A Certain Something

Teaching is a profession of a peculiar kind. It is not only about the transmigration of data from one mind to another, but rather about educating new generations, moulding personalities, thus giving them the basis for future opportunities. If this is the delicate goal to be achieved, upon which criteria teachers ought to be selected? 

Here in Italy, for example, it is enough to have a university degree and pass a competitive  exam, where mostly the knowledge of the subject you mean to teach is tested. Then, after a probation year, during which apparently your teaching skills should be carefully verified, but practically nobody cares  – unless one day you screw everything up and yield to the impulse of strangling Pietro, who has kept annoying you for an entire semester, thus clearly demonstrating your inaptitude – you become a licensed teacher at last. But is this selecting procedure adequate?

Best education, best grades, don’t necessarily make you the the best of teachers, and even training courses, refresh courses, developing courses are of no use, unless you possess that something which truly makes a teacher, which is  a natural disposition you’ve been born with and that cannot be apprehended on books. Somebody might object that this could be the same for any job, but, of course,  I disagree. If you don’t search that sense of gratification that you achieve when you arouse the pleasure of understanding in others’ minds and if you cannot communicate your passion and the genuine intent to involve them, teaching will make you miserable for the rest of your life.The necessary effort of understanding those minds means being aware of the fact that, as students grow you must grow with them, thus accepting to re-invent yourself, your style, update your  language and ready to put aside what once was useful, as generations change and quickly. All this should not be felt as frustrating, as it often happens, but rather, challenging. But still, it is not on books that you learn it.

Teachers should be above all charming people, let’s use a more trendy word: sort of “influencers” and this is incontrovertible to me. Enchanters, mentors and leaders at the same time with the great ambition of making students enjoy what they learn rather than just do it. I dislike those pages on the web run by the same  teachers, where we are mostly described as ill treated, underpaid miserable bunch of people, in a form of a joke. I don’t mean they are telling lies, of course, a lot ought to be done and spent on education, but reinforcing the common idea that teachers are losers doesn’t make really any sense as nobody wishes to emulate a loser. We should set the example, but a successful one. 

We won’ t be considered more just saying we wish to be so, we must act, create another story telling, which is the truth for most of us actually, that is : even if there is neither big money or success, teaching is a privilege and a great one. And when we are attacked on our few prerogatives like, for example, having two months of holidays every year, rather than feeling guilty and be on the defensive, acting like losers in the effort of explaining how much time we spend on extra work, grading, burnout danger and so on, take my example and reply : ” I am sorry, but you are wrong, I have THREE months of holidays and even more, since our mayor has taken the habit of closing schools, when it is likely to rain!” This kind of explanation allows me also to kill two birds with one stone, as it could be for many a very good reason to choose another mayor next time; after all being a little subtle constitutes an essential part of being a teacher.

Hence, if you keep complaining and truly believe that what I have said so far is not required or essential, trust me, choose another profession,  if you don’t want to make yourself miserable for the rest of your life; if you feel underestimated, please change, you are still in time ; if you are hungry for money and success, go away, especially if you are young, the school is not the right place for you, if you are looking for popularity, why choosing the classroom as stage, when there is the vastness of the web; if you have all or only some of these ambitions and you still want to be teacher, your working life will be like hell.

So long the selection procedures of teachers will be focused mostly on knowledge rather than personality or attitudes, so long you believe that attending training courses may be a remedy to deficiencies in character, thus making a good teacher, I am afraid, you’ll only have a teacher. Schooling needs new life blood that only strongly motivated, passionate, brave educators can give, but those ingredients can’t be found on books, but in their hearts.

Party Time!

