Saturday, 28 April 2012

Letting Go: how a night of violence taught me to be a better teacher

'Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.'

Yoda

Do you remember what it's like to be a new teacher? Perhaps you are one, in which case this isn't difficult. One thing that marks the baptism of the classroom is the stress; the frozen moments of paralysis and anxiety as you crumble under the weight of approbation, effort and worse, ridicule. This is no small problem; I reply to weary, worn teachers all the time who have almost nothing left to give, so eroded are they by the death of a thousand cuts. But new or not, everyone wears the strain between the desired and the delivered; the tension when twenty five people refuse to pursue their collective interest and seem to aim for your disintegration.

Instead of crumbling, some shatter. We have ALL lost our temper; we have all blown a seal. The pupils can often see it coming; watching you as the rivets eke their way from their seams before erupting like champagne corks. This anger, while understandable, is an alien acid to your practise; it almost exclusively fails to achieve anything other than entertaining the crueller cells of your class corpus. When I began to teach, I went home every night feeling like weeping, and spent lonely weeks racked with self-doubt and dismay. Children wouldn't do the tasks I asked, and what kind of man was I? It was one of the lowest points of my life.

By my second year I wasn't drowning any more, but I was barely breaking the surface. I fell into a familiar vortex of fail: my classes were all hard; they barely seemed to work when I asked; as time passed I did less and less about the behaviour because nothing seemed to make a difference, and I couldn't cope with the effort of doing anything about it. As things got worse and worse, I circled the drain, hating myself, despairing for my ability as a teacher, and my ability to help children many of whom, seemed not to want to be helped. In many ways, I took their behaviour home with me every night, and it burned.

The Trial

Then, one night I was coming back from an evening out- I had been to see Shakespeare in Regent's Park because that's how I roll- and walking the short distance in the east end of London back to my flat in Stepney. It was a walk I had made many times, even at midnight, as this was. But this time, there were other creatures afoot, with designs on my contentment. As I entered the road I had an intuition that matters were not as they should be; ten, perhaps twelve teenagers spanned the road, clumped in small groups. They saw me; I saw them. I ignored the obvious thing, which was to turn around, because this was my street; so I continued. As I prepare to break their line, I kept my eyes straight ahead and my pace even- years in Soho had taught me that any engagement with an aggressor could be construed as antagonism, or sufficient excuse.

But my luck ran out. One of them stepped into my path and said, 'Are you being rude, mate?' I swerved around him, but not enough to avoid the roundhouse punch right into my mouth. Have you heard of people saying they saw stars after a blow? I did, then. Forget any fantasies about channelling Batman and boldly trading punches one after another; I went down like a minister's advisor, really hit the dirt in shock as everything swum around me. Four or five of them fell on me, and I knew for a moment what all prey knows: the irrefutable certainty that one is helpless, and hopelessly outmatched; whatever happened next was out of my hands, and I could only hope they were not blinded by viciousness.

Again, no luck. Too low for a satisfactory punching, I began to receive the proverbial kicking. To be honest, there was no pain; I simply curled into a ball and endured. But when they started to kick me around the head, I realised another proposition: they didn't care what happened. A kick to the ribs would indicate the desire to harm, but not end, a person; a kick to the head signified a boundary had been crossed. My options darkened. Still the kicks came; head, face, stomach, legs. A rain.

This went on for maybe ten seconds? It felt like an hour.

Abruptly, the ordeal stopped. Piecing it together afterwards, some of the others had disputed the attack, and pulled my assailants from me. Still on autopilot, I staggered to my feet, found my glasses, punched from my face with the first blow, and lurched off like a prisoner. Ten yards later I heard footsteps behind me, and the last part of me knew that I was finished; I had the sensation of knowing they were going to finish me, and the devils had overcome the angels. So I braced for the next blow, because I had nothing to offer them.

What happened next amazed me; it still does. One of the boys pulled alongside me and said, 'I'm sorry, please, I'm so sorry.'
I kept moving, not wanting to release the opportunity to escape. 'It's fine,' I said. 'It's fine.' I felt nothing at all, no pain, no fear.

