Fun can backfire
Saturday, 24 December 2016
Chapter 6 Fun can backfire
Fun can backfire
As a general rule, I wanted classes to enjoy their lessons with me. That said, I was never particularly good at making the work itself much fun (there is even an argument that work may not be taken seriously if presented too frequently as entertainment), but I did often try to make the lesson fun in terms of explanations, interplay and general banter as the lesson progressed.
There were times, however, when this approach backfired and not just on the occasions when pupils outwitted me in class, but also on a few occasions when I was caused physical pain.
One such event, which left a scar I still carry today, occurred with a small, bright, chirpy S3 class. I was explaining something and undoubtedly starting recounting some tale in an effort to bring the explanation to life, when I became aware of one particularly bright and chirpy lad tapping his teeth with his pencil while I was spouting forth. To be fair, this appeared to be a by-product of concentration rather than some attempt to distract or amuse his classmates. Nonetheless, the persistent tapping did prove distracting – to me. I therefore politely invited the pupil to stop the offending action as it was annoying me. He apologised and immediately stopped.
I continued, and about thirty seconds later I became aware that the pupil, still focused on my tale, had restarted the tapping.
Again, I asked him politely to desist, explaining his action was very off-putting, and again he apologised sincerely and stopped.
A couple of minutes further into my tale I once again heard the regular Tap ….. Tap ….. Tap ……
This time I was fairly abrupt and simply told him it was annoying. Embarrassed at my repeated warnings, he placed his pencil on the desk in front of him, went quite red and said sorry nervously.
The next time (and quite unbelievably, there was a next time), I knew I had to do something to finally get the message across that this was to stop. The problem was he was a nice lad who innocently indulged in a very low level disturbance and I certainly didn’t want to react disproportionately, so I thought I would over-react in a funny way to defuse the situation and at the same time remove the pencil from his hand.
In my mind, the plan was thus:
I pull an exaggeratedly annoyed face (intended to amuse and get the message across), while swiping the pencil out of the boy’s hand with my right hand.
However, I failed to take into account the fact the lad was anxious because of my previous attempts to chastise him and so he didn’t recognise any humour whatsoever in the face I was pulling, and in an attempt to make matters right, he actually made to hand his very sharp pencil over, stretching out his arm so that the sharp point of the pencil met my swinging right hand and embedded itself about half-way along my life-line!
With no small measure of disbelief at how my plan for lightening the situation led to squeals of shock and horror from the rest of the class, never mind the utterly distraught reaction of my “aggressor”, I pulled the pencil (which stood independently at an angle of 90° to my palm) from the wound.
I quickly reassured the class that all was well and that everything was my fault, and did my best to continue as though nothing had happened.
I didn’t seek treatment - it was just a minor flesh wound, but curiously that incident seemed to bring me closer to the class who regularly enjoyed reminding me of my folly, but also showed a willingness to make more of an effort in class, perhaps out of some sense of sympathy.
Within my subject, we did not have the advantage of being compulsory and if class numbers dropped (which was often the consequence of levels of staffing and resultant option choices), we were invited to consider our course content and strategies for delivery.
In part because of this, I had a preference for a light and productive atmosphere in my room as I was aware that several pupils struggled or didn’t enjoy the subject so I set out to do what I could to make the class reasonably pleasant, and I preferred to reserve more serious chastisement for more serious offences.
Thus, often if a pupil was distracted or failed to keep on task, I would direct a light-hearted remark at them, or occasionally try to embarrass them by sneaking up behind them and bark sharply, causing them a fright. Usually they got the message and settled down to the task in hand.
However, on one occasion I was a little more effective in causing a fright than I anticipated. One S3 girl tended to be easily distracted but always returned to task when reminded of her educational duties, though she responded more readily to a light-hearted reminder than a serious ticking off, so I thought I would embarrass her by sneaking up behind her as she was chatting, and barking “Work!” at the back of her head.
This I did, but to fairly disastrous effect for me as my dear pupil got such a shock she bucked her head backwards and collided with my forehead and glasses.
