One of the most interesting things about teaching is its inherent element of unpredictability. No single day is like the previous one, no single class is like any other, no single lesson is like another, and of course, no single child is like her best friend. As a result, what we teachers bring back with us from each lesson is different as well. However well prepared we are, there will still be something there to surprise us. It’s a given.
Take for instance the introductory lesson of The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 9 in a single class of grade eight. You can be sure that a third of the class will go “Oh no!” when you utter the name ‘Shakespeare’. An odd girl or two will lean back, head tilted slightly towards the window with its stunning view of the midday desert, her expression clearing stating, “I’m sooo bored!” Then there will be a few who whine, “Ma’am, I tried reading it, but can’t understand a word… Why can’t he write in normal English, Ma’am?” Then there will be a couple whispering excitedly somewhere in the second last row – you know they have something on Shakespeare that they are dying to share with you and the class. But then, if you’re lucky, you will be pleasantly surprised to find this one girl sitting wide-eyed and silent, eager to be transported into the world of poetry and drama that’s awaiting her in the pages of her literature reader.
By the end of the lesson, you are prepared for the fact that they’ll be competing with each other to display their mastery of Shakespeare and all he has to offer. You are prepared to be bombarded with truckloads of info on the private and not-so-private life of the Bard; on the rise, fall and re-rise of the Globe; on Portia, Ophelia, Macbeth, Hamlet, Shylock – and of course The Romeo and The Juliet; on the 2000 odd words, phrases and idioms coined by Shakespeare. You are prepared for opinions, their own as well as borrowed, hitting you from all sides like little darts. For the PowerPoint presentations, posters and quizzes ready and waiting their turn. For costumes and scenes enacted with gusto… And then somebody will bring a wide grin to your face when she shyly produces a brand new, leather-bound copy of ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare’ which she has already started reading. Those are the things that give you the adrenalin high that makes everything you put into teaching worth it. You know that for the rest of their lives, Shakespeare will be their own man.
There are times, though, when you feel completely inadequate and wonder what on earth you’re doing there. As you know, I ‘visit-teach’ Leadership lessons occasionally, and I have an on-going session in one of the schools in the neighbourhood. Within the first ten minutes of the first lesson, I gleaned that all was not well in that particular part of the world – there were real issues that were either being sidelined or ignored. When, at the end of the first lesson, I tried to bring it to the notice of the people concerned, the response was lukewarm. One hour once a week for a limited number of weeks doesn’t give me the time to do anything worthwhile about it either. So, very selfishly, I decided to do my job and move on with life.
A couple of days back I had a lesson with them on ‘Attitude’. As a part of the lesson, they were to enact displays of both good and bad attitude in given situations. As mentioned, it’s a challenging class to handle at the best of times, but this particular activity unleashed something in them that has stunned me completely. The first group to come to the front of the class was supposed to enact a scene which depicted a boring talk going on and their reaction to it. The ‘teacher’ started his boring lesson, and the ‘students’ started reacting to it. They threw paper planes, whistled, shouted out…the usual, expected things. And then came the climax. The ‘cool’ guy of the class decided to kick the ‘teacher’ when his back was turned! He repeated it a couple of times more for sheer effect, and I thought it was time for them to come back to their seats. My considerably loud teacher-voice, however, was drowned in the uncontrollable laughter that had erupted in the classroom.
I finally got them to settle down, and the second group enacted a scene on the road which, after the first one, seemed very mild and positive. We moved on to the third where a girl brought her iPod to school when she was not allowed to. The ‘teacher’ questioned her about it, and since she was displaying bad attitude (and probably inspired by the success of the ‘cool dude’), the ‘student’ decided that slapping the ‘teacher’ on the face was the right thing to do! Her acting got the reaction it had aimed for. When I was finally able to make myself heard, I asked them if this was how they really displayed bad attitude towards their teachers. There were quite a few hasty denials and ‘No, Ma’am’s that came as a relief to me. A couple or two had the grace to go silent and hang their heads. But there were also nods and comments like, “Priyesh (name changed), the ‘cool’ one from the first act, has actually done it, Ma’am”, which were hastily hushed up. By then the period was up and I left the chaos with a heavy heart.
Never before in my life have I come back from a lesson feeling so utterly defeated, and I have been brooding since. Having auto-programmed myself to review every lesson I take, good or bad (there have been quite a few not-so-great ones too in my history), I usually manage to learn from them and make the necessary adjustments in my head for the next lesson. This once, however, I have no idea how to go about it. Where do I start? What do I start with? How do I fit what I have to say into these pre-programmed hour-long sessions? Most importantly, how do I make myself heard in the pandemonium? I have no idea.
Or…maybe I’m trying to do what I’m not cut out for? As a friend once told me, each of us has our own area of gift and talent – and maybe mine is not this. Maybe it’s time I bowed out gracefully and focused on just teaching nouns and verbs and argumentative essays, with a bit of life-skills thrown in here and there. On getting my kids to create and evolve. Together, slowly…