On Teaching

There is a famous story in my family (since said family is me and my parents, the notoriety afforded to me by this story has never interrupted my day-to-day life) about a visit to the Isle of Man when I was five years old. At the castle we were visiting, there was a mock medieval fair in full swing. In my mind we had simply walked into a magical world, something not much more remarkable to me than an event organised by the Isle of Man tourist board. I trooped between actors playing knights and serfs, swains and wenches. My mum and dad were amused by the seriousness with which I listened to these drama school graduates and asked me why I paid attention so closely. I replied that it was important to to know these things as I was going to have to teach them to my children.

Eyes on the lecturing prize before I’d even started school.

Anyone who knows me will recognise why I like this story and why my family like it too. I once lived with a pal (then a very good artist in training, now a very good artist) who used to terrorise the gullible with idiotic questions along the lines of, ‘Are the Rolling Stones a band?’ or, given that he and I were both studying art history, ‘Does the National Gallery show paintings?’ Time and time again I was caught by these little gems because – and here’s the quiz competitor truth (that’s me, top row, second from the left) – if I have any knowledge on the subject I cannot leave an asked question unanswered. Five years of academia did not train this propensity out of me. At all. Art history is almost always an educated guess, and with twenty years of education, I sometimes feel I have the right to take a guess about anything.

This hunger for question answering made me a keen pupil, a slighly-over-contributive-in-seminar-situations student and, more recently, a teacher. I hesitate to choose an adjective to describe what kind of teacher I am. I’m not even sure which words would make my cop-out compound adjective. But, since someone (me) has asked the question, ‘What kind of teacher are you, Ishbel?’, someone (me) has to answer it. And since I have been breaking things down into memorable lists for pupils, let’s continue the trend with a selection of answers:

1. An overly-talkative teacher

This particular problem is twofold (subject heading, sub-section heading):

a) I like chatting and am in danger of being lead by a class or pupil down a merry path of chit-chat.

b) If I feel out of my depth, my go-to teaching solution is to explain, even when the best learning solution is to do.

The first of these is something which I have to keep an eye on in other areas of my life as well. As a director I want to keep things friendly and relaxed but still moving along. As an actor I can find myself turning into a chattery child waiting to be told off, and then hating it when I am. Even when the chat is about the play and entirely relevant, this is a bad habit which just needs stamped out.

The second problem is slightly more integral to my teaching practice and comes directly from my wish to answer all questions. Every class is a massive question, be that ‘how do you play high status?’ or ‘how effective is parliament in controlling government?’ And while I would never, and I stress this, never pretend to know stuff I don’t, I have a tendency to start with words.

I learn by talking and being able to discuss things is very important to my mental process. However, as shocking as this might be after so long in education, I am not the primary learner now. Also, often I am teaching acting, which must be done by doing, trying, failing, doing, trying, failing etc. As I work more as an educator I feel less afraid of letting kids try things and fail them. Now, you do have to watch, as there is always the potential to scar a teenager for life (oh, teaching). When this doesn’t happen, though, trying something again and again will help students understand better than just listening, no matter how eloquent you are. Or, Ishbel, no matter how many inarticulate noises accompanied by hand gestures you use. Grnshli?

2. I’m a teachum

Listen, I know that teachers who try to be too pally are NOT COOL. I am not unaware of this. But I think (I think) my circumstances mean that the balance is slightly different with me. Saying that, I did once recognise the song ‘That’s What Makes You Beautiful’ that a group of girls were sodcasting in a school corridor and I said, ‘Oh, a bit of One Direction for lunch.’ I then dived into the library for cover before my not-coolness-for-trying-to-be-cool hit home. In a school corridor an adult is always a teacher, but, despite the title of this blog, I’m not normally a straight teacher. Normally, I am working one-to-one, or with a small group, or as a ‘facilitator.’ I am always ‘Ishbel’ and never ‘Miss McFarlane’, and not because I am ‘the groovy young teacher’ (I’m not, see accompanying image for details) but because of the structures in place at the organisations I work for. In the work I do, things go better when it feels like the students and I are working together towards a shared goal. It’s better for them as their opinions are valued and I absolutely have to listen to what they say, and it’s better for me as I don’t have all the answers (see above). I also learn blimmin loads from teaching. I can now get all up in your Secondary Market Research Data grill having tutored an AS in Business Studies.

Another reason for being a teachum is undoubtedly my mother’s teaching style. My mum has been a teacher for nearly forty years and, as a pupil at her school, I have seen her approach first hand. Unlike me, she works as a full-time classroom teacher, as well as doing learning support and speech and drama on a more individual basis. I never find myself more like my mum than when I am with pupils. Her classes are scattered with nicknames, affection and running jokes. She considers her pupils to be her friends, a belief borne out by the number who keep in touch with her. She can, however, be freaking terrifying and there is always a gentle line between teacher and pupil. This gentle line helps things get done and stops riot from running all over the Shakespeare posters.

