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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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.

 

 

Flipped classrooms and videogames

flip1I’ve always had the feeling that school is just like a huge, everlasting video game. Think about it, every year there is a new level to pass and if you achieve a good score, you may even get a prize eventually. Step after step you see the finish line coming closer, till one day you manage to grab your diploma. At that point, you realize you’ve left your adolescence behind and you should be ready to enter your name in a new game: the game of adulthood. If you want to play this game successfully, you should be fully aware about what to do with all the “boosters” you have collected in those happy years: going to college, university or looking for a job, but do you really know it?

The fact is, that it happens more and more often to ask my students, who are about to leave the high school, about their plans for their incoming future and receive as an answer: “well, I don’t know yet”, even those who are highly proficient. Their confusion often doesn’t seem to fade even when they eventually go to university, as I am told that many of them slouch from one university course to another one for many months of years before finding something it might suit them, or quitting. Hence, what really matters is not the finish line, but how you get there and the kind of person you have become and good grades cannot be the only proof of your future success in life, for sure.

flip3The main goal of teaching should be the development of the personality and skills of students, first of all, helping them develop successful learning strategies, otherwise they could not be autonomous and fully able to grasp material without the support of somebody. Such a student will never be able to develop any enthusiasm for any subject, as his main concern will be only to pull through in any possible way. For example, he will study for the imminent test, employing himself in storing as much data as possible, data that will be  quickly forgotten as soon as the school day is over. A useless, frustrating effort. After all, if you are playing, a game of Farm Heroes Saga, for example, what makes you go to the next level, the strategy you have learnt after failing sometimes for days and days, or the exact knowledge of the number of apples, onions, carrots etc which were on that level? Good game, however.

flip5Internet provides us teachers with incredible opportunities for learning and one of our major task should be that of guiding them to the most advantageous use of such a powerful tool. Seven years ago, for example, I decided to create a website (tinkerbell.xooom.it), in which I stored all the material I found useful and attractive for my classes: information, links, on-line dictionaries and grammars, language platforms, dictations, games etc. It was just like my own virtual book, where they could find whatever they needed, but what I found particularly challenging was the fact that they were free to do the amount of work necessary for tests, exams etc. For some students 10 minute effort could be enough to understand a rule, for example, whereas others need hours.  I wanted them to learn how to manage their time and be responsible for their choices and I guess it has worked. I also wanted them to discuss about the things they learnt and on this purpose I needed something more “alive” and creative, that’s why I started this blog experience: to offer different perspectives and provoke discussions.

flip4I was a kind of surprised when I learnt that what I was actually experimenting was normally defined a “flipped classroom”, that is “ a form of blended learning in which students learn content online by watching video lectures, usually at home, and homework is done in class with teachers and students discussing and solving questions. Teacher interaction with students is more personalized – guidance instead of lecturing”. I became fully aware of that, after reading an enthusiastic article on “La Repubblica” few days ago, which praised a book  ” La classe capovolta” ( the flipped classroom), written by Maurizio Maglione a teacher of Chemistry at high school. Oh my Gosh,  I was a revolutionist and I didn’t know it.

I’m not a revolutionist and they are not revolutionist as well. This modern “flipped” vision of the role of teachers dates back at least to the eighteenth century when Jean Jacque Rousseau in his book Emile wrote that education does not mean merely imparting information or storing knowledge. It is not accretion from without, but the development of the child’s natural powers and abilities from within. He only couldn’t have Internet as didactic weapon. I’m sure he would have enjoyed it.

Threatened and humbled

hit5

Let’s admit it, we are scared. Teaching has become such a risky occupation nowadays, that our most urgent concern, believe me, has nothing to with education at all, but rather with our professional and physical safeguard. Why? There are two main reasons : there has been a shift of responsibilities from family to school for what concerns the care of the child, but at the same time parents find harder and harder to accept teachers’ judgements. Cooperation has become critical, that’s why nowadays everything is focused on communication, which unfortunately has turned out to be a major weapon to be used against teachers.

hit2Families must be accurately informed about school performances, truancy, behaviour (please pay attention to the passive voice), therefore it is our duty to inform them and not THEIR duty to come to school and inquire after their child. Even if we have parents/teacher meetings one hour a week in the morning with every single teacher and twice a year in the afternoon with all, plus informal communication via email, two report cards, well, this never seems to be enough.That’s why towards the end of the school year every teacher leaves everything off to provide the families with the most recent updating in order to avoid the drama, which despite all the effort is always inevitable, but above all the risk that the school might be sued for not having informed in due time.

The problem is that this tiring, bulky system does not work, because all these meetings are mostly attended by those families whose children have no real problems, while those who really have, rarely show up. They probably want to avoid the mortification of listening about their child’s (temporary) insuccess, which is felt either like their own or more often like the teachers’. It seems absurd, but it has happened that somebody deliberately left wrong telephone numbers in order not to be contacted. So when the end of the school year approaches, we start to feel that certain agitation that makes us worry more about form than contents. What really matters nowadays is whether we have diligently compiled, informed, signed , registered; everything but educating and forming the new generations. The truth is that we are missing the real object of our profession: the student.

hit 1When school is about to end, drama is always behind the corner. Those families that you haven’t seen for a whole year, suddenly materialize when they read that their child has failed. What you meet, then, is anger, rancor, bitterness that can become violence sometimes as it happened in Cosenza (south of Italy) only few days ago. The parents of a sixteen year old girl are summoned by the deputy head-mistress of a high school to inform them of the reason of their girl’s failure and to discuss learning strategies for the future. A normal procedure, in fact. At first it seems an ordinary teacher/parents conference but all of a sudden something changes. The atmosphere becomes more agitated so that the deputy head-mistress grows alarmed and invites the two to leave the room. The father, then, rushes to the door to bar the entrance and while the teacher struggles to find a way out, the mother attacks her from behind, makes her fall and once on the floor, grabs her by her neck and twist it with the intent of breaking her neck bone, while her husband is on watch at the door.The teacher attempts a reaction, but the father starts to kick her in her breast and stomach repeatedly till she faints. Then they manage to slip outside the room and leave the school unseen from a secondary entrance. When the teacher awakes, she has to be carried to the hospital and afterwards she sues the two. The girl has declared to be very proud of her parents’ doing as justice has been done.

Now, this is the end of the school year and maybe I am tired, but I cannot help but wonder how my life would be much easier if I gave high grades indistinctly to everybody. Wow. Everybody would be happy and relaxed. After all, if many parents don’t understand the importance of evaluation and don’t care about their children’s education, why should I? 😉