I got home, cleaned up and shook with shock. The damage was less and more than I had thought; my ribs were black and blue, and throbbed for weeks. My legs looked as if I had been caught in a crusher. Two of my teeth had been loosened; days later, I lost them completely. Dental work aside, X-rays showed nothing but soft tissue violation The body healed. My mind, not so much.

Gradually the anger rose; after a few nights, the blood boiled in my veins with a deadly purpose. I had been humiliated, beaten to the ground, unmanned in a way I hadn't thought possible, and if you have never been totally physically bested, you cannot know: to feel in fear of your life and have everything you are subject to the whim of another, crueller person.

I raged; I didn't sleep for days; I sat and stared into the darkness and seethed with revenge and anger and violence. I ate almost nothing, and did so begrudgingly. I became cruel, and that made me powerful. All I wanted- ALL I wanted was to pick up a brick, circle the area where they took me apart, and throw myself into their midst, exploding like a grenade and to Hell with the consequences. This, from me; I abhor violence; I have never thrown a fist in anger, I shrink from aggression. But my humiliation had driven me to the edge of my sanity, and every time I closed my eyes I saw the blows again and again. I wept with violence, and I believe that some part of me, some human shape inside me, fractured and fell.

Born again

I went back to school after a few days, although it seemed to be a dream world that hardly mattered. Alone at the end of the day, I contemplated another night in my prison of a room, disintegrating in the darkness. I must have looked like an animal, pinched and battered. I couldn't face the strain of the rage and hatred I constantly felt; the stress that acted like a skeleton to my body, keeping me up. I have never felt such a thing before, nor since.

Then it happened.

I realised that if I continued to hate so completely, to writhe so perfectly in anger, I would be annihilated; everything I am is contrary to hate; it has no part of my DNA. Breathing it like oxygen would be the end of me, either physically or in my identity. I faced two paths: continue to hate, and rage, and revenge; or I could forgive; I could let it go. So I let go.

In an instant- and I mean an instant- clouds parted in my heart.

I am not a man of faith, and I can imagine how this could be interpreted, so I can only provide my own poor agnostic perspective, though I borrow the language of faith. Not only did I feel better, but I felt immaculate; washed clean; baptised and reborn. Every muscle relaxed inside me as I realised that there was nothing to be done about my attack, so the appropriate thing to do was nothing, just move on. I felt strong again, stronger than before, and confident. Joy burst inside me and as a strange side effect, I felt nothing but pity for the children who had assaulted me. I saw their desperate, dysfunctional lives cast in the air like a 3-D map, and, without excusing or extenuating their vile behaviour, felt no anger, merely understanding.

This, in a second. That moment has never left me; the sheer transformation I felt from despair to elation. Somehow- and I am not a good man, nor am I possessed of heroic virtue- I had dislocated the event from myself; I had found some distance between the moment of violence and whatever it is that makes me who I am. This epiphany- and it was an epiphany- redesigned my relationship with my classes. Perhaps not as instantly as my Damascan absolution, but gradually. I saw that pupil behaviour was not a personal attack on me, other than that I was the person dealing with it, but a general action near to me rather than internal to me; I saw rudeness and mucking around as situations to be dealt with, not as a personal failure on my part. I started to see it as if it were a documentary on television, removed and dislocated from me rather than something that defined me.

In short, I came to care a bit less what they did, and care a bit more about what I was going to do about it. I still believe that pupils completely own their behaviour, and no one should ever blame a teacher for it unless they have literally antagonised the children to the point of goading. But, just as a doctor cannot crumble if a patient withers, so too must a teacher learn to create a professional distance between pupil and the person. From then on, I knew what I had to do in classrooms. You can only be hurt by people you love or care about; I decided to care a bit less about if they liked me, and a bit more about how well they flourished as pupils.

And that has made all the difference.

10 comments:

  1. Your third paragraph really struck a chord with me. That's exactly how I feel now. All my classes are hard and I am drowning (can't swim anyway). Trouble is this is my NQT year and now matter what effort I put in their behaviour/attitude to learning has a direct impact on my observation performance - no matter how well planned/pitched my lessons are. I am finding it really hard to distance myself from it because I am constantly asked in observation feedback "what can YOU do to improve their behaviour/learning" and I am at a loss... and on the verge of failure. Any advice?

