True confessions of a miserable teacher

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I’ve had two classes that went completely wrong and taught me a lesson for life. Both were with teen classes where I was substituting for just that session. They were years apart. Since I’d run a teen after-school program that was rewarding for everyone involved, and had experience teaching (and reaching) adults, as well as running business courses for trainees, I thought, “This will be easy. It’s just one lesson. Pick a topic that interests them and give them a productive task”.

Having just my 90 minutes and a very short brief on “where they were in the book”, I launched into my “lesson plans” relatively quickly,  extending the subject to areas I thought would be more fun, viz. I had one class creating and marketing a new type of hamburger in groups. The other was given the task of defining the role of dwarves pre-Christmas and writing a letter to Santa to invite him to a meeting and to present their complaints.

But what I totally forgot is that when working with a group of young people, the way in is to build trust by listening, by being there, where they are. These two classes were complete and utter disasters, and I still blush when I think back on them. The hamburger group was so busy texting on their phones (in any language but English) and beating each other up and talking about how hungry they were that I had to let out early so they could run to McDonalds. I found out later that they’d been told they wouldn’t be given jobs with that company just the week before, so their motivation was below zero. What a missed opportunity! The other class just thought I was nuts, and didn’t really make the connection to the business skills they expected me to teach them. That class, I found out later, was mostly intererested in finding out more about living in the US. Instead, I dumped stuff on them, and didn’t even give them a chance.

Third time lucky. Give me another class to substitute in, please.

For a great summary of trust building read Sue Lyon Jones’ post on Ken Wilson’s blog right here.


10 Responses

  1. Hi Anne!

    it’s hard to tell from the opening line when these classes took place. When I read it the first time, I put a ‘just’ in it – thus thinking they were recent lessons. But I think in fact they are the only two lessons you’ve ever had that were a disaster, right? 🙂

    I think the key here is that you were substituting with a class who clearly have problems with the whole learning thing. I agree with you that Sue Lyon-Jones has some terrific ideas of how to deal with a long-term relationship with students like this, but I also think that substitution work requires a different approach, one in fact that gives you freedom to have lots of fun.

    For a long time at International House London, I was the designated substitute teacher, arriving at 8.30am to be told which class I had to take an hour later (and these could be three-hour classes). Other teachers were horrified to know that I absolutely loved it, but I did it on condition that at least for the first hour, I was not expected to follow the book they were using, or any instructions left by the missing teacher.

    A lot of the activities I devised at this time are now in my book Drama and Improvisation. In fact, chapter 1 is devoted to dealing with a new class- I can email it to you, if you like.

  2. Hello Anne, you just wrote about how no learning is possible unless some kind of relationship is made between learner and teacher. Sue’s experience shows about the same problem. I had the very same problems when I arrived in my first class just after passing my PGCE. Trust and relating to learners and just, as you put it beautifully “being there, where they are” is crucial, and should be taught and emphasized again and again in PGCE courses.
    And Ken, I would love to benefit from your Drama book (papotine at voila point fr). Merci !

  3. I’ve got your book, Ken, and really like it.
    The challenge with substitution, of course, is that they know each other quite well. Improv does seem a very likely way in, because it removes them from what they “know” about each other and forces them to “be”, which tells you and them quite a lot…

    That’s right, every other class I ever taught was brilliant ;-). Those two really stick out because they were so embarassing. Hamburger Hell was actually the later incident, some time in 2003, and it was indeed a very difficult group. The Dwarf Disaster was 1998, and it actually took the Hamburger incident for me to realize how different class expectations can be of a substitute teacher:
    1. The Dwarves wanted a serious lesson, they felt they had work to do and learning targets to meet. If I were given them again, I would do an improv to figure out what they were all about, and then get them working on questions and on ways to find answers to them.
    2. The Hamburgers wanted to be anyplace but that class. They were very down and needed motivation in a big way, as they were not planning on communicating with anyone who represented the company to them (which any teacher must). I frankly still don’t have a failsafe plan how I could have reached them. Opening up lines of communication does mean you need to build for the long run, and a substitute can’t do an in-out sort of thing. Maybe making a class poster of the things around them in English would have helped, just listening to their music and drawing pictures of their favorite things and labelling. Or do you have another idea?

  4. Yes, I’m with you on ‘they know each other’ part – which is why some of my intro activities are designed for when the students know each other but the teacher is new.

  5. I’m just amazed that you have been able to limit yourself to just TWO
    So no need to feel miserable .

    ps tell us about the surfing in Munich sometime.

  6. I don’t substitute in teen classes often, Chris, I’m mainly in adult ed (business and college). My skin is too thin to teach teens all the time. Teens let you know right off when you’ve got it wrong. Want to feel small? Be a fly on the wall when they talk about you. But it’s so great when it goes right and they let you know. The teen classes I’d be teaching for private schools and companies are generally trainees, and I just don’t think I do such a good job with them. Of course, anything is better than what happened in these two sessions. If you have a chance to go back in and make it right, hey, you’re ahead. Anyway, must take the plunge again soon!

  7. Hi,
    When I started teaching at the ad.ed. centre in Munich I was also the offficial substitutor and I loved it. I had no classes of my own and Betty in the office was so glad to have somebody she could rely on. Like Ken, I could do anything I felt like doing. Though there were occasions when the official teacher would give me strict instructions on what I had to do and was very upset afterwards when I said – ‘I had to get to know the people first and that took the whole lesson!’
    I couldn’t work with a lot of bodies.Though recently I did a class for a colleague – they were Eastern Europeans and I came loaded down with maps etc. to discuss the world. In the second session the ambitious Polish girl announced she wanted to work with the book – and she insisted on going through every single syllable of it – I found that pretty much a waste of their time.
    What can be difficult is sometimes taking over from other colleagues in intensive courses. But then these are the joys and woes of what we do.

  8. Some of the worst experiences i have had (teaching) is when i have picked up a clients file and there is a note from the previous teacher -“please continue with this next time”
    It has always been a disaster – usually accompanied by complete disinterest in the subject from the client.
    Now i make a point of ignoring the request and add a note – “sorry we got distracted”.

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