Saturday, 20 July 2013

Syed: A Classroom Capital Case Study

KEY IDEA - As Herman dutifully plodded off to punish himself on my command, Syed called me over from the next table "Sir, Sir I need you." I plodded over for Syed as dutifully as Herman plodded over for  me. 

After my previous post, I had the questions I raised about favouritism lingering in my mind whilst teaching last week. One of my pupils, again and again, prompted me to reflect on how differently I treated him to the other kids, and to try and see whether this is a result of anything active on his part.

Incidentally, he is a Muslim pupil, and in searching for a pseudonym for him on this Muslim Boy Names thing, I found myself unable to select a name for him. This was a result of the names having their meanings beside each one. I settled on Syed, meaning always in control. Highly appropriate.

Syed and I have a particularly strong rapport. Partly this is because I do a lot of extra one-to-one work with him to boost his literacy, but partly it is just that we set off on the right foot in September, my mind was made up about him within days, and I have made a lot of time for him.

In the tone of these posts, please don't confuse honesty for arrogance: I'm being brutally honest as I feel this will help me reflect more openly, I'm not trying to lionise my behaviours.

A few key 'incidents' brought home for me how Syed is able to use his Classroom Capital to advance his own needs within the class.

During a particularly terse afternoon, in which behaviour standards had really slipped, I reminded the children sternly about not calling out answers and about not leaving their seats to get my attention. Instead, they should be talking with a partner and raising their hand if they wanted me.

As soon as the micro-lecture was over, one other boy - I shall call him Herman, because the idea of that amuses me - almost immediately got out of his seat to ask me something.

"Herman! I cannot believe you have just done that - you were obviously not listening to me at all. You need to stay in your seat once you have put your name on the traffic lights."

As Herman dutifully plodded off to punish himself on my command, Syed called me over from the next table "Sir, Sir I need you." I plodded over for Syed as dutifully as Herman plodded over for  me. It has become a horrible force of habit - honestly, it is as though he occupies a different category, along with a small number of the other kids, who have some weird unspoken exemption based on my own tardy inconsistency.

Syed can sometimes have great difficulty modulating his emotions, and can flip out over seemingly insignificant things. As a group of children, my class this year are not particularly stubborn, and I have worked on those who get stuck in a rut, refusing to come out. On Sports Day though, in which each class represented a country, Syed was the first child I caved to when asked about waving the giant flag.

Without wishing to dampen the spirit of Wenlock and Mandeville, I was getting pissed off with having the flag flapping in my face when I was administering teacher-face at people. After nearly jousting a volunteer through the head with it, I firmly told Syed that the flag needs to "be on the floor, and it needs to stay on the floor."

Syed immediately whipped himself up into a temperamental frenzy and sat by a tree-stump, his head so deeply nestled between his knees, he was turning into a ball. This is quite clearly a ridiculous response to a perfectly valid and polite request. His refusal to answer any questions about it, or even to look up, is an instance of abrasive and attention-seeking behaviour.

But because it was Syed, my motivations flipped around to trying to get him to smile again, so without allowing him to feel like he was being rewarded for his mule-like temperament, I devoted my energies to motivating him for his race, telling him how sad it was for him to be all glum in our final weeks together. He eventually came around - as well he should! - and then I was struck with the realisation that for the last 10 minutes I had been rewarding his ill-mannered disrespectful and completely unfounded behaviour.

"PERHAPS I'll let you carry the flag home if you are good Syed."

The smile returns.

"Thanks Sirrrrrrrrr"

And then it becomes clear to me that yet again I've been played, and I look around listlessly, hoping none of the other teachers witnessed the sorry spectacle.

I don't want to do a dis-service to Syed, as this post so-far makes him seem like a pathological psychopath - a master manipulator - but it is important to highlight the ways in which these power struggles between teacher and child can play out.

As all of the Sports Day nonsense went on, I had 29 other kids with me - some were tagging along trying to see what was up with Syed, but most of them just did as I had asked, which was to support their friends, chat with their classmates and to enjoy the sun. Where was their reward?

Nowhere, because the teacher was squatting next to a child who was fake-crying, and we both knew it.

I find this all very affecting and interesting, and will think more.

My main questions on this now are...

How did it get to be like this? 

Could any child end up having this sort of hold over their teacher, or is it specific to the nature of the child and the nature of the teacher?

