In an earlier blog I discussed how insightful it can be to watch teachers in movies. I recently came across an entire series based around a teacher. The series, and the teacher who is the lead character, is called Mr. D. I suspect the suggestive reference in the name is intentional, and he lives up (or down) to it.
Mr. D epitomizes bad teaching in every conceivable way, and gets himself into the most unbelievably embarrassing situations. Have a peek, and hats off to you if you don't cringe.
It's funny, but I find it hard to watch. The writers of this series must have had great fun thinking up what the most reprobate teacher in a modern school may be able to get away with. I suppose it couldn't have been that difficult, given that we all come across terrible teachers from time to time. Right?
A negative role model
The worst teacher I can remember also had a name beginning with D, so I'll call him Mr. D too. He was a teacher I had in my first year of secondary school. It was a prestigious private all-boys school that followed the old formal British colonial way of educating a country's elite: lots of discipline, heavy on etiquette, stand-up-when-you-are-spoken-to-yes-sir. All that stuff.
My Mr. D. took this to the limit. He was ruthless, and I lived in unmitigated fear of him. He missed nothing, and ran his classroom with an iron fist. When he taught, we had to sit with both feet on the floor, hands on our tables, in silence. We then copied from the board, word-for-word, the history of Ancient Greece or Latin declensions or whatever the topic of the day was.
In his class, fear turned me into a first class idiot. Whatever he taught I failed to learn, but from his classes I got a healthy dose of discipline, and a tremendous appreciation for my other teachers. His technique? Never violence: Mr D. was brilliant at focused humiliation. Bad copying, or a poorly phrased question, become the focus of general ridicule. To him, we were all cretins waiting for an opportunity to show our true colors.
When I decided that I was going to be a teacher, I knew that I very definitely didn't want to be a teacher like Mr. D.
It doesn't really matter what we decide to do in our hours of leisure as we contemplate the ideals of education; pressure and crisis unravels the best of intentions. A class of restless teenagers is a challenge for which even the most thorough training cannot adequately prepare a fledgling teacher.
To make matters worse, in my inexperienced enthusiasm and zeal, I had this unreasonably stupid conception that a teacher must always maintain control and discipline. As my classrooms started falling apart around me, and the techniques of my training left me stranded, I found myself turning to memories of what had worked on me when I was that age.
After all, if my teachers had succeeded with these strategies, why couldn't I? And in my most troubled teaching moments, who did I find most useful as a role model, but Mr. D.! I was becoming the teacher I promised myself I'd never be.
The tendency for us to do to others what has been done to us is nothing new. Children of alcoholic parents are thought to have the tendency to become alcoholics; and victims of child abuse to become child abusers. Such thinking forms the basis of at least some approaches to modern clinical psychology, and these cycles are part of our folk culture. People nod sagely when they hear that the local drug addict comes from a broken home: 'Only to be expected' you can almost hear them thinking.
In this blog, I mentioned that the tendency for teachers to teach as they were taught is called the 'apprenticeship of observation'. The term was introduced in Dan Lortie's 1975 sociological study of school teachers
Until then, successful teaching was seen to be an outcome of theoretically sound methodology or well-thought through curricula. The teacher was simply a tool for its successful implementation. Lortie's study explored how teachers themselves are an essential part of the teaching and learning apparatus.
Like everyone else, teachers spend 16 years of their lives in classrooms of some sort. Lortie estimates that the average teacher has at least 13,000 hours in direct contact with teachers by the time they begin their teaching career.
There is no other career where a beginner gets anywhere near that number of hours of observation before beginning practice. In addition, these are not passive hours - students (and our would-be teachers) are interacting with the teachers they are observing, making active judgements about what they see. Universally, even small children can accurately portray what teachers say and do.
The apprenticeship means that beginner teachers move into the field with a huge amount of knowledge about teaching. With 13,000 hours of observation, beginner teachers have accrued some very strong (and sometimes troublesome) convictions about how teaching works. This body of knowledge comes from powerful role models, and the techniques a teacher is exposed to during the apprenticeship become fundamentally familiar, and thus 'normal' at some level. This apprenticeship, therefore, has the potential to interfere with what teachers take from a training program - especially if the training contradicts their own learning experiences.
It's painful to watch teachers model themselves on the teachers they specifically didn't like - a case of "Okay you lot, if you aren't going to listen, I'll do what Mr. D used to do to us in form 1" instead of thinking about the three possible solutions to a classroom standoff outlined in Steve's handout on classroom management from day 14 of the course.
I hated that I was becoming Mr. D with my own students. Who would want to be Mr. D.!? When I read Lortie's ideas, I was pleased that this was not a specifically Steve problem. With our apprenticeship, we all have the potential to be both our best and worst teachers.
Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TESOL programme in Bangkok.