Some vaguely humorous anecdotes from nearly thirty years in teaching
I have been teaching French in a small secondary school in the Highlands of Scotland for over twenty years. Every teacher has a fund of amusing tales or funny stories - moments which pass without being noted and are then all too often forgotten and lost with the passage of time, and these are but a handful of reminiscences I have put together with a view to sharing some mildly amusing moments which have also, on occasion, been quite formative.
I should state at the outset that I have probably made just about every mistake it is possible to make in teaching (and maintain a career!). I would like to think, however, that I learned from the majority of my errors to become a reasonably effective teacher. Sadly, I should also point out that the learning process continues ... .
When I first entered the teaching profession, being fairly quiet and reserved by nature, the thought of facing close to thirty sometimes unwilling, often boisterous, and occasionally downright unpleasant students caused me considerable anxiety. I discovered, however, that humour (combined with thorough preparation and knowledge of one's pupils) went a long way toward establishing a generally pleasant and co-operative working atmosphere.
At first, however, I felt it necessary to try to impose discipline by more traditional and authoritarian means. Unfortunately, not being in the habit of raising my voice, far less having to keep order among generally unwilling conscripts, I failed quite miserably.
At that time my final class of the week was an S2 (about 13 years old), consisting largely of kids (I discovered fairly quickly) who had decided by the end of their third week in S1 that they were going to drop French at the earliest possible opportunity, (somewhat alarmingly not until the end of S2!). Although they were not without their charm, and I'm sure their mothers loved them dearly, they were often inattentive, frequently noisy, and nearly always uninterested. I tried hard to persuade them of the value of what I was attempting to teach them, and which they were not making an excessive effort to learn, but questions about the correct "er" verb ending to go with "tu" were generally met with bemused stares at their jotters or the board, or worse still, some cutting remark about my failure to wear properly colour-coordinated clothes.
Something had to be done. Having failed to appeal to the better side of their natures, I decided I had to stamp my authority on this class. They had to know that this inexperienced young geek was, in fact, in charge!
I prepared even more thoroughly than usual for my final class of the week. Texts were previewed to the last word, explanations were written up in meticulous detail, and differentiated exercises to suit the spectrum of ability levels were produced. On top of this, I tried to project confidence and determination in my dealings with the class.
All was going reasonably well, with my extra preparation apparently paying dividends as the little darlings were generally more focused and remained "on task"! Until, that is, they were asked to work independently and complete or produce their own sentences. Clearly this level of expectation proved a little too much for them as their attention began to deteriorate and the noise level began to rise. Determined to build on my earlier (and unexpected) success, for the first time I raised my voice!
I shouted, and it actually worked!
They went quiet and they listened to me!
Of course it didn't last long and what seemed like just a few moments later a ripple of inattention ran through the class. Bolstered by my earlier (albeit minor) success, I was not going to let the disruptive element gain the upper hand again, so I raised my voice a second time, and once more the noise of inattention subsided!
It was then that I made my mistake.
In my determination to reinforce this positive and quiet working atmosphere and my newfound authority, I went over to the board to raise it so that the class could see the continuation of their exercise. Wishing to maintain and emphasise my authority, I siezed the metal bar which allowed movement of the said board, and angrily hauled at it, intending to raise the board sharply, thus emphasising both my displeasure at their lack of attention, and my control over my pupils. Unfortunately, in grandstanding for the benefit of the class, I failed to grip the bar properly and while raising it (with considerable force), my fingers slipped from the bar, catapulting my hand into my face and launching my glasses halfway across the room in the process!
Naturally there were shrieks of laughter as I scrambled around trying to recover my glasses. My attempts at discipline lay in tatters, but I recognised that this was, in fact, a pivotal moment in my relationship with this class (and indeed in my whole approach to teaching). Should I regain my composure and try to reassert my authority, or should I laugh at my own folly and misfortune?
Most fortunately I chose the latter.