I’ve always thought that video making could be a very effective tool in teaching, in particular in teaching a language. It can help any student to break the ice, to get used to the impact you have, when you shift to a language which is not your own. Being able to say, even a few words, before a camera, cannot but build one’s confidence and teach anybody to fsce their natural shyness. My greatest obstacle had always been, actually, to find a group of student daring enough to do it. Maybe I was a step ahead of my times, as, when I started prosoping this kind of effort, the reaction I received was always the same: ” You must be jocking“? I was not, but looking at those incredulous eyes, I didn’t feel like exposing those adolescents and the insecurities of their age on a video, so I did nothing. For a while.

But time goes by. The new generations are now used to watching and being watched, posting their photos, videos or stories on social media, but I realized that times had actually changed, when the answer to my usual proposition turned eventually into a: “Why not?” Since then, it has been easier and easier to involve students, who have learnt to use their favourite means of communication even for school activities, giving way to their bondless creativity and skill. At this time of the school year, when our lazy summer days and beaches are in sight, ( or at least we hope so, as we have had a “springless” spring so far), I usually organize a big school party to celebrate the achievements of the students and on this occasion we also enjoy watching their videos and award the best productions. Since they have become so many in time, we have found more convenient to build trailers with some parts of the movies made by each class, thus avoiding any risk of boredom and having the maximum of fun.

After so many years I am still amazed at the genuine creativity of students, that is why I wanted to share with you this year’s trailers, so that you may give a look at them, if you wish. Let’s start with the youngest. They are about 15 years old and I guess they shot about 30 videos about literature, grammar teaching and even some commercials:

https://www.tinkenglish.it/youteach/2A_2019.mov

The next are about one year older and they made free interpretations of Shakesperian tragedies and ballads, this year’s Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene was particularly effective and the best actor awarded played the role of Juliet wearing a flashy pink wig :

https://www.tinkenglish.it/youteach/3A_2019.mov

This other group of students, who are about 17, 18 years old, filmed many versions of Darcy’s proposal from Pride and Prejudice and the beginning of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Some of them are second only to the Iron Maiden’s interpretation in matter of creativity:

https://www.tinkenglish.it/youteach/4A_2019.mov

And this was the movie that ended the ceremony which included them all:

https://www.tinkenglish.it/youteach/2019_you_teach_finale.mov

I know, it is the proud teacher who is writing this and very likely looks at them with the eyes of love, but how could I feel otherwise?

The Parable of the Iguana

ig2I’m a shopaholic. I’ve learnt I suffered from this disease, when I first read the whole Kinsella’s saga about shopping. Whoever thinks it is all about fashion addiction, he may prove wrong, as, actually, it’s all about the thrill. The thrill of finding and owing the perfect pair of shoes or bag, which matches wonderfully with the perfect outfit. It is that thrill. And for the sake of that emotion we lie first of all to ourselves and to the people we interact daily, saying that we do need it, that we cannot do without it and, of course, it will be just the last time. I will not be so. The psychological traits of Becky, Sophie Kinsella’s heroine, may seem absurd and comic at the same time, but they are actually real, so real that when my mother read “I Love Shopping”, she commented reproachfully :” it seems she knows you”.

ig4However, in the opulent western societies the word “need” is not exactly what it meant years ago, as the powerful messages and stereotypes, we are bombarded with through medias every day, confound us to such a degree, that we find hard to distinguish the difference between what we want and what we need. Do I really need that brand new pair of shoes, the 85th pair in fact, or do I want it? Can I truly live well without the last technical gadget? Do I really need it? We slowly become addicted to that intense but short emotion of possessing the thing of our dreams and as soon as that moment of pleasure and satisfaction burns out, we need to replace it quickly with another one even stronger that might fill the emptied space of our soul and on, and on, and on. Till nothing will be able to satisfy us one day. Just like that iguana.

