Thursday, 26 March 2015

Authenticity In Life Means The Classroom Too

Today, a group of students in my trainee teacher placement class told me that I was their favourite student teacher, and that they had informed their parents that I was very nice.  This was only my fourth day of placement with the class and at the time, I could not help but feel an immense sense of personal achievement.  One of my goals had been to create connections between myself and the students, as I see that as a way of facilitating the classroom.  When I mentioned this to my associate teacher, she warned me not to be too friendly with the students.  This raises an interesting question: in terms of relationships in the classroom, what is the acceptable distance between a teacher and their students?

I have to be me.  I cannot be any other person.  That was one of the hardest lessons of my life (along with understanding the need for self love) and my inability to be my authentic and true self, caused me to pursue a path and life goals that were not of my own making, but rather the path on which I thought I should walk.  When I am not true self, I can feel that life does not resonate with my heart, we are out of sync, and although the person I see reflected back at me in the mirror looks like me, inside I know that we are different.  Being true to yourself and true to everything in which you believe is not always easy.  We are all under extreme and intense pressures to conform, to meet the wants and needs of our parents, siblings, friends, peers, colleagues, and society in general.  We are bombarded every waking moment with imagery and ideas about what is the right way to look and the lifestyle to which we should aspire.  It's hard not to be persuaded when everything around you tells you the same thing.  These clothes, this hairstyle, these shoes, this career, this house, this mortgage, this car, this phone, these appliances, this scent, this watch, and on and on and on...  

In England last year, after some unfortunate circumstances, I dusted off the old life and I tried it on again for size, the one from which I had turned away from almost nine years previously.  I could still do it, I could go through the motions, I could see how I would be able to make it all work again, just as I had once before.  The job was not difficult, my colleagues were an amazing bunch, the business objectives were aligned with my own thinking, the commute (although a pain) was manageable, the pay was sufficient, and the perks adequate.  I rented a small but comfortable apartment within five minutes walk of the beach, close to shops and other amenities.  I bought a car so that I could make the commute to work.  Suddenly, after years of pursuing my own personal life goals and dreams, I was caught up in a different life, the one I had left behind.  As I sat, hour after hour in front of a computer screen in the office, I knew that this was not my purpose in life.  As good at the work as I might be, it does nothing for my pulse and for my passion.  I cannot find life by looking at a screen because for me, life is in the living, breathing, miracle of nature and in people.  That was the truth from which I had hidden from for so long before and I vowed I would not make the same mistake twice.  At least not unless I had no other option.

Here I am then, ten weeks on from leaving that job, that apartment, and that life.   I've just completed my fourth day of my first trainee teacher placement and I am dealing with life again.  These are lives that I can see, hear, and smell.  These are lives that are beautifully unique, each and every one of them, whether they know it or not, a living, breathing, miracle.  And I want them to know that.  That is why I came to teaching.  These are not just part of a job, something that I have to deal with on a daily basis.  These kids represent a fantastic opportunity, a chance to engage in their lives, and to hopefully make a positive difference.  Through our interactions with each other we will learn together, we will grow together, we will evolve together.  They will enrich my life, as I hope that I will be able to enrich theirs.  How can I disengage myself from that opportunity?  How can I partially close the door on that chance?  Why should I?

Of course, there is a need to maintain a distance.  The line of teacher and student must not become blurred.  I am certainly not looking to be a mate or a buddy.  Does that prevent me from making honest connections and sharing with them?  I do not think it does.  In all of my life, I have connected with people from all walks of life, the rich, the poor, the office cleaners, factory workers, secretaries, scuba instructors, executives, and all of those somewhere in between.  No one person is defined by what they do and it is an error in judgement to believe that someone is the job that they do, rather than the person who they are.  How do you know what is in their heart and their head?  What we do today is only the briefest glimpse into the story of our life, a snapshot of time that does not define who we are.  What defines us is how we act and whether we are brave enough to act in harmony with our true self, when everything around us tells us otherwise.  I cannot be my true and authentic self if I create artificial lines and barriers in the classroom.  I have to be me.  I know no other way.

Carl Rogers and William Glasser, two American psychologists, both adhered strongly to the view that authenticity in the classroom was a key factor in generating an environment conducive to learning.  They saw the role of the teacher as a facilitator and leader, rather than the boss type who simply laid down the rules and instructed.  I see that to get the most out of someone, you need to understand them, to know what makes them tick, what they like to do, what hobbies and passions they have.  This information is crucial in making connections with the students.  Not superficial connections for the sake of it, but deep and meaningful connections that show that you care about them - because you do.  If this is what I am doing, then I am happy with the situation.  As long as we can maintain a teaching and learning environment that observes the jointly agreed classroom rules, and is respectful, then I see no problem whatsoever.  If the students view me as a friend, then so be it.  I will be their friend for the time that they are in my class.  I will support them when they need it, I will help them when they need it, and I will tell them when they are wrong or out of line.  That's what you want from a friend isn't it?  That's what we all need.  These kids don't want or need someone busting their butts all day, they need a place where they can come and feel welcome, respected, and supported.

