We have been teaching our children since the beginning of time, it seems like we should have it figured out by now. Local school boards along with the states Department of Education are always trying to fix what is broke in our schools.

Let teachers teach the best way they know how. Give them the freedom to be creative with their classes. Each student comes from a different background, family environment, social status, and baggage (sometimes lots of baggage). Teachers are professional; let them do their jobs. One classroom cannot be taught the same as another. The content of the classroom (teacher, students) is what makes up the dynamics of that particular classroom and only that classroom. The teacher being there every day is the only one who can sense what is needed by the class as a whole and each individuals needs.

If states decide to help fund their schools, do it with no stings attached. Let the local school board manage the physical plant of each school, leaving the teachers alone to use their knowledge in doing what they were trained to do. So simple and clear cut it might actually work!

Written by Harmonic

Teaching Teachers

I'm going to Athens for a week in January to do some input sessions on a DELTA course for teachers of English as a foreign language and to observe some teaching practices, or TPs, as they are imaginatively known. I observed hundreds of TPs in Athens in the nineties and early noughties. It is getting on for eight years since my last one, though, and I am out of the loop a bit. I have been thinking of TPs past, and wondering if the standard will be higher or lower now that diploma candidates are fewer than they used to be. I have long since misplaced my file marked ‘TP reports’, embellished with doodled cartoons of exploding wigwams (think about it) so I only have memories to go on.

The teachers on our courses all taught in the private institutions known in Greece as ‘frontistiria’. The dull, grinding, prescriptive, deeply conservative Greek state education system is held in comprehensive contempt, and most kids attend frontistiria after school to benefit from the greater amount of individual attention their smaller classes provide. Few teachers have any specific EFL qualifications, however, and the teaching quality ranges from brilliant to abysmal, often in the same institution. Most frontistiria that teach languages offer French and German as well as English, but eavesdropping outside the classrooms, you will often be hard put to know which language is being taught, as you hear nothing but Greek from within.

So, as a TP tutor about to observe a teacher doing her first practical, you arrive at the frontistirio in some far-flung corner of Athens or Piraeus, and make yourself known to the owner or the secretary, who as often as not will make you coffee and treat you with almost embarrassing deference. You find your cheek muscles go into spasms from smiling humbly and being self-deprecating. You probably come across as a smarmy git. There are occasions when the school owner will quite pointedly not make you coffee, or even speak to you. Then you know that the teacher is doing her TPs at this school only under sufferance, and the owner is suspicious of foreign interference and new-fangledness.

The teacher emerges from her previous lesson, looking flustered, and hands you her lesson plan, which you peruse without allowing your fixed smile to slip for a moment. Even when part of the procedure says ‘teacher writes girl, prince and prick’ on the board, understand that this is to get the kids to think of the Sleeping Beauty story, and don’t snicker. The teacher may have devised some True/False questions for a reading text. One such question that I have never forgotten was ‘Boys don’t like to study, they prefer kicking their balls’. This is not the moment to draw attention to such gaffes.

In the classroom your presence will naturally disrupt the normal routines of the group. Some kids are scared to death, hypothesising some unannounced test is toward, but most are fascinated by the foreigner in their midst. Once when I had inserted my carcase painfully into one of the narrow desk and bench arrangements at the back of the room, a boy turned to me and whispered ‘eísaste pragmatikós ánglos?’ ‘are you a real Englishman?’. On another occasion five little Albanian boys subjected me to a barrage of questions before the lesson began. They wanted to know, inter alia, how far I could count, which basketball team I supported and what my zodiac sign was. They were flabbergasted and horrified to learn that my mum and dad lived in another country. One group of tiny kids, no more than five or six, spent most of the lesson surreptitiously whispering questions at me, mostly ‘how do you say X in English?’

‘How do you say fengari in English?’ one asked.

‘Moon’, I said.

‘Moon’ is so close in sound to the Greek word for ‘cunt’ that the answer produced shocked silence and no further questions.

All my colleagues had stories of crackpot rules imposed on teachers by frontistirio owners. More than one had CCTV in the classrooms to allow her to spy on the lessons and intervene if the proceedings were not to her liking. Several forbade the use of any kind of visual aid as a means of teaching vocabulary, and one even discouraged the use of the whiteboard. One colleague was shown into a classroom full of study chairs that all faced different directions, as if they had been deposited by a tidal wave. The students entered and picked their way through the maze, seating themselves without moving the chairs, and the lesson proceeded with students facing all points of the compass. Afterwards the teacher explained that the owner did not want the chairs in rows, or better, a semi-circle, because the students might copy one another’s work. Why these batty rules? Search me. I think in most cases the owners inflicted them simply because they could.

