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?

 

 

 

 

 

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Peering into Young Minds

I’ve recently come up with the idea of  having my students write some stories. I’ve always enjoyed to stimulate their creative side and I have never been disappointed, whatever the request has been, with the products of their inventiveness. I thought about organizing it in a the form of contest, according to the spirit of the previous post, so I decided that each student of one of my classes (average age 15) had to write the beginning of a story of about 100 word length. After having chosen three (or more) among them, the students would have written their sequels adding a minimum of 100 words. No student was allowed to write the continuation of the part he had written, he had to skip a turn, but he was allowed to add new material to the other stories.
In the end, groups of students would have worked on the stories for the editing and to provide them with the necessary structural cohesion.

After I read all the students’ pieces I found myself in trouble with the selection of the three best, as they were somehow very alike. As I was looking for three different topics I chose for the following beginnings:

“On a cold and windy December day. Nothing was going as it was supposed to be. Jacob was tired of his work and he just wanted nobody to bother him, therefore; he quickly changed himself, put on his running shoes and went for a run in the park. He was running thoughtlessly when suddenly…”

I thought there were many hints: Why was nothing going as it was supposed to be? Why didn’t he want to be bothered? Was he a runner too? Here comes the second one:

“The girl ran. She ran blindly through the forest, with only the light of the moon to guide her, alone and afraid, cold and hungry. She ran fast, as fast as she could, even though she had nowhere to go. She ran, her bare feet cut and bleeding, her hair streaming behind her, a flash of bronze and reddish tangling in the bare branches overhead. She ran without stopping, and each time she fell she got back up, once, twice, three times, again and again and again, more bruised and battered than before but still alive, still breathing. Still running.”

Once again somebody was running. The wood had become a forest here, but this time she was escaping: from where? Why? I thought it interesting as it could have turned into a sort of fantasy story. The last one was a little different:

“Gary, a police inspector, arrived at home after an endless day of hard work. As soon as he opened the door, he noticed something weird. He saw two notes on a table. On the first piece of paper there was written the name of his wife and a strange picture of a padlock. On the second one there was a telephone number. He was shocked. After a few seconds the phone started to ring.”

That could have become a sort of thriller, I guessed, but I was wrong. Whatever the start was, mysterious creatures, dark presences, strange women filled the following episodes becoming thus all a sort of fantasy stories. I even wrote an episode myself in order to make it all more realistic, but no way.

So I decided to publish a fourth story. I had discarded it at first, as I thought it too complicated to continue it. Here it is:

“I didn’t exist. A moment later I was there. I couldn’t know how it was possible, but I was alive. The first thing I saw was a white marble table in front on me.
I tried to move myself, but I couldn’t. I tried to shout, but nothing came out. I was full of fear, but I couldn’t tremble. A couple of minutes later, a human being came toward me. He touched me. Suddenly in my mind there were billions of
numbers. In that moment I understood : I was a
computer.”

It was Kafkaesque in a modern way, maybe that’s why I liked it. By the way, I was right, only one episode more has been added and nothing more (Do you have any ideas?).

I decided to make this project in another class too, but even if they were a little older the setting and characters were the same: woods, forests, islands, deserts and to the list of the characters above mentioned, I could add even a torturer.The world they pictured in those few sentences was gloomy, peopled by strange creatures and dangers everywhere. Nobody thought about subjcts like family matters, friends, school or even love. Not a word. But why?

On one side I may guess that at their age they are rightly ashamed to speak openly about feelings like love, for example, but on the other that depends on what they watch and the series they are fed with. They mostly enjoy fantasy stories and their scary, threatening atmosphere which is full of anxiety and distress. The gloominess of that world seems to have affected them in some way, so that they apparently are no longer able to imagine positive emotions, the beauty of nature, the light.

I’m resolved about writing myself a beginning of a short story and it will be about love. Let’s see what happens.