(How) Does it benefit the favourite kids - or those high in Classroom Capital - to occupy more of their teacher's time?

Can a child 'deserve' to be a favourite, and can a teacher speak openly of having favourites without justifying themselves by talking of the kid's specific needs.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

'Classroom Capital' - Because teachers have favourites

Key idea - I don't think that children are the passive recipients of their teachers' favouritisms any more than they are passive recipients of the teachers' lessons. Children can be actively involved in the pursuit of their own self-favouritism

Reading @sparklyfran 's sweet and authentic blog titled 'A Labour of Love: My Favourite Pupil', seeing how she wrote about Raj left me thinking about favourites. Right from the offset on this topic, there is a slight unease. You can feel as though you're about to wade into a moral quagmire. I get the feeling this is some guilt-overspill from the misguided and unrealistic perception that good teachers are those who remain completely neutral, in order to be professional.

The fact is, kids' needs are not neutral, nor are their personalities, and nor are ours. It may not seem like it six weeks into an eight week term, but we are first and foremost human beings (second, teachers), and part of that ontological burden is our instinctive judgement.

I'll not deviate into any mock evolutionary theories, but just at a core and basic level, we make our minds up quickly about people. Sometimes they break that first impression, sometimes they don't, and sometimes they might not ever get the chance to dissuade us from that first impression.

The ramifications of this in the class are pretty clear to see.

Before giving my glowing account of my own favourite in a separate blog post, I'll say that I think being 'a favourite' to a teacher is one of the most useful currencies a pupil can own. This might seem common sense, when put like that, but when we think about the factors which lead to a child becoming a favourite - which could include practically any subjective bias - it becomes much more thorny. If a teacher was raised only with sisters and a mother, this might alter her perception of male pupils. If a teacher feels that they get on better with pupils who have experienced similar life events to them, then the 'pool of likely favourites' might end up being stratified by race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, whatever.

I'm putting forward a patchy theory of classroom capital - the currency of monopolising a teacher's positive attention. A child wealthy in classroom capital can enjoy certain advantages over his or her peers - perhaps more teacher-time during and outside of lessons, perhaps he or she will be given the benefit of the doubt more often if suspected of wrongdoing and, perhaps, 'the favourite' is the first name on the tip of a teacher's tongue if asked to select a child for extra opportunities.

I don't think that children are the passive recipients of their teachers' favouritisms any more than they are passive recipients of the teachers' lessons. Children can be actively involved in the pursuit of their own self-favouritism - for some it may become a driving force in their schoolday, for others, they might go out of their way to distance themselves from a teacher, or to be as invisible as possible.

In what I think is my favourite of all the amazing TED talks, Rita Pierson aruges passionately, from a lifetime of classroom experience, that relationships are at the heart of learning, and that the relationships between teachers and their children must be strong in order for optimal learning to occur. She summed it up as 'kids don't learn from people they don't like'.

Favouritism is to some degree reciprocal - the example of Raj from the Teaching Caesura blog is a great one, with the teacher's care for the pupil clearly mirrored by the pupils eagerness to spend time with and learn from the teacher.

Raj has asked me to adopt him, he dad has sent me in home-made curries and when I visited school he stood up and shouted “I f**king missed you!” with a big grin on his face. If he comes in in a bad mood more often or not I can change it and, to be honest, vice versa. 

 Maybe favouritism can be seen not as a teacher's inability to treat all pupils fairly but as an example of what tangible difference that one teacher is capable of making, at peak potential.

I know that with my favourite pupils, I have spent more time with them, experienced more shared learning with them, had more laughs, given more advice, had more deep conversations, visited more places (they get selected for more visits!), taught them more anecdotal facts about the world, taken more time to share and learn about each others lives, made more effort to support their family's involvement in the school... Perhaps seeing the benefit of this enables you to see how elements of your favouritist relationship can be channelled back into the teaching of a whole class.

The deeply interesting part of this, to me at least, is to question how much of a role is played by children's perceptions. How can an individual child work out how to improve the impression they are making on a teacher, when teachers all have different things that make them tic? Are children aware that they are a teacher's favourite pupil, and if so, how does that change the way they think about themselves? How does it change the way they learn?

 I have spoken broadly positively about the impact of having a favourite pupil (which I feel to be unavoidable, given how much time you spend with them) but still, if I knew that other children perceived me to treat one child better than another just because I liked them more, then that would make me feel uncomfortable. It reeks of wrongness.

