Every time I give a look at the many piles of books I’ve read in my life and think at the many subjects I’ve had to study to become an English teacher: linguistics, psycholinguistics, literature, metalinguistics, glottology, philology…I can’t help but wonder: once I found myself behind the teacher desk, how much of what I have learnt has been really helpful to me? For example when it happens to teach in a school considered “border” with many cases of social distress among students – and a lot of stress among teachers – what or who has really helped me find the right educational intervention? Who could give the right inspiration in times of trouble? Don’t know, maybe Noam Chomsky? In my case, it was Michelle Pfeiffer.
It is more that ten years ago now, when I made the experience of teaching in one of these schools as I had no better alternatives; it happens when you are at the beginning of your teaching career. Actually, teaching English in such schools does not require great linguistic expertise, if fact in the five-year course all the shades of the Present Simple are usually explored, sometimes even the Present Continuous can be introduced in more advanced classes. However, what you really have to master is the relationship with the class, which is of a tamer vs tigers kind, hence you have to be strong, firm and let me say, healthyif you don’t want to end up devoured.
I remember one class in particular, it was a second year of high school. They were supposed to be 15/16 years old, but the average age was 19 and I can tell you that the rare days they were all in, that is 12 in all, they seemed a crowd to me. As it was a second year, I thought they would have been more involved if I had introduced something new, rather than keeping on musing on the tedious Present Simple, I wanted to make a step forward and that step was the Past Simple. I don’t think they actually listened to a single word I said. I remember their yawns, and these were the most brilliant, while the others were totally engaged in something else. At the end of the lesson I assigned them to learn some paradigms, not many: 10. They following day none of them had studied a single paradigm.
What did I have to do ? Threat them ? Call the principal? They would have sneered at me and marked with the infamous stamp of cowardice. I had to find a solution. My extensive readings of Chomsky’s works couldn’t be of any help, but the solution was not on books, it was on tv. Right those days I had watched a movie: Dangerous Minds, where Michelle Pfeiffer was a novice teacher who had to deal with problematic students some of them even with a borderline personality. I couldn’t certainly pretend I had been a marine, just like she had said to catch their attention, and you know, I do not exactly look like Michelle Pfeiffer, but one thing I had understood clearly: I had to find the way to involve them, if I wanted to reach my goals.
I decided to make an investment: I bought 20 euros of chocolates and sweets of any kind and the next day I was ready to put into practice my brilliant idea. I sat at my desk and I calmly placed right in front of them all that glucose. They looked inquisitive. Then I divided the sweets and chocolates in five piles, which represented five prizes, and told them that if they wanted them, they could win them. How? I would produce a list of 30 paradigms and give 15 minutes to learn them all. The first five who could write on the blackboard 10 paradigms without making any mistake, would have their reward. I can only tell you hat at the and of the hour there was still one pile left, but they didn’t let me go, till it was conquered.
That was the beginning of a great year. Grades naturally replaced chocolate, my students started to improve their skills and as it usually happens, when they saw their improvements they kept on studying, because success made their self-esteem grow. As for myself I learnt that the most essential part of teaching is helping students see and reach their goals, no matter what means I have to use, even chocolate, if necessary.