The Patience of a Fisherman

Subiaco is a charming little town on the top of a hill. The perfect place to go if you want to escape the noise and the confusion ( and the dirt) of such a big city like Rome and feel like living in the contemplation of those beautiful surroundings for a while. There is a rich, flourishing nature and amazing views, which make it fit for walks; you can also enjoy a visit  to the spectacular Abbeys of Santa Scolastica and St Benedict. It sounds like heaven, I know, but that heaven has always been the bugbear of any substitute teacher living in Rome and in its surroundings. Being very distant from the capital, it means you need to move there and live in that sort of holy hermitage for a year. And it snows heavily in winter. Apart from the distance, the point is that I am a sea creature, accustomed to the warmth of the sun and immensity of the sea, how could I have endured an entire year alone on the top of a hill, surrounded by snow?

A call came to my aid. I was offered a one year contract in a school nearby. It wasn’t exactly kind of school I was used to teaching, but one whose majority of students is not fully aware about what they ought to do and why. Literature was not of much use there, apparently. By the way, I had escaped Subiaco.The afternoon I came back after my first school day is still impressed in my mind. I went straight to my bedroom, I laid on my bed staring at ceiling wondering: ” What shall I do ?” “An entire year like this?”  I had bartered the exquisite, holy permanence in Subiaco with the chaotic, undisciplined noise of that school. I did deserve to rot in that hell. What would I do? I have to say that in that period I felt a sort of a Roman Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie “Dangerous Minds” and just like her I needed time to be familiar the overall situation and understand the primary law of teaching : never count on the support of principals.

In a school there is always a boss among students, a leader who is respected, intimidating and very popular and that student was in one my classes, let’s call him Riccardo. I guess Riccardo must have been 15 then, a plumpy boy with lots of earrings and spiky hair. He always looked at me with his black, defying eyes and often made me the target of his mockery. Of course, every time he did something annoying ( let’s say 5 times in two days if I was lucky), I wrote a disciplinary note on the school register and proudly took him to the principal, who happened to be a former English teacher. The last time I took him there, she scolded him once again and sent him back to his class. I was about to follow him, but she made me a sign to stop. When the door was closed, she said: ” Do you mean to fill the entire register with your disciplinary notes, Miss Tink?”

Since that day I knew I could not count on the principal’s support, and having learnt that disciplinary notes are a sign of weakness rather than of strength, I thought: had I made Riccardo respect me, I would have gained the respect of all the others. Maybe flattery could have worked.I started to talk to him in a more friendly way and tell him about all the marvels and the importance of learning English. I told him how his life would have changed, he would have found a good job and travelled; he could have seen the world and escape his harsh reality, he could have been, why not, a steward ( after a good diet, of course), Fiumicino airport is very close from where we live and……as I kept telling him this sort of things, he kept on looking at me with his interrogative eyes and put an end to that flood of nonsensical words with this statement: “But, Miss Tink, I will never leave Ostia!” Ostia! I was prospecting him a grand future, I was offering him the world and he had said he would have never left Ostia, as if his real world began and ended in Ostia – an area of Rome – ; he couldn’t even think of Rome or Italy. Humbled and defeated,I understood that if I wanted to survive that school year, I could only rely on my imagination, breaking the schemes, just like Michelle had done.

So, one day I came up with the idea of dividing the class into two groups, or better in two teams and give them the glorious names of universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, for example. I appointed a team leader for each group, and told them that every grade, every activity would have been turned into points to be added day after day. At the end of the school year, there would have been a big party to celebrate the winning team and the best students with cups, medals, diplomas. As soon as I turned myself into a teacher referee, I realised I had gained an immense power. Everybody wants to win and once you accept to be part of a team you are no longer responsible for yourself, but for the team as well, that was my trap. If you miss one test, for example, your team will score less and that might be decisive for the final defeat. Therefore, I soon noticed that nobody skipped tests any longer, but above all everybody wanted to take part in the competitions/tests I did every day. They could be the heroes of the day. Effort had turned into fun.

Riccardo had become a burden for his team and had lost much of his influence over his mates. He wanted to have their attention back, of course, but unfortunately (for him) by means of the most unheroic deeds. One day, for example, while their mates were working on negatives and questions, he decided to zip up his parka so that his head could not be seen and yelled: “It’s hot in here!”  Noboby said a word or attempted to laugh for fear of having points deducted. It was my triumph, but I wasn’t satisfied.

