn't even realise that there was any reading involved. They even fought over which person in each group would read the instructions aloud. The mess they made in the cooking room took me more than two hours to clean that afternoon after school, but I didn't mind, becuase as the bell sounded that day to signify that this was the very last time I would ever have to teach that class, a group of them had come over and said: "Miss, will you be teaching us again next year?" and I could tell from the tone of their voices, that they hoped that I would.

In some ways, I wish I could go back six years to that first day of teaching as I was standing in front of the class, palms sweating, heart beating a thousand miles a minute, and whisper in that young teacher's ear to just relax and not try to change the whole world in one day. Six years ago, that person had no idea that her students would actually teach her far more about life than she would ever be able to teach them.

And just a few days ago that person, who doesn't ever desire to be a full-time teacher again but who has the utmost respect for those who are, found this quote and it summed up the greatest lesson teaching had taught her in one sentence:

"Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid".

                                                                                                                        Albert Einstein



Has the way you think about the work that you do, or used to do, altered over the years? Did something specific change your attitude or was it a gradually change that came through years of experience?