As August slips by, I’m reminded of activities that start the new year, which I put under the heading of “How to manage your teacher,” an essential skill for every student, at whatever level.
One year I asked my department head, the inimitable Vicki Noonan, to help me with an experiment. I said I couldn’t give her any details, but would she come in and give a presentation to my adult literacy class about how our class fit into the ABE program, which could in turn lead to trades programs, other training, or university entrance. It was a presentation I had heard her make many times before.
Before she arrived, I set up the “experiment” with my students. “I want you to see,” I said, “what kind of effect students have on teachers. Your actions really make a difference in how well we can do our job.”
We arranged to stage some interruptions as Vicki was talking. We would give her a few minutes to get started on her presentation, then I would start the ball rolling by having a coughing fit. We planned a series of other interruptions, and various students agreed to carry them out. I asked the group to concentrate on Vicki’s reactions.
Vicki arrived, I introduced her as the department head, and she began her talk. She made a diagram to show various parts of the program, and as she began to explain how they were related, I faked a realistic coughing fit, which was followed by the other pre-arranged interruptions, until finally Vicki stopped and asked, “What’s happening? It doesn’t seem like a good time for this talk…”
I explained the “experiment” and asked her to tell us what had gone through her mind as she tried to give her talk. She recounted her reactions to our various interruptions. When I had a coughing fit, she glanced at me to be sure I was all right. When Marsha opened the rings on her binder, took out a couple of sheets, and let the rings snap shut again, she got a little irritated, but didn’t want to distract us all by talking to Marsha about it. When Don got up and started walking, she followed him with her eyes, until she figured out that he was heading for the washroom, but that made her lose track of what she was saying, and she had to start the section over.
When Mary dropped her pen, and chased it down under the chair of the person sitting next to her, Vicki decided to skip to the end of her prepared talk, and cut things short. When Brenda and Billy started a whispered conversation, she couldn’t carry on at all anymore, and stopped to ask what was going on.
I asked Vicki if she would like to hear what the students saw, and she said she would, so students gave her their observations of how her presentation had fallen apart, how she lost track of her thoughts, repeated herself, and said, “Uh…” a lot.
As I thanked Vicki for being such a good sport, I was not above pointing out the moral of the story: that teachers are human, and if students want to get the most out of us, they will give us the best conditions to do our best work.
So much more fun than a discussion/lecture about “respectful listening” and “polite behaviour” or “classroom etiquette.”