One day Riccardo arrived a little late. Before he could reach his seat, I attempted to set the bait one more time and said: “Riccardo, come here. If you can write the conjugation of “to have” on the blackboard, I’ll give you……..20 points”. It was a very generous offer for that challenge and he knew it. He took the piece of chalk, advanced to the blackboard and gazed it for a while. Nobody said a word. There was a solemn stillness in the air. It took him almost five minutes to write it down and every time he seemed to be on the point of doing wrong, I could feel the tension among his mates. He did it; eventually.The entire class burst into a loud applause. He was moved, happy, stronger in a more positive way this time.

Riccardo failed in all the subjects that year, all, but English. Today, when I think about those episodes, I cannot but thank him for having inadvertently contributed in making that school year was one of the most memorable of my entire career.

Is There a Future for Teaching?

April September is the cruellest month. It smells of sirocco, which with its warm breath and threatening clouds confounds the bright serenity of summer days thus foreshadowing the coming of autumn. There are still a few good days to be enjoyed of course, few, but they have the bitter taste of the awareness that something is just about to end. I guess this is the sort of melancholy which affects those who, like me, live by the sea, love the sound of the waves and looking out at the horizon. We are accustomed to live outdoor so many months of the years that home seems like a prison when September comes.

April Sempember is the cruellest month. In such a miserable state of mind the month begins with its most terrible mortal blow: teaching staff meetings. I believe that any teacher in any part of the world would agree with me if I say that the most salutary effect of summer vacations is: forgetfulness. Only few weeks and you realize that you have almost forgotten everything: papers, passwords, the inevitable conflicts you had in the past.  I am sure that two or three colleagues of mine must have given me reasons to get on my nerves last year, but actually, I can’t remember why at the moment and so I just say hello to them with a smile. That’s why before the first teaching staff meeting there is always a certain cheerfulness and excitement in the air, we are all tanned, friendly, light-hearted. Before.

April September is the cruellest month.The reading of the agenda of the meeting has the immediate effect of quickly awakening minds from the summer slumber and in that very moment illusory forgetfulness gives its way to memory and harsh reality. From the list of the issues to be discussed, school appeared to be a cautious bureaucratic system with no real identity or goal different from satisfying the wishes of families, who have actually become our customers and we know that customers must always be satisfied. So, if we don’t want to lose ground in the competition with other schools, we have learnt in time to dedicate a lot of our efforts in creating and customizing learning products, with the hope our customers might find them appealing, we have become travel agents, project makers, data analysts, advisors and what more! Is this what we wanted to be when we started?

April September is the cruellest month. After at least two hours of an endless discussion on school trips, on which destinations even the closest stations to go, hadn’t been all of us fully in such process of metamorphosis into somebody/thing we don’t know yet, had we had a shred of dignity left, we should have stood up and say, what has it all to do with me? And quit the assembly then. My friends, teaching once was a sort of romantic, generous job. Teachers were those who had the task of transmitting knowledge or better the curiosity of knowledge to generations. They made the difference, but now, if the nature of the activities we are involved into are often so very far from teaching, is it still so? In a time when information can be easily got on the web, if teachers no longer make the difference, why should society need them?

There are already apps with avatar trainers who teach how to work your glutes, abs, Pilates, Yoga, cooking etc. , I’m sure very soon they will be programmed to teach Latin, Math, History with customized lessons and looks as well. It seems that one of them has already been tested. His name is Will. So, my dear friends, if we accept to give up making the difference not only September will be the cruellest month, but also October and November and all the months of the years as the teaching system, as it is now, will have no reason to exist.

 

 

Copy,Edit,Paste.

We were very different from the students we teach, it is a matter of fact, but pray, when I say different I don’t mean better, just different. Making an effort to understand that assumption is, my opinion, essential, if we do aim at being of any help to the generations we are supposed to form. This epiphany came across my mind after the sixth school board meeting few weeks ago and after hearing for the sixth time in a row the same things: teachers complaining that their students are not able to develop any learning strategy different from memorizing useless notions which are usually soon forgotten and students complaining on the amount of homework and above all on the fact that they don’t understand what we actually want, that we should feel satisfied and praise them for the (pointless) effort they produce. At the end of these meeting each party goes home fully convinced to be on the right side of the question and the next day everything starts afresh.