ig1Which iguana? I guess you would say, in case you ventured to read this post this far. Well, few years ago I made a fantastic trip down to Costa Rica. We drove along the Pacific coast, till we reached the most renowned national park of the country: Manuel Antonio. The scenery was breath-taking: tropical white sandy beaches surrounded by a luxuriant, wild nature. We decided to explore it all in the quest of the most beautiful beach. It was August, so after an hour of walking under the heat of the sun of those latitudes, we were so sweaty and worn out that we decided to stop. The nearest beach was named “Puerto Escondido”, well, it wasn’t actually the most dazzling one we had seen, furthermore, the sea bank was mostly inhabited by hundreds of huge colorful crabs and iguanas, but we were so tired that we resolved upon stopping anyway. When the crabs sensed our approaching steps, they instantly disappeared in the sand, leaving large holes in the shore, but the iguanas didn’t move. They stood there not at all intimidated by our presence.

ig5After a refreshing swim, we lay down on the beach to rest and sunbathe. The iguanas had kept on observing us motionless like greenish prehistoric statues. After a while, I decided it was high time to fraternize with the hosts of that secluded place using the universal language of food. As I had some Pringles with me, I approached the nearest iguana and I handed delicately one crisp. After some long seconds of immobility, the inanimate creature attempted a move, craned its neck, smelt the Pringle and gave a small bite. I regarded it a great success.The iguana devoured the first, the second, the third crisp and seemed to be wanting for more. I was very proud of my experiment, but a French tourist, who had seen the whole scene, came by and told me, well….he actually lectured me, that iguanas are vegetarian, that they are not used to salt and that with my “feat” I was destroying their sense of taste. Once tried those strong artificial flavors, they wouldn’t have gone back any longer to their usual, now tasteless, food. I was mortified and instinctively hid the body of crime behind my back. He, then, went away and, of course, I didn’t dare give another Pringle to the poor iguana, which kept on imploring me with its eyes for some more. However, every now and then the words of the French tourist echo in my mind and I have come to the following conclusion: we are nothing but the iguanas of a society that feeds us with artificial emotions, thus creating addiction for the sake of profit. And you know what? Even if now I am fully aware of it, well, it won’t be enough to cure my addiction. No, it won’t, that’s the problem.

On Beaters, Wooden Spoons, Belts and More….

More and more often I come across posts praising those instruments of torture which have characterized our childhood and early adolescence at least. I myself have clear memories of having experienced the entire set above and even more, as my mother – a woman half my size, who was in charge of my corporal punishments – used to throw on me whatever she found at hand, if she couldn’t have any of the above educational tools with her. I can still see the heavy, Murano glass ashtray flying towards me. She just missed me an inch that time.

The comments to those posts or pictures shared on fb are the most interesting part, as almost all of them detect a new phenomenology which is spreading among the parents of today who, actually, were the beaten children of yesterday. Those tools of awe, in fact, seem to have become in their memories sorts of magic wands in the hand of enlightened educators, who were our parents. The words are mostly  of comprehension and warm gratitude, even with a touch of melancholy.

 Now, I understand that time alters the impressions that events leave on our mind – or skin – so that we remove the worst part of it, but I would like to ask a question to all those nostalgic admirers of past and stricter systems of education:  if you do believe they worked, that somehow they helped you find the right way or become stronger,  if it is so, well, what prevents you from using them? I’ m not suggesting that your wooden spoon should become again your educational totem, it wouldn’t work and you would look like nuts, besides, there are a lot of laws to protect your children in case of injuries inflicted and THEY know it well.

The point is that today’s parents seem to be at a loss. I remember a comedian, who effectively summed up their psychological state saying that they have been the first generation to have been slapped both by their own parents and their children too. This is not far from the truth, actually, but why has it happened? What have they done to deserve such a treatment? Modern parenting has given up the idea of punishment as educational instrument in favour of a milder approach, the “let’s be friends approach” and this is very likely the core of the problem, as this orientation – and here is the observer/teacher speaking – has generated lots of confusion so far.

