It’s strange sometimes. Being shy. And being a teacher. As soon as you state your profession, some people immediately expect you to tell them what to do, organise them into groups and obviously to be an extrovert. They then proceed to try to rile you into an argument by commenting on the length of your holidays. As though teachers are always ready for a fight. As though that’s what you do in the classroom. Maybe it was their experience of teachers. It’s not mine. Maybe I’m paranoid. I know not everyone is a slave to stereotypes; stereotypes which shouldn’t exist in the first place, but I wanted to explain myself anyway.
In my self-persecution, I imagine people look at me and wonder how I keep discipline in the classroom. I’m outwardly quiet and gentle. I wonder the same myself every single day. And I spend time worrying about it even though I know that the answer, at least in part, lies simply in stickers and in games where winning depends on keeping quiet at the right times; otherwise you lose points. And points mean stickers. Not that I just play games. I remember the days when I used to give friends the impression that my classroom was all fun and games and that there was no room for seriousness. That’s not true in the slightest, but I’m certain any success I have with discipline comes from making the learning as entertaining as possible, which comes from thorough planning in every lesson. I absolutely couldn’t do it any other way.
My father was a quiet man too. In fact, he was known as “The Quiet Man” among his Irish in-laws who mostly had no time to wait for his intellectual answer. He was also the most intelligent being I have ever had the pleasure of encountering. As well as one of the most modest. There was no question on any topic that he couldn’t tackle, and if he wasn’t sure, he knew where to find the answer. He too was a teacher. And a shy one.
He worked in the days when lessons weren’t planned in the same way that they are now. I think he survived on his intellect alone, thrilling his pupils with tales that he knew so well that he could recall them by heart and that he was able to conjure up in a myriad of interesting ways. There are many ways to grab a child’s attention: shouting, inflexibility and severity are not methods that my father was capable of; nor me. If I had had a cane sitting in the corner of my room like he did, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it either!
There was one occasion when my father became angered by the behaviour in his class. An infamous occasion because it lives on in my memory even though I didn’t witness it. He tells the story of how he was so infuriated by a couple of boys’ attitudes that he threw their books out of the open window. The headmaster happened to be passing below and was somewhat perturbed to see a couple of exercise books spin through the air above him. He duly gathered them up, noted which classroom they were from and ascended the two flights of stairs to find my father and discover what miscreant had started hurling their stationery in disrespect through the orifices of the school building, so that he could reprimand them no doubt. “Ah thank you,” said my father confidently. “I was just making a point!” The headmaster, slightly startled by this revelation, said no more and backed out of the classroom. Apparently, the atmosphere in the classroom that ensued was very relaxed and jovial.
Further memories lead me to a time when I witnessed boys speaking to my father in a more than casual fashion. At the time, being all of 10 or 11 myself, I was quite shocked that they could address him in such a manner, but looking back, I see that beneath that familiarity lay deep respect, admiration and fondness. When my students speak to me like that now, I see it as a sign of success: a warmth that has been earned and that I will cherish.
So, when I state my profession, please don’t expect me to suddenly become an extrovert, spouting opinions for everyone to hear but no one to listen to, marking my authority in every situation and expecting people to obey me. I enjoy my job and I want my pupils to enjoy what I do. I try to earn their respect through gentleness, understanding and fairness. There are times I fail, but I’m nothing if not resilient and I never give up! Maybe you’ll see some paper work come flying through my windows in the near future. Maybe not. One thing anyway is for certain: I don’t and never will fit the conventional image of a teacher!