Why? Because the kids were right to laugh. It was funny. Posturing to regain a false and artificial "dignity" was only going to alienate the class.
The effect on the class? I can't say they worked on in attentive silence, but they did get on with the exercise more positively than before "the event".
I can't say that all my problems disappeared overnight, but I would say that my slip and my reaction to it helped to "break the ice". I was able to develop a greater rapport with even some of my least interested pupils, and it taught me an invaluable lesson - the importance of being human with a class. Authority and discipline are undoubtedly essential, but achieving them through mutual respect and trust (where this is possible) is more effective than simply trying to impose one's authority.
A tremendously rich source of fun and humour is, of course, mistranslation.
Everyone makes mistakes, indeed fear of making errors is a major factor in inhibiting pupils' performance and preventing them from fulfilling their potential. It is largely for that reason that I frequently point out double meanings. I want pupils to have fun with language, to laugh at their own mistakes (and mine), and thus to relax as they try to formulate a sentence. Naturally I offer praise when it is done successfully, and while I think it is important to be able to recognise an error, it is equally important not to get it out of all proportion. I used to be terrified to open my mouth lest I got it wrong. Over the years I have come to realise that "lightening up" means you are more likely to get it right.
Mistranslation is not, of course, confined to the realms of the classroom.
The language facility (especially when combined with subtitles) on DVDs is an excellent resource for language learning ï¿½ if the language is correct! I have come across translations which give the opposite sense of what was intended, but one of the best examples of poor translation I have heard of is on a John Wayne DVD. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this, but I do hope it's true! In the original, John Wayne approaches a bar and says, "Give me a shot of red eye." in his usual (and quite unmistakable) manner. According to legend, the French runs thus: "Un Dubonnet, s'il vous plait." Hardly the same effect!
I might add that in the pursuit of fun and a relaxed atmosphere, I have even been known to do a (bad) John Wayne impression while speaking French. In recent years I have to admit to being somewhat crushed as pupils smile politely and turn to one another, asking "Who's John Wayne?".
Often it is not mistranslation but mispronunciation that can cause mirth.
A nice example of this comes not from a pupil, but from a coach driver who drove our school party to and around France a number of years ago. We'll call him John. John was a most obliging and genuine man. He was an attentive, careful driver, very professional. However, he had very little French. "Oui", "Non", and "Merci beaucoup" were about his limit, but just as his knowledge was relatively small, so his willingness to put his knowledge into practice was great.
And it was while he was using one of these phrases that we discovered his second problem with the French language - pronunciation.
In common with a great many Scots, John had no problem in pronouncing "beau" ("bo", which, if taken on its own, means lovely or beautiful) in "beaucoup", but he did have some difficulty with the pronunciation of "coup", which he pronounced rather like the Scots word for cow, "coo". Unfortunately, this is not the sound intended by the French, though his mispronounced word does exist ("cul"), and it means "bum". So, if we join the two syllables as spoken by John, the meaning changes from "very much" to "nice bum".
You have doubtless guessed where this is going, but please be patient!
Now it so happened that as we were having dinner in our hotel one evening, we were served by a very pleasant middle-aged woman who had a friendly and open smile, and a genuine interest in our pupils' wellbeing. As she served our beautifully prepared and typically rich French dish, John (exhausted after a long day's driving) asked if he could have something simpler, such as soup.
With great sympathy and understanding our waitress fetched John his soup, and to show his appreciation of her efforts, John said, with genuine feeling, "Merci beaucoup".
Unfortunately, through a magnificent mixture of mispronunciation and slight hesitation, John managed to transform "Thank you very much." into "Thanks. Nice bum."
It was a nailbiting wait to see how our kind waitress was going to react - would she decide she'd been insulted or complimented?
I finally forced my eyes in her direction to find her blushing and smirking. Clearly she was quite charmed (and perhaps even slightly disappointed) at what she realised was an honest mistake, and she kindly suggested we inform John of his mistake in case he should cause offence to others.