Since I would like to try and work on bridging this gap between we teachers and our students, I will focus on what I consider the two most striking generational differences on which to ponder and a humble suggestion in the end. So, difference number one is: parents’ behaviour. Really, I do not understand. Whenever I have to attend P/T conferences, there is one common issue: since teachers give too much homework, parents feel somehow compelled to help their children do their homework  – if we are lucky – or they do it in their place. I’m wondering, this must be the reason why I didn’t have children, as, if after a day at work, you have to cook or look after the house and family and besides, there are your children’s homework waiting for you, well, it is hell. The parents of my generation never thought about doing our homework, for many reasons, but first of all because it was our duty and responsibility, however, they did check whether we had done what had been assigned, I can assure you and I have vivid memories about it and….bruises.

The second difference, of course, concerns the media. Being digital natives means not only that you have grown up online spending a lot of time on various social media, but also that you have developed the attitude of getting to information very fast and superficially at the same time. Messages must be simple, short, catchy  and whatever requires thought, pondered analysis is pushed aside as “démodé”. If this is the scenario, is there a solution?

Yes, there is. Learning proficiently is like making your own fix net of information and the new generations should actually have the effective digital native attitude, rather than the old Sisyphus one. Sisyphus was the king of Corinth who was punished in Hades by having repeatedly to roll a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll down again as soon as he had brought it to the summit, and this is exactly the 3 step learning strategy of most of my students have developed: study/memorize,forget,start afresh. That is why they always assume it is too much homework, because they keep on studying the same things they had forgotten, which, however, keep on surfacing even when they deal with apparently different topics.

The correct approach when you study is: copy, edit, paste. An example: if it took an entire hour to study 3 pages about the Magna Carta, I said study, not memorize, when you deal with the Petition of Rights, you’ll have just to copy the concept, edit it with the new protagonists and paste it. It will take 45 minutes this time. Furthemore, if your history teacher wishes to assign you homework on the English civil war, you already know the basic events and you’ll have just to do a little editing, hence 15/30 minutes will be enough to accomplish your task. If you studied the characteristics of English Romanticism and studied some poems, it should be quite natural to find the same issues when you study the Italian poet Leopardi, for example. In this way boredom and a great waste of time would be avoided. Homework is not your enemy, as all the time you spend on training in one of the sports you practice is not your enemy if you have goals. Working pointlessly and with no passion, that is your enemy.

 

 

Sublime is………………………

If you think about your entire working life, can you spot the most memorable
moment you have experienced? When did you feel to have actually reached the top? Well, in my honorable 25 year teaching career I have no trouble to say, that it happened a couple of years ago. The occasion was a lesson on Burke’s essay ” A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas the Beautiful  and Sublime“. The topic was quite challenging considering that the average student of that class was not much into philosophical debates on aesthetic dualism, but rather into erudite discussion on the best possible scheme to adopt for the next football match. On this they had no rivals and could speak for hours, in any language, if necessary. On such a topic, what kind of feed-back might I have expected?  Very likely the only one I could have had, if I had been in a stadium and started to discourse about the kind of emotions Beauty and Sublime may convey between the first and the second half of the match, I guess.

Whoever has ever read some of my articles is well aware that football is very important to me.  Whenever the subject of the post allows it, my football passion echoes between the lines. I am a supporter of one of the two teams of Rome, in fact: S.S. Lazio. Now, it happens that the class above mentioned, actually, belonged to the other club : A.S. Roma. You have to know this football dualism does not represent only the eternal fight between enemy factions like, Romolo and Remo, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, the Capulets and the Montagues etc. , but it is more. There are psychological traits that attract you on one side rather the other. The Roma supporters are quite dogmatic: they firmly believe that A.S.Roma is a sort of faith that cannot be discussed, but loved only. That is why they start the season with the utmost certainties of victory, which are regularly shattered after few months. The typical Lazio supporter, on the contrary, is more pessimistic, less dogmatic and open to bitter criticism. They are the yin and the yang of Roman football passion, in short. In  more than a century of disputes even the number of trophies won by both teams is quite similar: just a few. As a rule, if we take 10 supporters, 7 of them usually belong to A.S. Roma and  3 for S.S. Lazio, but in that class the presence of the latters was even below average : one out of 25, as far as I can remember.

