Those Who Can’t Teach

For those of you who read one of my latest posts about moving to the Netherlands, you’ll know that I recently began a job as a teaching assistant at an international school in the Hague. For those of you who didn’t, well, now you know.

I began this new job after the new year, in early January, and I’ve just had my one month workiversary, which feels surreal. It’s been great so far, and I haven’t had a bad day yet. I’m a TA* in year 6, working mostly across two classes, helping (or at least trying to help) students with maths and English primarily, because this accounts for the vast majority of the curriculum, but also with subjects related to science and global citizenship. My role involves setting-up displays (which is probably my weak point, as I have no sense of style, and am medically colour-blind), printing and trimming worksheets, and laminating, but entails primarily floating around the class after the teacher has introduced the topic of the day and helping kids better understand the concept in question. I also hold workshops on maths, handwriting (which is delicious in its irony, considering that my handwriting looks like that of a drunk five-year-old with frostbite, writing with their opposite hand, whilst doing corkscrews in a fighter jet, in the middle of a tropical storm, whilst blindfolded. On an unrelated note, I also help teach various features of writing, such as hyperbole), reading and comprehension, and grammar (although we haven’t gotten to learning about the Oxford Coma yet – or common spelling errors that completely change the meaning of a phrase or sentence, for that matter!).

*which stands for ‘Teaching Assistant’, for those of you who aren’t in the biz. Not to be confused with: Tel Aviv, capital of Israel; Taranto, a province in Italy; Tages-Anzeiger, a Swiss-German-language newspaper published in Zurich; ‘Total Annihlation’,  a 1997 computer game;  Travelcenters of America, a North-American truckstop chain; Territorial Army (of the UK or India); or Texian Army, a revolutionary army of the Republic of Texas. There are just so many common points of confusion!

Prior to this job I’d never worked in education before. My only relatively relatable experiences were tutoring a girl in year 8 in maths back in Cardiff for a couple of sessions, and teaching a lesson on the subject of my home country of Wales in a high school in Delft in December, as part of a voluntary scheme. In fairness I haven’t had many jobs in my life, or many long-term jobs, so there hasn’t been that much opportunity for me to work in education. I’ve worked in Sports Direct, I’ve been a marketing and communications intern, I’ve been a university open day ambassador, and I’ve worked at a cinema. I’ve had various other odd-jobs, but those were the only ones that were consistent and lasted for a significant period of time. Despite this lack of experience, I do honestly have a passion for education, which is one reason why I feel very lucky to have gotten this position. There are several other reasons, such as my lack of directly applicable experience, the difficulty of getting a job in which Dutch isn’t a prerequisite, and the type of organisation that I’m working for. But education is something that I’ve always been interested in, for as long as I’ve been thinking seriously about my career. It’s something that I think everyone, when they really think about it, is passionate about as well. We are all significantly affected by educational policy, by the curricula of whichever country we grew up in, and probably equally, if not more importantly, the teaching style and approach of our teachers.

It’s a trope that you remember and are thankful for the good teachers, the ones who made an impact. A good teacher can make you passionate about a subject, any subject. For instance, I will always be grateful for my GCSE Physics and English teachers, Mr Morris and Mr Jones. These were people who were passionate about their subject, who had an intimate knowledge of their subject and were highly competent at teaching it, and who inspired a similar passion within you and made you want to work hard for them, because they earned your respect. It was these teachers who drew my attention to how influential a good teacher can be on your future. This is also true for the bad teachers, but in the case of teaching I find that the positive examples are more instructive than the negative ones.

Education is so important. It’s important not only for one’s professional future, but for your personal development as well. Teachers aren’t just tutors, they’re role models. They can have an enormous influence on how students behave, or how they view the world. In the case of primary school, they spend about thirty hours a week with students, and those repeated interactions matter. I’ve noticed how different classes have different “mini-cultures” within them, largely as a result of the teacher teaching those kids. Of course, there are exceptions within the class, but it’s clear to see the impact that a teacher can have on the behaviour and attitudes of the group. I’ve come to realise that children around the age that I’m teaching currently (10-11) are still extremely excited about the world, are extremely impressionable, and strongly seek approval from authority figures (at least, the ones that they respect).