The pain subsided very quickly and my glasses were easily twisted back into shape. I did think to myself that maybe it was time to stop doing these idiotic things, but on the other hand the pupil did then get on with her work, and she even wrote a note of apology on a card given to me by her class on my retirement. Maybe it worked after all …..
So, you’d think I would learn my lesson after that incident, but no …..
I continued to use this ploy as an amusing (in my mind) means of shocking pupils back into work mode, and it proved quite effective – several pupils whose attention had wandered got the not very subtle message that it was time to get back to work, until the day I used my trick on a particularly chatty and ebullient lad in S4.
The scenario was the same as usual – chatty pupil needing to be gently goaded into getting on with some work, but the pupil was not quite the same as usual. He was sharp, savvy and confident, and when he bucked his head back I couldn’t be sure whether it was a reflex action or something more calculated. Either way, the result was the same (and was entirely my own fault) – the back of his head connected firmly with my nose, and given the pain I felt and the crack I heard, I was fairly sure my nose was broken.
It is at this point I have to indulge in a Victor Hugo-like digression.
For as long as I could remember, my nose had been slightly off-centre, veering a little to the left. It wasn’t something to which I gave any particular thought until I needed my first pair of glasses (at age 19) and I went to be “fitted” by a local optician. He kindly informed me that I had one ear further up than the other, but added that I shouldn’t worry about it as one eye was also further up than the other to compensate. A little taken aback, I muttered something about resembling Quasimodo, whereupon this highly sensitive professional announced that my most interesting feature was, in fact, my nose which “went off at an angle of about 15°”. I entered his offices needing glasses and left feeling the need of a plastic surgeon!
I can’t be sure, but I think I may have broken my nose originally at the age of four when I fell and gashed my lip which required stitches, so any damage done to my nose was overlooked due to the more obvious and dramatic wound on my upper lip.
Anyway, to return to the headbutting of my nose. The pain was now considerable but what I noticed above all else was that it felt different somehow. I ran my fingers over it and realised that this pupil had actually done me a huge favour – my nose was virtually straightened!
The pupil in question showed little remorse (and it was, after all, my own fault), but I think he was a tad disappointed to learn his action had had a positive effect.
Of course, having fun with a class did not necessarily imply physical pain. Fun could be produced through teasing, banter, singing or trying to catch one another out.
Homework (consisting of the completion of a short piece of writing) had been set for an S2 class and it was to be collected at the end of the period.
One charming pupil approached before the end of the class to say how sorry he was, but that he had left his homework at home – he would bring it in the following day.
Having made something of a fuss about handing in the homework on time, I asked him a few questions just to make sure he had, indeed, done the work.
I asked if he was sure he’d done it all and wasn’t just making an excuse. He appeared almost hurt at the implication he might be fibbing. “It’s all done. I was working on it in bed last night and when it was finished I put my jotter under my bed and then forgot to put it in my bag in the morning.”
I looked at him a little doubtfully. “Are you sure? You wouldn’t fib to me, would you?” By now the attention of the rest of the class had been drawn to our conversation as they sensed a potential drama unfolding.
“No, I swear – I got it done, felt sleepy and put the jotter on the floor. I’ll bring it tomorrow and you’ll see.” He was becoming quite indignant at my continued questioning and even started to grandstand a little for the benefit of his classmates.
“I’ll bring it tomorrow at registration. You can’t say fairer than that”, he said, almost triumphantly, sensing I was either convinced by his display of honesty or was caving to his persistent offers to bring the work in at the earliest possible opportunity.
“No need”, said I, and promptly produced his jotter from behind my back and plonked it on the table between us.
“You left this behind yesterday so I kept it in my desk for safekeeping”, I added.
The class loved it and laughed appreciatively while the lad himself had the decency to go deep red and gave me a smile which indicated he accepted defeat and he had been well played.
“Tomorrow at registration”, I said, handing him his jotter which he took while nodding compliance.