lunes, 16 de enero de 2012

Learning the Hard Way

“Fingers on the lips. Fingers on the lips. NOW!”
Thirteen little voices echo my words back at me and thirteen tiny forefingers obediently press into a line of pursed lips. My five-year-old class is silent … momentarily, so finally we can move. Off we march through the double doors leading away from the playground and up the stairs toward the classroom. On the second flight of stairs I hit a blind spot and the more canny members of the group take advantage of it to break ranks and charge screaming along the corridor and into the classroom. Our four-year-old neighbours, lined up and still waiting for orders to break ranks, glance up at their teacher seeking some explanation for the human hurricane that has just torn past them. I too glance at her and her regiment. She’s not impressed but I have no time to wallow in shame, hell has broken loose in my classroom and I wade in there feeling decidedly unhopeful about restoring calm.
The children like the “fingers on the lips” mantra and so I resort to it now. Once they are sitting quietly around the table and I have called the register we can begin the process of learning some English. But it’s me who has learnt most in the five months since I was nominated teacher of these tiny human beings. Until September of last year I had absolutely no contact with children … of any age, never mind five year olds. Adults, strictly adult education, was my domain. Outside of it I have learned that the rules are entirely different, or so it seems to me.
For a start I am of the impression that routine, organisation and clear boundaries are fundamental to establishing and maintaining control in the classroom. First we do this, then this, and then this, and finally this. And we do it the way I say, no other way. Any deviation or indecision generally causes havoc. To prevent it I need a game plan and I need to be organised down to the last detail. Turning my back on the class to shuffle undecidedly among my photocopies – even for a few seconds – risks chaos. I tell the children I have eyes in the back of my head,
“Yes, I can see them. Little red ones,” pipes up Laura.*
Others murmur their assent, but only the most docile. Eric and Roberto look sceptical and resume kicking each other under the table. Kicking is much less lethal than their usual sport, fencing with sharpened pencils, the objective being to poke an eye out. If their behaviour deteriorates, there is always the option of asking one or the other to leave the room. Inevitably, that happens but it no longer worries me, not even when they make faces through the frosted glass pane on the door.
I have come along way since the first class on my first day at the school, which left me “traumatised” and I don’t use the word lightly. On that day, unaware as I was of the need for sergeant major tactics, I blithely urged the children to follow me, “Vámonos. Let’s Go.” And indeed they did. They swarmed on ahead of me, up the stairs and charged into the classroom, barely pausing to open the door. When I strolled in Eric was trampolining on the tables, Roberto had become a whirling dervish, Miguel was repeatedly crash diving on the floor and two of the girls were screaming in the corner. The rest were pogoing in a sort of group frenzy, or so it seemed to me. The classroom resembled a war zone. That was the start, and it only got worse from then onward. I emerged at the end of fifty minutes having aged fifty years.
Since that first day sympathetic colleagues have enlightened me about the importance of a system of rewards and “punishment” via the happy and sad faces routine, aka bribery. Now, each child who behaves well receives a copy of a happy smiling face at the end of the class and two happy faces can be exchanged for a sticker. The “sticker awards” have become something of a high point in the class and a sea of eager faces often besieges me in the final minutes of each lesson chorusing,
Dóna’m una enganxina” (Give me a sticker)
While I am doling out stickers, Eric and Roberto are whingeing miserably off stage over the injustice of the system. Each of them grasps a crumpled sad face in their tiny fists which their parents will have to sign. Cruelly, I hold up the newly purchased spider man stickers, which their classmate Arnau is deliberating over.
“Next time," I say, glancing over at the miscreants, “you too can have one of these … if you are good boys.”
Eric bursts into tears and buries his head among the coats on the rail behind him.
            For some reason the children have quickly grown fond of me. When I walk into the playground now to round them up, I get the celebrity treatment. The collective swarms over to me the second I arrive, joyously crying out my name. Both my legs are hugged, tiny hands slip into mine and little faces gaze up at me adoringly.  Elena, who habitually sticks to me limpet fashion, asks (again) if she is my favourite pupil. While I am still wondering what I have done to be worshipped in this way, my heart opens to the deluge and they’re in.
Whatever happens, no matter how much they wear me down, they have won me over and I suspect that long after the children have forgotten me, I will treasure the memories that these “tiny terrors” have given me. Those memories will not, however, slow my steps as I hasten back to my comfort zone of adult education. When my year in Tarragona is over that is where I will be. It’s where I belong and it is from there that I will salute the extraordinary professionals who have the skills and vocation required to be a nursery and primary school teacher. I am not one of them.

*The names of my pupils have been changed to protect me from the wrath of their parents!

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Douglas dijo...