I don’t think there’s any crazy science to being a good teacher (I’m a teaching assistant, but for the sake of convenience I’m going to use ‘teacher’ as shorthand, and though I realise that there is a clear distinction between the responsibilities and qualifications required for each respective position, I think the qualities that make a good teacher and a good teaching assistant are largely the same). Of course you need to actually know and understand what you’re teaching, but I think equally as important is your demeanour. I treat the students that I teach just as I would anyone else (minus the expletives, obviously, though there have been a few close calls). I speak to them like they’re adults, I don’t patronise them. I’m friendly, enthusiastic, encouraging, and pretty easy-going, or at least I try to be. Now, this isn’t to say that I try to be “one of the guys”, or “down with the kids”. There’s obviously a power dynamic between us: I’m the teacher and they’re the student, but I try to highlight that disparity as infrequently as possible, because I don’t necessarily think that it’s necessary or even useful to rub that in their faces at every available opportunity. I want them to feel relaxed in class, because I feel that this is the most conducive atmosphere for learning. And by relaxed I don’t mean so relaxed that they’re not concentrating, but relaxed in a way that they aren’t distracted, or worried about making mistakes, so that they can concentrate purely on the task at hand. I want them to feel comfortable enough to ask questions or to let me know when they don’t understand something. I also want them to be themselves around me, and not worry that they have to behave in a certain way for me to not tell them off. Of course, there need to be certain standards in class, and in school generally. You sometimes have to protect them against themselves, for the sake of their education, and the education of their peers. Kids around that age can get quite excited quite easily, so you need to manage the energy in the room sometimes, and remind them of the expected standards in order to refocus them. Although I want to be someone that is approachable and liked, I am also more than willing to enforce the law and change the tone of our exchanges when necessary. I remember when I first had to raise my voice in class. It was during lunch break, during which I supervise the students whilst they’re having their lunch, before they go outside. They were getting a bit loud and I’d asked them a few times in my normal voice to keep it down a bit. They hadn’t really listened, and I was new, both to the job and to teaching, so I was a bit nervous about how to go about it, but after a short while of deliberation I resolved to raise my voice, so that it cut across the room, and asked sternly if everyone could keep the volume to a reasonable level. They all agreed, and it was fine from then on. Of course, I’ve had to raise my voice since, and one instance of getting stern isn’t going to set a precedent and change their behaviour forever, but it’s about not being a walkover, and about reminding them of the environment, of (again) the expected standards, of the authority hierarchy in the class, and reinforcing the credibility of your deterrent, that is, that you’re willing to tell them off if necessary, and if it persists, send them to see the deputy-head. I don’t really get personally offended when kids misbehave when I’m around. Although it’s annoying when you’ve asked them do something or not do something several times and they don’t listen to you, I know that it’s natural at their age to get distracted and excited and to try to find boundaries, and test those boundaries when they do find them. Teaching is largely about both gaining and making sure not to lose respect. If you are unreasonably strict with students then it’s likely that they’ll both come to distrust you and lose respect for you. Conversely, if you show them that you’re reasonable, that you care about their wellbeing and their education, and that you know what you’re talking about, you’ll gain increased respect, and they’ll be more likely to listen to you and trust you. This is what I aim to do with the students, because, at the end of the day this is the best thing for both parties involved. I want to have a positive impact on their education and in their personal development, and this is best achieved if they trust and respect me.