In summary: I like people. Children and teenagers are people. I find it difficult to treat them as little task-fulfilling machines.

3. I am a reflective pedagogue

As this post will testify, I tend to think a lot about what teaching is. In the year and a half since I started doing this as a means by which to put houmous on the table, I have never left a lesson/session without wondering what my job actually is. Am I there to pass on my knowledge? To get them ‘out of their shell’? To get them a good mark in this paper? To let them enjoy learning and foster in them a love of education? To reassure the parents? To make them good citizens? To squeeze them into university regardless of their preference?

I am aware that these aren’t particularly original questions, and the fact that I am very new to this game is a big factor in the prominence. But I also know that my mum still asks them decades in. Despite my numero uno point as a teacher, questions are clearly as important as answers. But they shouldn’t, and don’t, grind my work to a halt. I don’t think any of my questions will have the answer ‘teaching is malicious – stop doing it’ and so, as part of my brain works on those existential quandries, the rest of my head gets down to the serious business of finding engaging ways to unpack the gender politics of A Doll’s House.

4. I am a teacher who loves teaching

I am not in a classroom teaching for six hours a day and marking and planning for eight hours a night. I have only worked with kids who have, in some way, chosen to be with me in the classroom, rehearsal room or kitchen where we work. I have never had to manage thirty kids ‘interacting’ with equipment/acid/bunsen burners. I know people who have done all of these things – most of them working for Teach First. I currently tutor for six different organisations; from widening university participation in schools in Glasgow’s low income areas, through one-to-one tutoring in pupils’ homes, to international summer schools of bright and motivated kids from all over the world. The variety is absolutely wonderful. I have taught in English, drama, history, politics, social studies, business studies, creative writing, life sciences, film studies, and, miraculously, maths. By far the worst things about the breadth of my work are the travelling and the uncertainty of employment. A six-week contract is the definition of financial security and I have to stop myself from running into a bank and getting a mortgage, just because I can (except, of course, that I can’t). But I love teaching in church halls, classrooms, living rooms, lecture theatres. I also know much more about what it’s like being a taxi driver. My advice, based on stories heard from the c. 40 who’ve shuttled me in the last year: don’t be a taxi driver. End of message.

5. I’m a teacher who isn’t just a teacher

When it was census time last year I, like most of my pals, had a dilemma. I was a few months out of an acting degree. Having abandoned academia (for now) I had decided to do theatrical creativity full-time. While I was doing a lot of theatring, as one would expect I was not making a fortune from it. As one might not expect, I was not making a single penny from it at all. I was making money from teaching and working with folk with dementia (an occupation for another blog).

So what should I describe myself as in my one wee box? I chose the horribly 2000s term ‘theatre maker.’ though I know I have friends who wrote ‘waitress’ or equivalent not-for-my-whole-life job in the hope that researchers of the future would be amazed to see the famous actor was once a lowly barmaid. But I am not ashamed of my teaching. I once heard an artist quoted as measuring his success by the fact that he had never had to teach to make money. But I like teaching, and I think it is highly important work. I was brought up by a woman who used to say to her save-the-world daughter, if you want to make a difference, teach. I just about make a living from it (for some of the year), but it is simply not the only thing I do. Because of all this, answering the standard dinner party question, ‘and what do you do?’ is a crunching haul of self-justification, defiance and embarrassment. Am I an actor who also teaches and directs? A teacher who also makes theatre? Does ‘tutor’ make me sound more like Septimus from Arcadia and less like Edna Krabappel from The Simpsons?

So here’s the definitive answer (as of 4.15pm, Thursday 19th April 2012):

I do a whole bunch of things. By trade I am a theatre maker – I do acting, writing and directing – but I also love teaching and tutoring and so I do quite a lot of that. Oh, and I work with people with dementia. Oh yeah, and I often work on my family farm too.

Ok, wait. Give me a second and I’ll get you a better answer.

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3 thoughts on “On Teaching

  1. I love this post. Very englightening on many levels, and an inspiration to teachers of all makes and models. The census may demand a concise answer, but clearly you’re just being Ishbel. Which is great.

    1. Thanks, Jay. I was thinking of you SWUST teachers as I wrote it as well. Teaching language learners is a whole other ballgame and one I’ve fully to try out yet. There are so many aspects to the job that it feels like it shouldn’t have just one title. This isn’t even all I wanted to say, but given it was already 2000 words and I actually talk about talking too much, I kept relatively schtum.

  2. I’m glad you’re not ‘Miss McFarlane’ in class, I don’t think I’d like Mrs/Miss used in class either. I’m just Ailsa, or occasionally, hilariously, ‘Professor Ailsa’, I should stop them really 🙂

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