Educators, whether they be parents or teachers, cannot be friends of those they mean to educate. We can be friendly and listen, encourage and help, of course, but we can’t be friends, because our role naturally prevents us from being so. I know that many of you may object to this point and are ready to tell me the hours you usually spend talking with your children with – you believe – great satisfaction and success. Sorry, but  I’m afraid you are deluding yourselves. There is a line between us, a line that we adults for many reasons often pretend not to see, but it is always very visible to them. Can students be truly friend of a teacher, that is, someone who eventually judges and grades them? And for what concerns parents, do you believe that your children forget, while you are endeavouring to talk to them choosing the kindest and most loving words, that you are the one from whom depends their chance of having a new smart phone, money, Playstation etc.? That’s the line.

Trying to be friend to avoid a generational, educational conflict is a great mistake, as that conflict has always been important for the definition of characters. Growing also means to question or fight those figures whose task is to guide and teach. It has always been so. And you know what? They’ll admire your firmness , eventually – not so soon, I admit – , just like we ended up thinking our parents like heroes, forgetting the effect of the weapons the used to be so on us. They were not afraid of their role. We should do the same, unarmed, of course.

Mrs Tink Did Not Win The Big Apple

We are going to New York. This is what my husband Mr Run texted me about three months ago. Why? When? I thought. It sounded all so strange, as we had never talked about it before and he is not the kind of man of sudden decisions, unless he has got everything under control. In fact, the text ended with a link. Ah, there it was. Again. It was a link to a brand new contest named “Italian Teacher Award” organized by Model United Nations and one of the major Italian newspapers: La Repubblica. One of my colleagues had already sent me that link a week before and I had promptly put it aside after a quick glance. It was about describing in a text of about three thousand  words characters one’s own educational project, or even more than one, afterwards, the projects of all the participants would have been examined by a Judging Commission, made up of personalities from the Italian culture and school, according to the parameters of didactic innovation, originality, impact on students, integration of disadvantaged students and repeatability. The chosen six would have won a didactic trip to New York.

Didactic trip to New York? It sounded like a sort of oxymoron to me. Didactic is not exactly the word that I usually associate to New York. The prize consisted in a tour of those schools which are renowned for fighting school drop-out, promoting integration among students or those which are active in terms of technological innovation. As for the accommodation, I had full board guaranteed in a SINGLE bedroom –so, WE I would have gone to New York. Now, let’s speak plainly, I belong to the Sex and the City generation! Had I been awarded with such a prize, I would have expected to enjoy whatever New York could offer in terms of trendy restaurants,clubs, shops  etc. and, as a winner of such a contest, to lodge at the Four Seasons. At least. Should I go New York to visit schools? It sounded more like a punishment than a real prize to me.Yet, how could I disappoint a husband for whom I am not a teacher, but THE teacher? So, I did take part to the contest, eventually, with the only aim of…. winning it. I am quite a competitive sort of person and I would have felt more than satisfied just winning it. But I did not.

I set to work and wrote a passionate text where I described my project, which was more or less a synthesis of some of the themes and episodes I have already dealt with in this blog. “What do you think about it? Can it work?” I asked Mr Run. After a while, he proudly replied: “Now there are just five prizes left…..only, it seems a bit too long!” “Too long? They said 3.000 words and I have not even reached 2.000” He was right. It should have been 3.000 characters long, spacing between characters and punctuations marks included. Certainly, describing an extensive and integrated project in 400 words rather than 2.000 and keeping the same effect, well, it is not such an easy task. After the resizing it sounded poorer – having, of course, the original in mind – so we decided to add an explanatory slide. As I couldn’t find a way to make it any better, I submitted the project and kept my finger crossed. It was November 30th 2018.