For some teachers, it needn't make them uncomfortable, and in fact they might be able to justify their positive bias on grounds which are logical and fair to the non-favourites. A teacher can justifiably explain that they prefer the children who put in the effort in lessons. They can legitimately sing the praises of the pupils whose solid work ethic secures them the top grades, and those kids whose contributions to class are reliably strong.

The murky waters are that the rules of favourites do not always follow the rules of the class, this is certainly the case with me and my propensity to like the kids that other teachers think are rude, cocky, cloying, arrogant or annoying. What I see as my valid siding with the most needy kid could easily be perceived by those diligent children in class as me rewarding his laziness, or bad manners. Likewise, it could be perceived as me being 'overly soft' on a pupil who another teacher might treat with extra discipline rather than extra lenience.

See, although the kid who shouts out over me in class is breaking one of my rules, and this might genuinely piss me off or ruin my lesson, subversively it might actually be part of what I like about that child.

The child who follows every rule the teacher sets, who might act in complete loyal accordance with their teachers every whim, might actually be pushing themselves further and further away from their teacher's attention and affection.

I'm going to think more on this theory of classroom capital I've part-invented in my head, and I'm going to reflect on it whilst I'm teaching tomorrow. I'll report back, and also, I'll share the meandering 'Oscar acceptance style narrative of my own favourite pupil.

Read on about Syed, a pupil who monopolises the classroom capital.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

You got parred by Sir

This snippet is about Dean, a boy who is not called Dean, but who for the purposes of this post, shall be pseudonymised as Dean.

I was explaining to the kids that this morning they would be writing a letter of introduction to their new teacher, in which they could tell a little about themselves, share some vital facts and inform her of what their targets are going to be for the coming year.

Dean starts yelling over the class, and over me, about his own personal target.

I retort back - "Maybe you're target should be to learn when it is not appropriate to speak Dean."

Something about the tone of it came out wrong, a bit triumphant, and then a fast moving ripple effect took over the class, with many of the boys pointing at Dean, shouting "OHHHHHHH!!!!" It was very London. Then, above crowd... "You got parred by Sir."

Dean sat there, staring daggers at me and refusing to pick up his reading book. I asked him to come to me. He didn't. I asked him again, he didn't. I warned him that if he didn't come to me so we could talk, I would have to put him on the traffic lights. He didn't, so I put him on traffic lights.

Then he ambled up to me, thick heavy tears shooting from his eyes. "You're mean to children, you try to make me feel bad." I really don't, and I genuinely have the patience of a saint, particularly with him.
"I'm going to get you fired by (Name of Headteacher)"

"Well Dean, that's not true and it's very sad, but off you go then. You know where his office is?"

He stood there, still looking sad.

"Dean... I'm sorry if it upset you but you can't shout out over me like that, it's disrespectful. I'm sorry if it upset you, but you do need to learn.

"You were cruel."

"Am I being cruel now Dean?"

A pause...

"Yes, because you're not hugging me when I'm feeling sad."

Crying embrace, reconciliation, shared agreements for me to tell him off less publicly and for him to not shout out.

We move on, and I feel deeply deeply emotional as we start the day's lessons.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Impromptu Haircut

I was eating my lunch in the hall, surrounded by kids but engrossed in adult conversations. I remarked with my friend, the TA, that it is good sport to watch the behaviour of the kids in my next class. As I did this, I was interrupted by the Deputy Head, with two little people in tow.

"This is what you've got to look forward to Sir".

They had gone ham at a girls ponytail with a pair of scissors. I thought it was more remarkable that the scissors had managed to cut through anything at all, but still, it's a looming omen for next year.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Truthful Classroom

There are plenty of intellectual, opinionated and political teacher blogs, and there are plenty of twee 'day-in-the-life of' teacher blogs. This blog aims to chronicle the realities of the primary school classroom. 

It's a reality where there are shining moments of inspiration, when you feel your heart skip a beat. It's a reality where sometimes you find yourself competing to outwit a nine-year-old, and feel a bitter resentment if they beat you. It's a reality where your teaching assistant's inability to cut in a straight line throws you into the deepest of rages. 

It's the end of this academic year, and The Truthful Classroom will be chronicling the day-to-day ins-and-outs. I'm going to be meeting my new selection of eight year olds next week, who will become my next class.

Let that be the starting point, because if this post is to set the tone, then the tone is mind-achingly dull.