Thursday, 21 May 2015

Of Hugging and Shouting

Yesterday was my regular weekly day in schools, two schools.  At the end of the morning a five-year-old girl threw her arms round my neck to give me a hug.  This was not normal for her and not really for me, although it does happen from time to time.  As a professional in the school I am required to keep a physical distance.  As a man I feel that society sees my default position as that of potential abuser.  I keep my distance, because anything else is inappropriate.  This girl felt that she had enjoyed her time in the workshop so much that she could not contain her joy.  How else does a five year-old express a joy that comes from the soul?  I found myself pulling away with my arms outstretched so as not to be seen to be complicit in this simple act of communication, although I wanted to hug her back to say thank you in return.  It is a delicate balance to receive the exuberance of children "professionally".  One is required to reject the gesture without rejecting the child.

Yesterday I heard three adults shout at children.  In my own schooldays this was normal practice.  Teachers often got their own way by intimidation or that's how it seemed.  Hearing adults shout at children yesterday brought me up short because I'm no longer used to hearing that sound.  Neither of the schools are "shouty" schools and, although some of those do still exist, they seem to be much rarer than they used to be ... or is it that I am just not getting about like I used to?

I have always hated shouting.  If, as a child, I was shouted at, it scared me and made me resentful.  I may have become acquiescent, but I always felt that scaring me into compliance was never necessary.  I would have coped with doing more or less what the teacher wanted if they had explained things to me.  It's not as though I was one of those classically "naughty" children.  I tried never to be in situations where I would be on the receiving end of an adult's tirade. As an adult I still hate being shouted at and I dislike being forced to be a witness.  I also hate being a shouter, so I continue to avoid shouting.  Shouting hurts my voice and after spending five months mute in the 1990s I refuse to do it.  The mute period came about after a week at a folk festival running twice-daily singing and dancing workshops and sessions for both adults and children; of also dancing outdoors with a morris side and, without the support of amplification, being the front man introducing our group and each dance.  The week was stressful and exacting.  I was frequently timetabled to be at the next event before finishing the one I was doing.  One month later I was running a workshop for teachers and during a song my voice left me.  I remember exactly where I was along with the feeling of dismay and confusion I experienced.  I was making a sound, but I didn't recognise it and it wasn't my voice.  It was a voice I had never heard before.  I had no control whatsoever over the noise I made.  Those were the last vocalised sounds I made for the next five months and I spent the next decade recovering.  That was frightening.  My voice was the main tool of my trade and I thought I had lost it forever.  I don't ever want to return to that place, so I continue to avoid shouting.

When working with children in schools I wait.  I give clear signals and I wait.  I'm good at waiting.  I have been told many times how patient I am when working with children, so I know I'm good at waiting.  That doesn't mean I like having to do it though.  If the waiting has to go on too long the pace of the workshop suffers.  I like to get on with things and my kicks come from seeing and hearing children achieve results and of seeing their faces when they know they have done well.  Achievement  never happens in waiting time.  Time is always precious and we rarely use time well enough to achieve our potential.  In my workshops I expect cooperation and, as I've mentioned before, listening is fundamental to how I operate.  Sometimes, though, one feels the need to do something unexpected to get attention.  Raising the voice sharply is an option.  For me it is always a conscious act and for me it is always a last resort.  As soon as I have the attention I require I drop my voice again.  The shouting I heard yesterday was the sustained full flow I remember from my childhood.  On two occasions the shouting was directed at individual pupils.  On the third it was directed at the class (my class, as it happens, by the teaching assistant who felt the children's discourteous behaviour had made me wait long enough).  I do not know the circumstances of the two individual children.  I do not know whether the adult was consciously applying some sort of strategy, but in both those cases the adult seemed to have lost control.  Had they lost control so completely that intervention was necessary?  I don't know.  None of the other adults present intervened.  I was only a visitor.  Maybe I should have intervened.  In my class the T.A. intervened, splitting the allegiance of the children.  To whom were they supposed to give more attention now?

Teaching is a job.  One does the job and gets paid for it.  Learning is a messy process and does not happen the same way for everyone.  Emotion puts down some of its roots in a place I think of as the soul.  Does a teacher earn enough to invest their soul in the job?  Does a manager or an organisation have the right to demand the soul as well as the time and the skills of the employee?  Children clearly don't worry about such matters.  Their expressions are often spontaneous and can erupt from deep places as well as somewhere more superficial.  Many teachers feel that teaching is also a vocation and invest some deep part of themselves every day.  I know that something clicks when our own aspirations are unmet or are frustrated when they have to function in the technical way demanded by every uncomprehending Secretary of State for Education since at least the time of Keith Joseph.

Most teachers are competent, industrious, dedicated professionals.  A good teacher, though, is priceless.  Every once in a while I see an expert teacher and I am in awe of their abilities.  I love to watch a good teacher at work and, unlike the government or their management spies, I am not convinced that what they have can actually be bottled and sold on to the next newcomer to the profession.  There is something about a "good" teacher that I have never felt able to copy.  In forty years I have never developed, for example, "the glare" that some teachers use so effectively.  I daren't try it either, because I think it would look ridiculous and I would burst out laughing ... although maybe that would not be so bad?  What I do know is that I am certainly not going to compensate for my shortcomings by making children feel frightened.  Wouldn't we all much rather risk receiving a hug?

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