Let us begin with some non-traditional premises, and see where they lead us.
EVERY class, be it large or small, is a multi-level. No two children are completely alike; even identical twins have different personalities and capabilities. The temperaments and characters vary greatly; a pupil who used to be pliable and reliable in primary school may become an explosive teenager later; a slow learner may outgrow developmental problems by mid-school and become a star. A popular sportsman may be either close to zero intellectually, or a top student of their class. Same age does not equal same level, and same level does not equal same age. Even worse, there are young children who seem to be quite mature for their chronological age, and there are adolescents who act like they are still in kindergarten. To sum it up, there are absolutely no rules. When dealing with children of any age, always be ready for the unexpected!
Universal education is historically young. Though the first schools appeared in various countries in ancient times, for centuries nobody would even dream of sending ALL the children to school for a whole decade. Education for girls? Please. Mrs. Bennett’s five daughters all received their education at home, and all they learned was embroidery, dancing, a little French perhaps, housekeeping, piano playing, in short, a few accomplishments which were deemed essential for a gentleman’s daughter.
Worldwide, humanity is still far away from the equality of sexes. Having grown in a country where universal education and equal pay for men and women were adopted in 1918, shortly after the 1917 revolution, I had had quite a cultural shock when I had to take part in the tenth anniversary celebrations at a US university in 1992.
What was celebrated? In 1982, women were allowed to enter the university, and obtained an equal footing with men in this respect. Think a moment: when we study the history of science, for instance, we come across only one female name for the beginning of the twentieth century, Madame Curie. As a student at Moscow University, I remember reading that Charles Dickens was an ardent champion of what we now call universal secondary education. Just look at the number of his novels where school as a phenomenon which needs society’s attention and immediate reforms occupies a central place in his plots. He did not live to see the Education Act adopted in the UK in 1870. In most countries, it was only in the second half of the twentieth century that the concept of universal compulsory education was introduced.
Today, in most developed countries, parents are required by law to send their children to school between the ages of 5-6 to 16-17. And so here we are, teaching ALL children according to the school curriculum, whether they wish it or not. I would say that step number one is an awareness of those two sides of modern teaching and learning.
- No two children are the same. ALL children are different.
- We used to be those children. The younger we teachers are, the more reforms and innovations we experienced while still students ourselves.
When I started working at school in 1995, I was extremely lucky to have the following very unusual experience. In Russia, there is no system of substitute teachers. If a colleague is absent for some reason, their classes are shafted to any other person who teaches same level and age groups. One day, the other primary EL teachers were sick, so I suddenly got whole large classes, 35 pupils each, instead of the customary groups of 15-18. Any teacher knows how hard it is to cope with a strange class; when groups of rowdy children are thrown together, half of them familiar with the adult and half of them not knowing what to expect, the results may be quite disastrous. To aggravate matters, a much respected colleague, whose subject was Russian, poked his head into my room and waved me outside for a moment. It turned out he had to leave urgently, and he asked me to take his pupils in. I was speechless for a moment. 35 eight-year-old beginners with 35 sophisticated eleven-year-olds?! But one does not say “No” in Siberia in winter, especially not when it is the second, afternoon shift, the time is 6 P.M., it is -25C outside, and the parents are not coming to pick up their children until 7 P.M. He looked at my face, smiled and said, “You can cope, I know!” His trust buoyed me up. The extreme experience taught me to manage; more importantly, it showed me that indeed I could cope. How?
- Tell yourself frankly that it is a difficult situation. Then brace yourself for whatever may be coming.
- No matter how you feel, show a confident face to the class. You are the boss, it is your classroom, and those are your rules. Take a few deep breaths before you speak.
- In any unexpected case, take a few seconds to evaluate the situation. Ask the pupils what they think, what they can do. It does not mean that you will follow their advice or opinion. It means that you help the class calm down, engage them in a mental activity, and give a new direction to their energy.
- Try not to hold up the liveliest and most talented pupils, always have some extra tasks ready. On the other hand, do not try to elicit the same spectacular results from those who are slow or lag behind. Without attracting the whole class’s attention to them, produce a few manageable tasks, or use the ones you already prepared but shorten them, for example mark six items out of ten in an exercise. Be sure to tell them that if they can do the whole task in the time allotted, it is fine.
- If you have a feeling that you cannot cope satisfactorily, do not hesitate to ask for help. There is no shame in that. Some of your more experienced colleagues are sure to be friendly and understanding. If not at your own educational institution, you may find support at home, or by attending a teacher conference or seminar, or teacher refresher courses. There are plenty of resources online, too.
- Try to keep your emotions in check; do not vent your feelings in front of a class. Our job is much like an actor’s, in that we are always in front of an audience (minus the successful actor’s fees). It is vital to realize that the mere fact of our having to face a rambunctious, or exhausted, or tired, or all of the above factors plus multi-level abilities, is stressful in itself. Yet I believe that if we come to a classroom with an open heart and try our best to teach the good, the bad and the ugly, we can manage just fine.