As you observe the lesson, you make notes for feedback and complete a form on which you award grades for a variety of language-teacherly skills. Among these is the ability to use mime, gesture and facial expression. Many an EFL teacher of my acquaintance is an ex-performer of some description. I sometimes think the profession is a repository for frustrated or clapped-out hams; being big and theatrical in front of an audience comes naturally to many of us. But just as many Greek teachers had a mistrust of visual aids, so many were reluctant in the extreme to employ mime, gesture and facial expression to convey meaning, which to me is rather like blind-folding your students. One poor woman, who was not naturally theatrical in manner, suffered in observed lessons. Pirouetting and waving her arms about, with no obvious significance to her extravagant mudras, Smaro gave you the impression that you were watching a video with the image out of synch with the sound. I should have told her just to forget the gesture bit, but I didn’t, because Smaro’s pained corybantics became something to look forward to. As the year went on, she developed a style so rococo that the kids were made dizzy and my notes unintelligible.

Before you leave, you have a brief confab with the teacher, whom you should leave feeling fairly happy, even if things were so desperate you have to resort to praising her handwriting or choice of eye-shadow to do so. The good news is that it is often good news, though. Zoe on her final TP said ‘come on, cut the crap, tell me the grade!’ and I said it was a Distinction.

‘Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!! Can I kiss you?!?!’ she said, and smacked one on me.

The feedback was ditched, because she immediately went into the office to phone her mum. So I am hoping for at least one such success story in January, and I’m glad I have something to look forward to through the English winter gloom.

A blog post

Teaching is something I have absolutely no inclination to do, but I occasionally glance at news stories about the profession, because my mother was a teacher for years and I got to hear all about it. That, and sometimes the headlines are outrageous. Invariably with online articles, there's comments too. Hilarious comments.

Did you know teachers are lazy? According to parents, they're lazy. Teachers do nothing, all day long. They don't have to stand at the front of a room and instruct children on the things they need to survive in society, no! Teachers are basically sitting at their desk eating bonbons and flipping through magazines.

Another wonderful myth is the one about "holidays". More contentious is that teachers get paid during school holidays! Of course they get paid - because they're supposed to be marking and planning lessons. If they're good enough to get all that out of the way quickly, they get some time to relax. Some people think they don't need this time, but I'd say those people have never tried to manage thirty-five children at once.

There was brooding resentment in the comments to one article that teachers are not at the schools before 8am to mind children. Even better: These parents also expect the teachers to mind their children until 6pm. That's ten hours. Would anyone do this job for ten hours? I don't think so. Around here people would refuse to do any job for ten hours, no matter how good it could possibly be. The real reason teachers should stay until 6pm turned out to be... Because it's just unfair that they should finish work at 3:30!

Apparently schools do not teach important things. Mathematics is not important and neither is English. These are both considered to be a cruel waste of time, making schools something akin to Dickensian workhouses. Assigning homework is apparently nasty and mean, too (because parents then have to make the children do it). What teachers get praised for is things like taking their class out of school, and down into the city to watch a victory parade for the local rugby team. Apparently that is an important life experience, because it teaches children that you can get out of anything providing your excuse is a dominant cultural force.

Finally, according to many parents, teachers are overpaid. This explains why there are people lining up at the teacher's college clamouring to join the noble, highly paid profession of teaching, complete with it's luxurious holidays and no need for real work.

So, thanks to a sizeable group of parents who have the time to spend an entire day discussing the matter online, we see that teachers are overpaid, have too much time off, don't do any real work, and don't teach important things... Like the meaning of "hypocrisy".

Apparently there is an education crisis. Children are not learning. They have no interest in learning. I cannot imagine why this could possibly be.

UPDATE: There are now new standards on the three R's, and teachers and parents have issues with them! Except... The parents are, as ever, worried about the wrong things: Would you like to know more?

What is teaching? Something whole, created by man to communicate from one life to another. The way that we embody ourselves, so that others may receive us. A wholly spiritual venture, often mistaken for a quantitative exercise.

To teach is to tell, to put oneself forth almost vulnerably and say, here, here it is what you must know; no--what you must know you must know, trust me; pouring one's heart out by faith in another. It is becoming a parent for however long an apprentice is beside you, and living a mother's life over the course of a week, a semester, or four years. Seeing that person become, or deviate, or rebel.

There are some people who pretend to be teachers, who do things teachers are "supposed" to do: sit behind a desk, stand behind a podium, and most famously, speak at--certainly not to the people. Does a teacher need to do these things? Of course not. What is a teacher if not a poet, musician, or friend? Are dreams teachers? Perhaps it is not about who has taught you, but where you have learned.

Because that is certainly all that teaching is about, not proclamation; that is for the clergy and politicians and ye olde mountebanks; it is the learning that is the stuff. That is the combined element, the end, but also the beginning. Once a thing is truly learned, it cannot be undone, it can only be carried forth, taught, or submersed into the infinite mind.

Once a thing is really learned, what is left? The propensity of something to be taught again.

Teach"ing, n.

The act or business of instructing; also, that which is taught; instruction.

Syn. -- Education; instruction; breeding. See Education.


© Webster 1913.

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