Tomorrow, January 14th 2019 the award ceremony will take place at Auditorium della Conciliazione in Rome  and we don’t even know when/if it starts and the names of the winners. Actually, the other 715 participants and I have understood to be among the losers, as nothing has been communicated to us so far. Nothing has appeared on the web page of the contest, which has been dead since December 7th, nor have we received an informative mail. I guess it shouldn’t have been that difficult – if we consider that we are talking about United Nations and La Repubblica – to write a mail, the same mail, to the other 716 teachers, kindly informing them on the result of the contest: “Thanks for joining in. Try again” would have been enough, if you really didn’t know what to write. We have not even been invited to the ceremony, but surfing the internet I have found an invitation card directed to the Italian association of principals, thanks to which I could be acquainted of the fact that everything will start at 5:00 p.m., while originally we were told that it was at 8:00 p.m.. As I live in Rome, had I decided to go the ball, like Cinderella, I wouldn’t have found anybody in.

Teachers matters, recited the contest notice, but as always, the devil is in the details. If we mattered, we would be treated with the respect we deserve. I prefer facts to empty words. Yet, who is to blame for all this? My husband, of course. That’s why I told him that I will never recover from such bitter disappointment till he takes me to New York himself. Next summer would do. In the meanwhile let me see, if I can book a room for two at the Four Seasons!

 

 

It is a Truth Universally Acknowledged

Never leave the old road for a new one, if you don’t want to take the risk of dealing with unexpected situations and this is a truth universally acknowledged for me. I’m writing this, as, few days ago I meant to introduce Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in one of my (many) classes, but I felt like doing it in a different way this time. I wanted them to focus on the opening lines of the book, so I assigned the following homework: tell me which is a truth universally acknowledged for you in 200 words. Of course they didn’t know whom this line belonged to and I never mentioned the name Jane Austen. Just asking. The name would have been revealed only afterwards.

Of course, they were puzzled and attempted to understand what I was actually expecting. None of them was crossed by the thought that those words might belong to somebody and “google” them. I thought them smarter or maybe I was too good at hiding my purposes. By the way, after a little hesitation I started to receive answers. Some of them considered safe to produce the truths universally acknowledged of the world and the universe like:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that the speed and position of a subatomic particle cannot be known. This concept can be found in the “Uncertainty Principle” of Heisenberg……”(Umberto P.)

Is it really so? I don’t know and I didn’t mean to check it. Another one attempted to give a scientific demonstration in his way:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a  50 cc scooter  is slower than a 125 cc  scooter…” (Vittorio F.)

Then all a sudden the answers took the form of universally acknowledged Italian truths, which mostly regarded pizza, pasta and family:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged  that when you cook carbonara pasta, a poor dish of the Roman tradition made with eggs, bacon, pecorino and pepper, you  ABSOLUTELY don’t need to add onions.” (Andrea R.)

Actually, there has always been a dispute on this point and I agreed with him, no onion in a good carbonara is required. Even with the following truth I agreed:

” It is  a truth universally acknowledged  that pizza and pineapple cannot be a good match … Pineapple is a fruit and YOU CAN’T PUT FRUIT ON PIZZA!!!! . A good pineapple is sweet and juicy and I think that Italian people will never appreciate a taste like this.” (Flavio F.)
Fruit on a pizza is absolutely blasphemous, we do prefer mozzarella as topping. Ah, I’ve got one about it:
 
” It is  a truth universally acknowledged  that mozzarella cheese, should never be kept in a fridge….as the low temperature alters its flavor”. (Fabio D.B.)

Words of wisdom indeed. And what could be said about the following one?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you go to visit an Italian grandmother, you have to eat a lot. Even if you’re on a diet, you can’t leave that home without having swallowed whatever she has prepared for you. It has always been so and I think we all love it. When you arrive, as your grandmother opens the door,  you can smell all the food she has prepared for you. It seems impossible, but even if you tell her that you’ll go to visit her only two hours in advance, she will be able to cook for an army. It is a grandmother’s power. Many of us go to have lunch at her home on Sundays, others go to visit her rarely, but it doesn’t matter. What really counts is her happiness when she sees you and her special attention that only a grandmother is able to give. Moments like this are the ones that describe better the word “family”. Moments like this make our adolescence amazing. Family is the most important thing in our lives.” (Eleonora R.)
This was more or less the tenor of their answers, do you think they would annoy our dear Jane?

