The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, December 31, 2004

It's with delight that I break the self-imposed holiday hiatus here at The Blackboard Jungle, to note that one of my favourite non-education bloggers, Colin Gregory Palmer, has taken up his long stated intention to qualify as a teacher while he's here in the UK, and has now blogged his first lesson as an initiate.

Reader, I present to you:
Mister Palmer's First Lesson

After a month of observing classes from the back of the room, it was my turn to stand behind the teacher's desk for the first time.

The first lesson I had to teach was in the afternoon, so, I had all morning to prepare. I wisely used this time to practice calling off the thirty names on my list and make confident check marks next to them for the class register.

I should have rehearsed what to do after the register for the remaining 45 minutes of class time, but I didn't. The register was a simple, concrete task I could focus on, everything that followed was an amorphous blob of the unknown. I'd get to the end of my pretend register, start mentally rehearsing the rest of the lesson, `OK, class, today we are going to...' and then think, `let me practice the pronunciation of those names one more time'.

An hour before the class I was to teach, I began to get nervous. Really nervous. In my addled state of mind, the following actually seemed like a good idea:

My body is triggering the fight-or-flight responce by using the hormone adrenaline. There is a finite amount of adrenaline in my body, so if I drain that supply in the next hour, I should be biologically incapable of nervousness.

I then worked myself into a state of near hysteria by imagining all the worst case scenarios in an attempt to use up my adrenaline.

Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly) this strategy didn't work and at the end of the hour I was as nervous as it was physically possible to be, ready to run away from the group of eleven-year olds it was now my responsibility to instruct in the ways of science.

Their regular teacher opened the door to let the flood children into the room then, instead of taking charge as she usually would, she walked to the back of the class to take notes on my performance. I was now the one in charge.

I switched on the tape recorder I bought during my lunch break so I could hear myself after the class was over to try and gain an objective perspective of what happened.

"All right everyone... all right... settle down... quiet... quiet... Year Seven... quiet."

In my head, I like the sound of my own voice: deep, powerful, sexy and authoritarian. But on the tape I hear the truth: nasal, annoying, strained and unpleasant -- why anyone would listen to me is beyond my understanding.

`St Hedwig's' is a school much more formal than the ones I grew up with. Here the students are to stand behind their desks in silence and wait for my permission to sit down. They eventually became quiet-ish and I was so nervous I couldn't wait any longer.

"Good afternoon Year Seven."

"Gooooood aaaaafternoooooooooon miiiiiiiister paaaaaah maaaaah."

I made the `sit down' gesture with my hand and we were off.

"OK, today we are going to be dividing materials --"

"Are you taking the lesson today, sir?" interrupted a girl from the back.

"Yes, I am. As I was saying --"


Claps came from some of the children, and I should have taken this moment to be happy and calm down, but I was determined to push on.

"All right, all right... quiet..."

I plowed on through the ten minute introduction as the class became louder and louder. I realized later that I was trying to outrun the increasing volume thinking that, if I could just get to the end of the introduction and get them started on the experiment, I'd be home free.

"Everyone understand what you need to do?" I didn't pause to wait for an answer before saying "Okay! Off to the lab desks then."

The experiment was a disaster. The students were to test various solutions (salt water, lemon juice, vinegar, cleaning fluid, etc) to see if they were acidic or alkaline using litmus paper.

The logistics of distributing the equipment needed to do this hadn't occurred to me in advance. (15 student pairs) x (1 beaker + 1 pipette + 1 test tray + 6 red litmus papers + 6 blue litmus papers + 2 safety goggles) = 255 items. I ran around in a panic, criss-crossing the room in an inefficient path giving out materials to those who asked for them the loudest. Then, one tiny red-head girl approached me to ask, "Sir? May I help give something out?"

She earned a permanent place in my heart as teacher's pet with those words.

I dumped a huge pile of goggles into her outstretched arms and together we managed to get equipment to everyone.

Now the bigger problem came to light: the students didn't know what to do. I had considered making an instruction a sheet for my class to use during the lab, but ultimately decided against it because I thought the experiment was too simple to warrant it.

Never. Again.

The brief description of the experiment in my introduction was like so many explanations in science: perfectly adequate if you already know what's going on, but totally unhelpful to newcomers. Soon, there was much yelling, giant soggy piles of litmus paper, clogged sinks and unanticipated questions.

"Sir? Sir? Sir! Sssssssss-errrrrr-errrrr! What's wrong with this milk? Why's it got sticky bits?"

It turned out that the milk the lab technician brought us was spoiled. So spoiled that large chunks lodged themselves in the pipette. While this didn't give off the most pleasant smell, it did have the welcome side effect of making the acid test on milk work really well, as the sour taste of spoiled milk comes from the acid.

I helped the groups as best I could but the bored students who didn't know what to do began to devise their own experiments.

"Sir? Do you really want us to test pee?"

My heart stilled as I saw a confused child across the room holding a beaker filled with something yellow and distinctly urine-like. I didn't know all of the substances the lab technician brought in, but thought it unlikely that one of them was human waste.

"Why don't you give that to me?"

The vial touched my hand and I was relieved to feel it was cool. Still not knowing what the mystery liquid was, I said, "Let's just put that to the side, shall we?"

Later investigations revealed that one inventive child discovered that if you mix coffee, water and vinegar in the right proportions the resulting solution that looks and flows exactly as urine does.

Still, there were good moments amid the disaster. When I asked one small child if his experiment was going well, he turned to me with huge safety goggles on his tiny head to announce, "Of course it is sir. I'm a proper scientist now."

And, if I do say so myself, I did take a damn fine register.
At any given moment, I can't recommend Colin's blog strongly enough without the actual aid of weaponry, and now he's one of us a teacher, I can do so with impunity. Rest of the story here.

Happy New Year!