If I find that this does not work then I'll re-evaluate and I'll learn from it.  That's what life is all about.  We learn, we grow, we evolve.  It is the never ending process of what it means to be alive and to be human.  I am learning all the time, about these amazing, talented, and special kids that I have the honour and privilege of working with, and from everything that occurs around me.  I'll never stop learning and I'll never stop being the true and authentic me. If that means that teaching is not the job for me after all, then so be it, because I am never going to stop caring about people and wanting the best for them.

~ ~ ~
Love is not something that I do
Love is not something that I give
Love is not something that I have 
Love is simply all that I am
And I return love to the universe
Through the openness of my heart
And the authenticity of my words, actions, and deeds
So that it may cause a ripple, that creates a wave
That changes every thing, in every place, for all time.

Andy Smith, 26 March 2015

Monday, 23 March 2015

If Only Every Day Was Like This

Today marked a momentous day in my life.  It was a day that I approached with a mix of excitement and fear.  It was a day that had been a long time coming, a day that I thought would never come.  That constant nagging thought, the long held desire of my heart, the incessant calling that would never leave me, that urge to fulfill a dream... Now there could no longer be any doubt, no more debate, no where else to run.  The day of discovery had finally dawned.  Today was my first day of placement for my school teaching experience.

As the children filed into the classroom, I sat on my chair at the front of the classroom and I began to wonder whether I could do it?  My fear began to rise.  I knew that at some point, I would have to get up and go and get involved, to engage with them, and to begin to get to know these strange alien creatures who I was going to be with every day for the next seven weeks.  How were they going to react to my presence?  Were they going to ask me questions that I would not be able to answer?  Would they make comments and backtalk me?  These children were older than I had ever expected to teach.  In the English state school system, primary school finishes at year 6 (age eleven) and at this point the children move up to secondary school.  Now I was faced with a mixed class of thirty two year 7s and 8s, who made up one class of a New Zealand intermediate school, which is classified here as primary.  When I had discovered this was my allocated class for the teaching experience I had been thrown, as it was far from my expectation. At 8:50am this morning, I was well and truly out of my comfort zone.  Theory is one thing, I love learning, I lap it up.  But practice?  That's a whole new ball game, it's what truly separates the men from the boys.  As my first manager once said to me, "Cometh the hour, cometh the man!"

I did get up and I did engage with the children.  The fight was only in the initial standing up because once I had done that, I really had nowhere else I could possibly go.  That was the moment when I knew I would be alright.  I didn't stand up because I thought that I should, I stood up because I wanted to engage with the students.  I was deeply curious and I wanted to help and to begin to answer my life's call.

Walking over to the first desk, I squatted down between two students, lowering myself to their level, and asked them how they were getting on and what were they were working on?  They replied and showed me their work.  We talked about it, I asked if they needed any help.  One of the students was working on a cryptic crossword and couldn't figure out some of the words.  We looked at it together and puzzled over it.  I could quickly deduce the answer but I didn't want to tell him, I needed him to find it for himself because that was the learning experience.  I asked him to look at how he had solved some of the other clues so that he could see the pattern, then I asked him to look again at the clue he was stuck on.  The light started to come on.  It was obvious.  He verbalised his thinking process and closed in on the answer whilst I waited patiently and nudged him to keep going with those thoughts, because they would lead him to the answer.  Bingo!  There it was.  So, we tried another one, same process again.  I knew that this was it.  This was what it was all about.

I moved on, spoke with other students, engaged with them on their work.  English literacy lesson came to a close and the classes split into academic levels for maths class.  My associate teacher took the higher level maths group and the topic for today's lesson was complex fraction multiplication.  The students were set some examples to work through and I got up and went to visit the desks.  The first student I talked with was having some problems, so we worked through one together.  He got it.  I moved on and found another.  She got it too.  I was making a difference.  The teacher put up a really tough one for them all to work on.  I was with one of the students who was having some problems with it.  We worked it through together and although I was 99.9% sure of the answer we had, that 0.1% remained because it had worked differently from the others, not following the same pattern.  I sat down and crossed my fingers that when the answer came I had it right because I couldn't face knowing that I had taken a student down a wrong turn.  And when the answer came and with some relief I saw that I had been right, the student got up and walked over and high-fived me!  What a moment.

The rest of the day was similar.  I kept making tours of the class, talking to the children, helping where I could or discussing their work with them.  My high-five guy kept giving me a thumbs up during the afternoon.  It seemed that he was extremely happy with our maths problem solving and I think because we also talked about books (he's an avid reader). I used the time to make observations, to try to learn names, to figure out how each student ticked.  

At the end of the day, as they were filing out, the high-five guy came over to me.  "Thank you for the help today Mr Smith.  You're really interesting to talk with."  I was almost speechless.  I didn't expect this at all but I sure did appreciate.  "You're so welcome", I replied, "See you in class tomorrow."  What an end to my first day.  These are the kind of days that remain with you for the rest of your life.  I'll never again experience another first day of teaching experience, but I know that getting through has been truly significant and a momentous occasion.  I'm sure that not every day is going to be like this.  There are going to be some tough days ahead and some frustrating moments to come.  For now though, I can look back on my first day and smile.  Maybe not everyday will be like this but as long as I follow my heart, then I know that they are going to come pretty close.