Few Tips that Will Make any Teacher Happier and More Relaxed

The web is flooded with pages of teachers who keep on complaining about how badly our category of workers is considered. We have lost our prestige, wages are low, we have become the favourite targets of scorn of both parents and their children, in a word: losers – with a university degree – . Let me tell you my dear friends and colleagues, that this is what we are, because this is the way we behave. In the desperate effort of gaining back the consideration we imagine to deserve, we have accepted to condescend to any form of compromise and customization of our profession. We try to be what they want us to be, with the only result of becoming all a sort of Monsieur Malaussène, that is, the scapegoat of any situation. Look at the above picture well; we don’t have to please them and beg for their approbation, we don’t need their compliments and gratitude, it’s our job, and once you have no expectations of this kind, you will be free to do as you please, according to the plans and targets the school and yourselves have decided at the beginning of the school year, of course. So, first of all, let’s close all those pages where we picture ourselves (we do it, pure masochism), as a bunch of beggars always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. We are teachers. We are Gods.

Hence, as I promised, I am going to give you, some tips which have made my life as a teacher happy and relaxed so far. First of all, knock on the door of your principal’s door as little as possible. Whatever your reasons might be for asking personal admittance, unless it is strictly necessary, refrain from doing so. Very likely you would like to make the principal acquainted with your problems and this is exactly what school managers don’t want to hear about: problems and in particular your problems. Theirs are enough. They want solutions. It would be a very good thing, for example, if your principal forgot about you existence. Think how many things you could do, if you were an unseen presence in the school.

Excuse me, you are?”
“Mrs Tink!”
“Oh, yes! Of course.”

Another moment of great frustration in a teacher’s life is the P/T conference. We expect this day to inform in particular those parents whose children have manifested some difficulties and find solutions together. It seems all for the good, but it is not. The point is that,once again, we come with a load of problems they, actually, don’t want to hear about. First of all, because they already know them, even if they pretend not to and also because, in way, we judge them through their children’s effort and behaviour. They feel uneasy about it and I can understand it. So, every time a parent like Mrs Mother of Riccardo comes to talk to me, her attitude will be like the one who is just preparing herself for an ultimate duel. The air of someone who has just a little time to dedicate me and that inevitable scowl on her face. Now, if I attack her, making the list of my complains, she will defend herself and her son, thus the meeting will turn into something useless and disappointing for both. But if I start with some positive remarks, and if there aren’t any, conceive one, trust me, a harmless, sweet lie, just like this one:

“Well, you know, Mrs Mother of Riccardo, your son is……..very nice and…….I like him very much”.

You’ll see soon her face brightening and that scowl disappear in a second. In the following minutes you’ll be able to tell her whatever you like about her son. She will accept it with a smile.

One paragraph cannot but be dedicated to our relationship with students. Please stop to befriend them on Facebook, Instagram or text them on Whatsapp. They are not  your friends, you may have a friendly attitude with them, of course, but they can’t be your friends and you know why? You grade them. They see that invisible line between you and them and whenever you feel like ignoring it, encouraged by their seeming cordial attitude, and decide to cross that line, you will become their object of scorn in their secret pages, where the access is denied to you. You may befriend them one day, if you do wish it, when they leave school.

As philosopher Umberto Galimberti says:

“If a student  becomes are a friend of yours, you no longer have any authority on him. And what about the teachers who go to have a pizza with their students: are you kidding? I have taught for 51 years, I have never gone out for a pizza with students. Because if you are God and eat pizza, you are no longer God! God is famous because no one has ever seen him!If you are there at the table with them you are one of them! That’s enough! It’s over, your authority is dead! How can you go the following day to your class, after having spent the night talking nonsense at a table with a piece of pizza in your mouth. You cannot anymore!”

I want to be God, what about you?