26 Mar The disappearing teacher
Just before going to university, I realised that working during the day for thirteen pounds an hour was better than working during the evening for six or seven pounds an hour, so I forged a CV and took a CELTA*. I was a teacher at the age of nineteen. Then I went to university twice, (the second time a forty-hours-plus-a-week drama school), took over a decade’s karate and ju-jitsu classes and continue to do a bunch of improv classes. I’ve been in a lot of classrooms for a lot of hours. I am a connoisseur of good teaching.
I also place demands on myself to be constantly investigating and improving, and that can make me unforgiving. When I am taking a class with a new teacher, I can be a right dick. OK, (part of me says) what have you got? How would I have structured this differently? What pedagogical model are you using? It’s not fair, fun or useful, but it’s what happens, so there it is.
A couple of Fridays ago I took my CBT* with Dave from Off The Curb. Dave used to work in marketing and is, I guess, in his fifties. He has the scruffy hair and bandanna of a Harley owner, loves bikes and loves sharing his love of bikes. He is also a very good teacher. He is unassuming, charming and clearly really, really cares.
To my mind, the key to great teaching is balancing two things: encouragement and feedback. Without encouragement, feedback is dispiriting. There is always something wrong with what you are doing and always something to be improved. And without feedback, encouragement doesn’t mean anything. Sure, I may be doing great, but what am I doing great at?
Fictional portrayals of teachers often concentrate on one half of it and not the other. Robin Williams in, well, all of the films where he is a great teacher is always 100% inspiration and 0% actual content. He’s too busy teaching people to stand on tables and flip the bird to worry about the skill he is meant to be teaching. Then there is JK Simmons in Whiplash. All shouting, frowns and infernal red lighting, he is the break-you-down-and-that’s-it stereotype of the generation of arts teachers above me. He is the kind of teacher that provides no encouragement at all. If you want to learn from him, you need self belief so strong that it is almost a mental illness.
(And sure, you could argue that watching someone learn the difference between the first and second conditional is pretty dull***, but to that I would counter: maybe getting our expectations of learning environments from films like this is like getting our expectations of sex from pornography. We have to be careful of the internalised expectations it can create. It is important we don’t entirely navigate the real world through fictional portrayals of it.)
Because in the end, no one can actually teach you anything at all. Not in the I-know-kung-fu kind of way. They can merely provide the environment in which you can teach yourself. Which requires a balance of the information you need to improve your skills with the warmth and support to help you take risks and forgive your own inevitable mistakes.
Dave is like this. This is the throttle, he says, this side is the front brake and this the rear and this is what they are for. Hold this down to start the engine. There’s not much more to it than that. Now there are some cones to go round, keep your eyes on me as you go. In a fit of symbolism, once we are out on the road, Dave rides number three, at the back. And when Marta, Karim and I leave, we are buzzing from the feeling of going through traffic at 40mph, excited by getting to the right place on the road to take a left turn, fist-bumping a well-timed blind spot check.
Which is the sign of a great teacher. In doing their job, they disappear as the student gradually gains in power over the world. If you leave a class thinking about the genius of the teacher, you have been duped. If you leave the class pleased with what you did and excited by what you might do, you have been educated****. I can’t wait to get back in the saddle.
*Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults
**Compulsory basic training: the stage of the certification to ride a motorbike. Yes, I am heading towards an early mid life crisis.
*** “If it rains, I’ll take the train” vs. “If I were you, I would take the train”.
**** Which would be my superhero catchphrase.
We’ll miss you, Nursery Theatre Broadgate. But we’ll be back very soon.