I have been known to tell some "tall tales" to classes in an attempt to build a rapport with my pupils. The following tale (from the early eighties) started as a result of me falling for some excuse and allowing a Higher pupil to leave class early. Fortunately for me the pupil returned almost immediately, but with a smug smile of victory on her lips. She had lied and I had fallen for it. Revenge would be sweet ... .
I should emphasise that what happened was not planned in any way, indeed I could never have thought it up in advance!
One day, my colleague Clive (who taught in the room next to mine) displayed staggering athletic ability by jumping from a school desk to the floor (we had been putting up posters in my room) just as my Higher class arrived. (Higher pupils are about 16/17 years old). After his departure, various comments were made expressing surprise at his ability to make such a leap at his age (he had reached the prodigious age of 38 at the time!).
Incensed by this slur on the capacity of members of the teaching profession's ability to achieve anything even remotely physically challenging, I snapped.
"But he hasn't always been a teacher, you know.", said I, "Before joining the profession in a (misguided) attempt to share his knowledge and help future generations to evolve in to well-rounded human beings, he was a stuntman."
I received stunned looks of disbelief, yet they were tinged with a desire to believe this outlandish claim - they required more detail.
"You've all seen "Superman" with Christopher Reeve, well Clive helped to train Mr Reeve for the flying scenes - helped him to master the wires and landing techniques because he had had experience of these in pantomime."
I think it was the detail and the sheer outlandishness that did it - it was so fantastic that it had to be true. I also knew that if I pushed it any further, they would suspect something, so I left it.
In the days that followed they vaguely broached the subject, but never really to challenge, just to check on the details. I even told them that Clive preferred not to talk about it as he was slightly embarrassed - he didn't want to be known as "The Flying French Teacher".
And so it was that I forgot all about it, until about ten years later when a group of primary age pupils came to the school, accompanied by their well respected teacher of some six years, who had been one of my pupils.
During my time with these pupils I made some ridiculous claim at which point my ex pupil (and their teacher) simply shook her head and later informed me that they were not gullible enough to fall for that one! It was at that point that I vaguely remembered telling a class about Clive being a stuntman and helping to train Christopher Reeve in "Superman", and I recounted the tale to my ex pupil, who had studied French to Higher level with me.
I was left totally speechless when, after I had finished my story, she gasped, "You mean he didn't?"
Most teachers will set out to build a rapport with their pupils in order to make their lessons more palatable or even amusing. However, not all would go as far as transforming into a superhero ... .
Before becoming embroiled in the world of teaching, a colleague and very good friend of mine completed his education by gaining a PhD in chemistry and naturally became known as Doctor ... .
Early on in his career, and aware that chemistry did not lend itself to verbal banter enjoyed in various other disciplines, the Doc decided to inject a bit of much needed fun in his own particular way.
And so, especially when he had younger classes, the Doc would wander up and down his lab (furnished with traditional science benches), explaining reactions and reciting notes to his hard-working, if somewhat gloomy pupils. Suddenly, however, he would duck down behind the bench at the rear of his room, pick up a black cape he had previously placed there, tie it around his neck, and with a single bound he would jump onto the bench, declaring "I am Superdoc!".
The Doc then proceeded to leap from one bench to the next, much to the amazement and admiration of his (captive) audience!
Now, you may be wondering why this educational superhero has not become a household name. Well, I have to tell you that Superdoc's career was fairly short-lived.
On one occasion (and his last appearance), he got a little carried away with his own success and, while leaping with balletic grace from one bench to the next, he failed to notice a protruding gas tap which brought his performance (and his career) to a somewhat abrupt and decidedly earthbound end!
We have all encountered times when we have failed to make a connection between two ideas - a connection which is usually, unfortunately, blindingly obvious to others.
