Being present

So I taught a lesson tonight. It was a short introduction lesson for a group of intermediate-ish students in preparation for their being taught by our CELTA trainers. It’s a multiply purposed lesson: partly to induct the students into the college; partly to allow me to gauge the level of the students properly; and to provide the CELTA trainers with an observation of an experienced teacher.

The lesson is a take on a first lesson idea I’ve used for years: post a bunch of words or numbers on the board relating to me, and the students have to guess what they mean (for example 2 (children), Banbury (where I come from), New Zealand (where I lived for a year and would happily return), hobbies, and so on. It’s a bit of fun, and by asking students to draft questions to ask, you get a good idea of their technical understanding. In this case I follow it up with a bit of reading where I’ve written about myself and included some deliberate mistakes (“I come from Basingstoke, and have 3 children.”) which I ask students to identify. The students then talk about their own details in groups, and then write about themselves for homework.

It’s a fun lesson to teach, not least because it’s a proper show-off lesson: you know when it’s going to happen, how long it’s going to be, and it’s hard to resist putting on a bit of a show for the trainees. It’s a bit of an ego trip, and not just because the topic of the lesson is little old me.

But because of all this, I tend to put a lot into the lesson. And again, when I say a lot, I don’t mean “a lot of my swelteringly vile ego”, but rather a lot of energy and focus, which is interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about that of late.

Where I work, you see, I’m not “just a teacher”. I have time off teaching to mentor and support colleagues, which is a profoundly rewarding role, but also one which can get, well, a bit adminny. Emails tend to be involved, records need to be kept, meetings held, and generally I have to think about stuff beyond the immediate concerns of the classes I teach. And this can be distracting: you can go into class worrying about a colleague, anxious about how you’re going to plan tomorrow morning’s class when you’ve got an afternoon of observations and mentoring meetings, things like that. It can, therefore, be quite hard to leave that at the classroom door, and so you can too easily end up being slightly absent from the lesson, in mind, rather than body.

I’ve done it, I have to admit, although I’m sure I’m not the only one. However, what you realise really quickly is that if you are not entirely present in the lesson, working in the moment, then something is lost.

A tempting metaphor is that of spinning plates: you take your eye off the lesson and the whole thing comes crashing down. But with a bit of experience and/or planning, it is possible to produce an acceptable, workaday lesson that more or less teaches itself: the plates do keep spinning. But (if you’ll forgive my perilously stretched metaphor) the plates don’t spin quite as well. Learning happens, for sure, even if you are a bit distracted in the lesson, tempted away by the siren call of anxieties and stresses from the office end, but you miss all those splendid opportunities for learning that occur when you are properly paying attention.

You also miss reinvigorating yourself somewhat. Take this evening’s lesson, for example. It was at the far end of a long day which had started with a 5am wake up with a poorly child, followed by a visit to the hospital (he’s ok now, thanks for asking) and prior to the lesson, I was basically running on empty. Coffee, lots of coffee, and some rather lovely jalebi was barely keeping me going.

It sounds daft, I know, but whether it was the coffee and the sugary fried deliciousness, but I definitely perked up in the classroom and not because I coasted and let it just happen, but because I was very much “in” the lesson; by which I mean focussed on, and listening to the students, reacting to their comments, noticing their errors and their achievements, and creating learning out of that as much as out of the lesson aims.

But I’m not recommending this because it was reinvigorating: the secret to my youthful skin is not teaching, after all. I’m recommending it because it’s what makes a lesson good, even excellent. You’re not going through the motions, merely following the lesson, but rather you are manipulating the lesson, and the only way you can do it is to be properly in the lesson.

And on that slightly delirious note, I’m off to bed.

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