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    1. Hi Pete

      Sorry to hear it. It's a common place to be. It's not the planning of the lesson that;s vital, it's how we handle misbehaviour. The best planned lesson will disintegrate if the kids won;t behave- although a good lesson can help, it's not enough. For difficult classes, have a starter on the board when they enter; then simple short activities that require little input from you. Park the group work and the complicated activities. Fact sheet/ work sheets are fine. That way you give work to the kids who want to work while you work on behaviour.

      Take as many names down as you think didn't behave; set a detention that day. Don't let them work it off; call home. If they fail to attend, or misbehave in detention, escalate- enlist a line manager to support this- and expect them to help.

      Realising that 50% of behaviour management happens OUTSIDE the classroom can help you to calm down INSIDE it. Ask your assessors what THEY would do, then implement it to the letter. If you do that, they can't honestly say you;re not doing what you should.

      Good luck- drop me a line if you want to discuss this further.

      Tom

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    2. I have very little classroom experience to draw on but one tactic from my attempt to Teach First that I found really helped was to praise the good. 'Sarah's getting on with the task, good job Sarah'. It's not a replacement for sanctions and tackling disruption, but I found the more attention I paid to good students, the more good students there were. Good luck Pete, I hope things get better.

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  2. An extremely powerful post, Tom. I learned to distance myself when I worked in a prison as a chaplain. It was Christmas Day, about the worst day of the year inside. I was visiting the wings as part of my job. I entered one wing where there had been serious disorder due to the drinking of hooch (illegally brewed alcohol) Offices had been trashed. As I walked down the corridor, there was a quiet hum that grew louder. Two officers suddenly appeared and stood either side of me. For the first time ever, I was really afraid. The men were not seeing me as chaplain, but solely as a woman, in a place where they were denied women. I was jostled and pushed despite my protectors. I got off the wing physically unscathed. Managed to distance myself to continue to do my duty over the next days and weeks but I left the job for good a few months later. I could not face it any more.

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  3. Wow. A powerful story to be sure, and an awful place to be in. Glad you're OK, and lived to tell tale.

    Tom

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  4. It's admirable to be able to forgive & fortunate to be able to 'let go'. But it isn't always possible & never easy, even for those who are 'persons of faith'. Especially if you're called on to forgive too many times & don't encounter too much forgiveness yourself for completely inadvertent lapses. But you're so right about not blaming the teacher for ANY behaviour on the part of the students; everyone is in charge of controlling him/herself. Blaming the teacher is just an aspect of that primitive 'Blame-the-Victim' culture that still .. shockingly.. prevails in so many areas of even modern life.

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  5. Fantastic post. It's amazing how things can totally change your perspective on things.

    I am training at the moment (Primary) and I have 'the fear' everytime I step in front of them, not because of behaviour - they're a good class, but because I am so bloody afraid of screwing it up. I think I could almost do with something terrible happening to me in a lesson so I can gain some perspective. My friend had her trousers pulled down whilst she was writing on the board, surely it can't get worse than that?!

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  6. Your Damascene moment Tom reminded me of a wonderful play I saw many years ago at the Royal Court. In "Three Birds Alighting on a Field" by Timberlake Wertenbaker, a wife who finds out her husband has been unfaithful for years is talking in anger and despair to a priest, who advises her to "forgive" her husband. She tells him she doesn't know what forgiveness means and he replies, "Forgiveness is accepting that the weight of another's pain is greater than your own: even when you have to cheat at the scales."

    What saddened me reading your post was it took you so long to grasp that it's vital not to care whether they liked you or not. There is nothing more damaging to a child than a teacher who seeks their friendship instead of their respect.

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  7. *Stands up slowly*
    "That was very good"
    *Sits*

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  8. This is a great post. I really enjoy your writing. Thank you for sharing your journey as a teacher! I have read this particular post several times in the last couple of days and have found it encouraging. Thank you.

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