In every lesson, and in particular in every workshop that I run, I really try my best to be empathetic and encouraging. I want them to feel both understood and confident. I really try to reinforce good behaviours, particularly when they’re making progress or when they’ve demonstrated a good work ethic. I want to show them that I’ve noticed what they’ve done, and also show them that I believe in their capabilities, because for me, that was huge when I was growing up, when someone that I trusted and respected said that they knew that I could do something. Patience is huge in teaching as well, I feel. I’m a slow learner (which is probably a euphemism for ‘stupid’) and it takes me a long time to learn anything. This is probably exacerbated by a lack of confidence in my own ability and by an anxiety that comes with trying new things, which creates a performance anxiety that distracts from the process of learning, but I do think that I am objectively bad at learning new skills, or acquiring new information. Because of this, I need a lot of time and practice in order to learn something new, and if I have an instructor I need a lot of patience and understanding. When I was learning to drive I was such a nervous driver, the entire idea terrified me. I went through four driving instructors, and failed my test twice before passing the third time. With my second instructor, who had been my brother’s instructor, I ended up just ghosting him after a few lessons because, for some reason or other, I didn’t feel quite relaxed when I was driving with him. I’m not proud with the way that I dealt with how I felt, in fact, it’s something that I really regret, and was a real sign of immaturity*. I should have just been honest, but I’ve never been good with having difficult conversations, but it’s something that I’ve worked as I’ve grown up, and I like to think that I would do things differently if a similar situation arose. If I ever join AA then I’ll probably write him a letter apologising for the way I behaved. But the point is, because of the way that I know that I was as a kid, I do my best to try to make the students’ learning experiences relaxing and, and therefore, hopefully, productive. I want them to be able to be comfortable with making mistakes, and feel that it is a safe environment to fail, and know that I won’t be angry or (too) frustrated if they don’t get the answer right first time, or the second time, or the third time, or the fifteenth time. But I also challenge them, and let them know that I expect them to be able to learn whatever it is that we’re focusing on on the given day, because I know that every single one of them has the capacity to do so. You want to be able to balance compassion with expectations, because although you want to understand that the process of getting from A to B isn’t always immediate, you need to instil a confidence in them, and establish a norm of achievability with regards to the curriculum. I firmly believe that nothing that they are learning is beyond their capabilities, and I tell them as much. I also try to instil a sense of accountability within them, because they’re old enough to know that they should respect both mine and their own time, because there’s a mutual responsibility in education: a responsibility on the part of the teacher to teach well, which generally means putting in a requisite amount of effort, with the correct techniques, and with the appropriate demeanour; and a responsibility on the part of the student to actually focus their attention on the task at hand and make an effort to learn.

*on a somewhat funny note, after I ghosted him, I began driving with my mum – which was a terrible idea as she is a ridiculously nervous passenger driver, which didn’t put me any more at ease – and when I eventually took my test a month later, I turn up to the test centre, nerves already at 100, and it turns out that my old instructor also had a student who was taking his test that day. I see him as we drive in, and my heart starts pounding at the prospect of an excruciatingly awkward encounter, full of stumbling words, and unmet gazes. As I pull out of the test centre with my examiner, I catch my old instructor’s eye, in a millisecond seeing the intense disappointment and confusion that lay deep within his soul. I’m pretty sure that was the moment that I failed my test (obviously not according to the test report, but psychologically speaking)

I’d say the thing that I’m struggling with most is explaining concepts in a simple, digestible way that the students can understand. This has been the biggest learning curve, trying to gain an understanding of what the best methods are for teaching concepts like fractions and percentages, concepts that seem so intuitive to you and I, but concepts that, actually, are not necessarily innate, and are oftentimes completely foreign to students in junior school. I’ve made an effort to try to put myself on their shoes, and imagine what it’s like to start from a blank slate, with no prior knowledge on the subject, but it’s difficult. It’s difficult to imagine not knowing that 1/2 is the same as 50%, or that in order to find 3/4 of 60, you have to divide 60 by the denominator (or, the number at the bottom), and multiply the result (is there a more child-friendly way of saying ‘product’ instead of the long-winded “the number that you get when when you do that”?) by the numerator (the number at the top). Ultimately, education is about concepts, and it takes a while for the neural pathways to form that allow students to learn these concepts, and the only way of facilitating this is through reinforcement through repetition, which requires patience on the part of the teacher.

I’ve of course by no means perfected my craft, but I am consciously making an effort to to improve every day, or at least to do as well as I can, because that’s what the students deserve from me, and from everyone that teaches them. I feel sincerely privileged to be in a job that allows me to do something truly meaningful, and I’m committed to giving it the effort that it deserves. I go into work every day with the intention of making someone’s day better, of making the students’ work environment more productive and conducive to learning, and ultimately, with the goal of making a student feel more confident within themselves. Confidence is half the battle. If a student is confident in their abilities, and their ability to learn, then that sets them up better for learning. Doubt is a vicious cycle, and I’ve seen several students with an obvious capacity to learn, but whose doubt and lack of confidence clouds their minds, and gets in their way.

In many ways, I’m in a similar position to the students. As I’ve said, I’m also on a steep learning curve. I need to learn the best ways of explaining these concepts to students, and then put those into practice. But I do feel that, slowly but surely, I am getting better, and I’m really enjoying the process. I feel like I’m learning my times tables all over again, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be useful whilst I am learning. Education is a two-way street, which has certainly been the case for me so far, and I’m looking forward to learning even more over the next few months, and to doing what I can do make the lives of the kids that I’m helping to teach more enjoyable and their education more fruitful. I’m just extremely fortunate that I’ve got some very patient students who’ve been enormously understanding with me whilst I’ve been trying to figure this whole thing out. Lord knows how they do it.

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