On one occasion I was studying a text about the system of health care in France with a class, and we came across the statement that French people visit their dentists "deux fois par an". After a little deliberation the class worked out that this meant twice a year. It was at this point that the air was pierced with the cry, "No wonder they have such awful teeth!".
Somewhat taken aback by both this reaction to the time scale mentioned and the fact that in a wild generalisation, the entire French nation was now dismissed as having rotten teeth, I pointed out that we in Britain followed exactly the same timing of appointments. "Oh no", my dear pupil said rather aggressively, "here it's once every six months!".
Although I have concentrated on recounting a few vaguely amusing recollections, these are not necessarily the ones I have found most touching.
If you have already looked at the subjects of some of my other pages, you may have noticed my admiration for "Les Miserables".It was while on a school trip to a performance of "Les Miserables" in
Edinburgh that I realised the influence we (as teachers) can have on young people's thinking and lives.
Towards the end of the show some 30 of our 40-odd party were in tears. Many of them had never experienced the theatre before and were clearly finding this experience deeply moving and thought-provoking. Some senior pupils went on to ask me to study the book with them as part of their course, and even demanded a return visit to the show in London !
On our way back from Edinburgh, a senior pupil came and sat next to me on the coach, and said very earnestly that he wanted to thank me for all my efforts in providing him with what had been one of the greatest experiences of his life. We went on to have an in-depth discussion of the various characters and themes of Hugo's work, and this discussion created a bond of friendship between us.
I found this a most moving and humbling moment. I had participated in numerous school trips abroad, but I had always been too involved in the doing of them to see the effect such trips can have.
It was at that moment, perhaps more than any other, that I became aware that teaching is not subject-restricted. What is taught and learned at school extends far beyond the subject matter of the classroom. Indeed in some cases I might even go so far as to say it is not what is taught, but how it is taught that will have the greatest influence and effect.
At the heart of teaching is the relationship the teacher has with the class and each pupil in it. Not only will this help define what is learned during that particular lesson, it will also contribute to the pupils' personal development as far as relating to others is concerned.
We all play roles in our lives, especially our professional lives, however role-playing can prevent real "connections" with people. A front or persona, but at the same time barriers, are set in place (I remember being told by a French teacher, when I was an assistant in France many years ago, that she felt it was essential to "se donner en spectacle" - put on a show), and while they can lead to very effective subject teaching, the personal development aspect can be largely ignored and perhaps even harmed.
Of course it is necessary to "draw a line". No work would be done if a class feels it can ignore a teacher. However, there is a delicate balance between benign dictatorship and friendship, and if that balance can be achieved, education in a broader sense (incorporating interpersonal relationships and mutual respect) may also be attained. Essential elements are a combination of thorough preparation, confidence (often arising from good preparation, i.e. knowing where you have been with a class, where you are, and where you want to go), personal relationships - knowing each pupil and letting each pupil know you know them, sharing personal anecdotes, and perhaps most importantly the ability to laugh at yourself and learn from mistakes.
My apologies for my slip into a Hugo-like digression!
There are, of course, many similar tales I would like to share with you (if I had the time), such as the occasion on which a colleague managed to interrupt the power supply to a lift shaft under construction in the school, and appeared to electrocute himself in the process,
OR the time some (senior) pupils were convinced another member of staff had been the manager of the Bee Gees - can't think where they got that idea!
OR the strange case of the disappearing class,
OR the case of the ringing phone which couldn't be answered,
OR speaking to a class of French pupils with a Clouseau accent and finding they understood more of what was said,
OR being congratulated on my good English when inYorkshire !
So many anecdotes, but what is the point?
Well, if there is one adjective used to describe school more than any other, it is the word "boring". While I agree it would probably be a mistake to confuse schoolwork with some form of entertainment, I think fun can be had in interaction between pupil and teacher - sharing amusing moments with pupils is a sociable and unifying experience which can also have the effect of making lessons more memorable.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page - I hope you found it of some worth.
I would, of course, be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss any element of these "tales", and I can be contacted at email@example.com.