Going back to Burke, at the end of the lesson, I could not actually make out the real feed-back, as I mostly saw dumb faces, which looked like masks, the masks of politeness they usually wore whenever they wanted to seem attentive, while they were actually thinking to something else. Therefore, I decided to assign a homework: choose a picture, a drawing etc. which represents the concept of sublime for you and write a comment; hoping they wouldn’t come up with a picture of a pizza Margherita. I had not considered that the day of the assignment, was a Monday, or better, the Monday after what we call the”Derby”, that is, the match of the matches: Rome vs Lazio.

We lost: 4-1 and it was the third time in a row. You may guess how unwilling I was to face all the jokes and mockeries that are the inevitable follow-up after a lost match and I felt that particularly those “scoundrels” might have prepared something. However, when I came into the class they looked a kind of indifferent: no shirts and scarves of their team or pictures scattered around as usual. Nothing. As I knew them well, I didn’t trust this apparent nonchalance and I decided to make some hints, just to excite a reaction, but in vain.  All I had in return was: “Oh, the Derby, yes, we won“.Stop.

So much the better. Since there was nothing to be said about the match I started to check the homework and I said: “Daniele, show me the picture you chose to explain your idea of Sublime!” “Of course“, was his prompt reply, but with an evil smile which I couldn’t miss. And there it was his Sublime. He had a sheet with a patchwork of images of the victory. There was a sneering captain Totti right in the middle and a big inscription at the top in bold : “Sublime is……..Roma 4 – Lazio 1″. As soon as I had finished to read it, I realized that all his other mates, even the girls, were exhibiting the same leaflet with a big smile. They had won, again.

 

Lost in Translation

class

If I were asked to single out a word that better mirrors the new generation of adolescents is: activity. The average life of a teen-ager must be active, marked by an intense schedule made of sport, courses of any kind, social life etc.; to be sure they are never alone, as they are in the constant company of their smartphones which, actually, seem to be stuck in their hands. This is “a truth universally acknowledged”, you cannot deny it, therefore; the school system could not watch indifferent and above all, be static to interact successfully with such dynamic realities, hence, to keep up with the (fast) times, myriads of activities of any kind have been introduced in any school  in order to make the educational “product” more attractive. Of course, as we have discussed in some previous posts, in a daily routine, thus conceived, there is no or little room for homework, that’s why we have recently seen the birth of many debates about it.

However; what I can see is a highly committed generation, but distracted, whose life seems to move faster as if they were the protagonists of a movie but in a fast forward mode. In such a mode you can just perceive things superficially, everything is consumed quickly, becoming thus soon worthless and meaningless while you keep on moving ahead unconscious of what you are doing and why. Of course, if you watch that movie in the normal pace you have the time to see, understand and even enjoy what and who surrounds you, but the real challenge nowadays is to stop. If you stopped that movie for a while, in that single shot you would be able to see the details that would have gone missing otherwise. In that moment you would find truth, intensity, beauty and even joy. Only stopping for a while. It sounds so Keatsian, I know, but I firmly believe it.

Now I am about to suggest something, I would have never dreamed to utter or think in my teenage years, that is : among school activities, the practice of translation and in particular the translation of Latin and Greek classicals should be given greater importance. I said it. It sounds so obsolete, I know, but it is a fundamental exercise that makes you stop for a while and ponder. I feel obliged to confess that since I started to study Latin in seventh grade it was “first sight hatred”, as I could not understand the reason why I should waste my precious time in such a tedious activity. Well, it took time, but now I know. The exercise of translating and translating classicals in particular, stimulates the ability of understanding and organizing data. In that effort of giving meaning and form even the sense of beauty is thus developed, in fact, the perfect choice of a word which matches harmoniously with the rest of the sentence is an act which can be accomplished only in a “slow” time in the company of thinking and beauty.This is the reason why those who have attended grammar schools are equally proficient if they decide to study scientific disciplines at university. I know it is not an engaging or popular suggestion, but, as the old bard said: “I must be cruel only to be kind”, they will understand the importance one day. I did it. Be kind!