Nerves and Poetry

Not so long ago I wrote this post about how important I think it is be self-confident as a teacher.

Then yesterday I had a moment that had me almost as nervous as the first time I ever stood in front of a class.

I read an amazing poem by Ben Orlin a few weeks ago called Once There Weren’t Numbers and I loved it so much that I decided to read it to one of my classes.

At the end of a lesson I got them all to pack up a few minutes early and told them I was going to read them a poem – but get excited because it’s a maths poem! And then all of a sudden I got really nervous. Like the type of nerves I had when I stood in front of a class for the first time ever. I was thrown back to my high-school days of speech giving. I was actually shaking and I didn’t know why. I stand in front of these kids every day. I get along with all of them. I can joke with them and they engage really well with everything I give them. So why was I so nervous?

Reflecting on it now I think it might have been because I was revealing something of myself to them. Revealing my inner nerd and love for nerdy maths things to them (even more than I usually do) and maybe I was scared they would think it was stupid – that they’d reject it.

Turns out they loved it just as much as me – and I knew they would! That’s why I chose to read it to them in the first place so we could bask in its amazingness together.

If you haven’t already, you should read it so you can bask too.

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Point and Laugh (at yourself)

As a teacher you need an abundance of lots of things – pens, whiteboard markers, patience… but you also really need an abundance of self-esteem.

There will be times when you take a step backwards and trip over a bin.
When you get excited and a little too animated when talking to the class and accidentally fling a whiteboard marker across the room.
When you try to say “measures of centre and measures of spread” but get tongue-tied and instead come out with “measures of sprentre”
When you walk the full length of the playground before realising that one of the lenses from your sunglasses is missing.

These moments will have in students in fits of giggles pointing and laughing.

When this happens you have two options:
You can try to regain your composure and with a straight face and fight to regain control of the class, or you can join in – admit it was pretty funny and laugh at how ridiculous you looked.

The first option will solidify the moment in your students minds as that one time when you embarrassed yourself. They won’t remember how to find the area of a circle, but they’ll remember the moment you went to lean on a desk that wasn’t there and almost fell on your butt.

The second option shows students that you’re human, a little (or a lot) clumsy, and hopefully sends the message that laughing at yourself is healthy and that no one is perfect.

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But even if you somehow manage to never find yourself in a situation where you’ve made yourself look like a complete dork, the students are judging you anyway. Students will critique everything about you, with both positive and negative feedback. I’ve had students comment on my outfit, my weight, my jewellery…
They make you wonder if they paid any attention to the maths at all, or if they just spent 20 minutes critiquing you personally.

The ability to easily accept compliments, and even more easily brush off criticisms is invaluable as a teacher.

If you’re honestly comfortable with who you are, they can’t use your quirks and clumsiness (or fashion choices) against you.

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The happiness ratio

What’s that theory about the balance between negative and positive comments? Something along the lines of “for every negative comment you need to make 10 positive comments to balance it out”. It’s not that I ever doubted this, but I think this week has really made me understand it – because the ratio is the same for lessons. For every lesson that fails, every class that you walk out of feeling deflated, you need a whole lot of good lessons to balance it out. And I count myself lucky that I have four great classes, but then there’s my 5th class.

This class only has 16 students, which seems amazing until you look a little closer. I have some students completing the Life Skills course (they cover different content to the rest of the class) and many of the other students have very poor literacy levels and diverse learning needs. I always have at least two lessons running at a time – often it’s more like four. Some students in my class are the most renowned for poor behaviour in their year group. Occasionally we have good lessons, usually we struggle through them with lots of complaints and a few arguments and students held back after class, and then there are lessons like yesterday.

We’ve just started probability so this is one of the rare times where we all work as a class on the same topic, and all start at the same level. Looking good so far – I only have to plan one lesson, so I can make it really good. Unfortunately it’s a double lesson (90 minutes) which is hard for these students, but I tried to mix things up with a few different activities and a game in the last 20 minutes.

The lesson completely flopped.

I don’t know if it was the lesson, my management skills or just a bad day for the students, but I think we all left with a headache. Sure some work was completed (how much they truly understood is a different question) but I had students written up for incomplete work, disrespect to me and to their peers, and for storming out of the classroom.

I’m incredibly grateful for my other classes who give me something positive to focus on and who balance out the happiness ratio.