Friday, 5 June 2009

from Demons to Angels

or: Never Underestimate The Power Of The Sticker

At least where 8 year-olds are concerned. On Tuesday night I was wondering if my decision to start teaching two children's classes was a spectacular mis-kick on my part. I had watched my predecessor handle the groups without too much trouble a few days earlier, so armed with the trusty text-book and
a lesson plan I figured under-tens would love, I cruised confidently into the classroom.
I exited an hour later feeling like Joyce Grenfell on Mogadon. My lovely English lesson had swiftly degenerated into an exercise that fell somewhere between crowd control and mayhem. After months of teaching obedient and attentive adults, it was a severe culture shock to be faced with seven cheeky and boistrous kids who started rioting the moment the lesson got exciting or any hint of boredom set in. For the first time since I began teaching English I hovered on the verge of despair. No matter that I had only agreed to take the classes during June, it already felt like a lifetime.
I decided against threatening the miscreants with any form of automatic weapon and turned instead to the internet. Interestingly, my search key-words of "EFL children discipline" produced a hugely popular discussion thread entitled "Spanish children and discipline problems" at the top of the list. I immediately started to feel a bit better.
I began my second class by re-seating the children in a formation less popular with them but a whole lot more popular with me (necessary separation of troublemakers). I then took out a green pen and made ten marks on the whiteboard, which the children counted. I explained that any bad behaviour or speaking in Spanish would result in a mark being erased and if there were none left at the end of the class, none of the children would receive a sticker. There was a shocked silence as they digested this this awful prospect.
My predecessor had been in the habit of giving the children a sticker at the end of each class and I had continued the tradition in my first class, so they know the stickers were available. I had noted their immediate interest and attention when I had produced them, so was reasonably confident my threat would be taken seriously. But even I wasn't prepared for its dramatic effect.
"All the class, no sticker?" asked one. I confirmed that indeed, innocent and guilty alike would leave empty-handed. Peer pressure to behave well was all part of the plan. They could, I pointed out, earn lost marks back if they were super-good. But only SUPER good.
Next we got down to work. This time I was strict about accepting answers only if a hand was up first - on Tuesday, I had allowed a certain amount of calling out, not wanting to quench their youthful enthusiasm. Big mistake.
Tuesday's lesson had been full of lively vocab games and speaking practice brimming with actions and energy - which was all very well, except (as another teacher mentioned casually in the staffroom) you need "coolers" as well as "warmers", or the whole thing becomes less of a lesson and more of a birthday party. Or a war. So the textbooks came out and we sat down in an orderly fashion and started looking at a comic strip together.
I hadn't appreciated the magic of picture books, but the way they all started making that high-pitched grunting noise kids do if they have their hands up and really want to say something made me realise we were on to something here. The heady excitement that greeted my request to tell me about picture number one was unprecedented in my teaching experience.
And so the lesson continued enjoyably - for all of us, I think. The one time I had to wave my board eraser in the direction of the green marks produced such a stern telling off from the culprit's classmates; "No, no! Speak Eengleesh! Eengleesh!" that I didn't have to say another word on the subject. They all politely asked for (and received) an animal sticker (educational, y'see) at the end and trotted cheerily out. I exhaled. Now I was in with a chance of actually teaching them something. At least the odds had shifted in my favour.
I fear a group of sullen and recalcitrant teenagers won't be so easily bribed into good behaviour with animal stickers, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. For now, I've awarded myself a seahorse.

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