“Sir, are you a fun teacher?” So asked one of my Y13s a few weeks ago.
She’d been in my class for the best part of two years and knew very well what my lessons were like. She also knew pretty well what I am like, at least in the classroom. So she also knew that this question would wind me up.
It did. “NO! I am not a FUN teacher!” She looked a little taken aback, and in retrospect the ear-splitting volume of my reply, the frenzied pounding of the table and the anguished cry as I crumpled, Wicked Witch of the West-like, to the floor may have been a bit OTT. But goodness me did that question push my buttons.
In my mind a “fun teacher”, a male one anyway, probably wears a spinning bow tie at least once a year. Homer Simpson socks will feature regularly. “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!!!” will be a guiding philosophy. Exclamation marks will proliferate. Students may well be given amusing nicknames: one of my near contemporaries at school was called Elteeb by our form tutor, because his initials were WV, which is VW backwards. That tutor also used a pair of scissors called Miranda as a doorstop. He was definitely fun.
By that definition I, who wear sensible suits, sober ties, rarely use exclamation marks, eschew nicknames and certainly do not personify my stationery am not a fun teacher. But my lessons are fun. At least, the students seem to enjoy them and so do I. So what’s the difference? How can I possibly have fun lessons without being a fun teacher, beyond wearing my serious teacher disguise? And should I care about fun anyway?
Tom Bennett has recently written a proper article on similar matters for The Guardian. To my mind one of the key lines is this:
“Play might be fun, but learning often isn’t. You just can’t avoid it: learning is often hard work.”
I agree. There’s no point pretending that you can make every minute of every lesson, or even every lesson, thrillingly exciting and nor should you try. It’s not so much the content, though no doubt we all have our less favourite bits. It’s more that some things need practice, which usually isn’t the most popular thing ever. Others need careful and meticulous explanation, which is unlikely to have ’em rolling in the aisles. You get the picture.
That probably means these lessons, or these parts of lessons, aren’t fun. They can though offer other, more helpful, positive feelings: satisfaction from working hard to reach the right answer; pride at completing today what seemed impossible yesterday; excitement at uncovering an additional layer of complexity. This is, perhaps, what some people refer to as “the joy of learning.”
A fun teacher probably wouldn’t see things like that. Where are the opportunities for YouTube clips, felt tip pens, scissors or ipads? Too much struggling, not enough smiling. More confusion than “progress”. Much better and more accessible, therefore, to ask students to make a board game or build a castle than to analyse the views of an historian.
And yet we should not banish fun. To some extent I think we are making life too easy for ourselves if we just rely on “the joy of learning” to provide the excitement. I certainly want my Politics students to engage fully with the question of whether Congress is the “broken branch” of US government, including by reading academic articles and other learned tomes. There’ll be struggle before satisfaction there. But I’m missing a trick if I don’t start the topic with, say, this Huffington Post video: “Congress Approval Rating Lower Than Cockroaches, Genghis Khan And Nickelback.” Augmented with a couple of articles about, say, the 2013 federal government shutdown, the students have around 20 minutes of stimulating and (in part) cerebral material which will fire their enthusiasm, start the process of acquiring knowledge and provide a reference point for future lessons. It will probably be fun, too.
Where I’m getting to is this:
- a fun teacher will use all sorts of techniques to ensure the students have a good time; if they’re enjoying their French lessons, they’re enjoying French, right? Wrong; and besides they may well not be learning very much French at all.
- a good teacher will use all sorts of techniques to ensure students have an exciting, satisfying and challenging education which fills them full of knowledge and the ability to use it;
- a really good teacher will recognize that in aiming for (ii), there will be times when a little bit of (i) is required, for atmospheric and/or pedagogical reasons.
True to the name of my blog, I know that many will disagree. Traditional teachers are legion in the twitterverse and committed to their views; I’d be really interested to hear them; although I don’t know the answers, instinctively I feel the above is right. Because to me fun is like chili powder. Too much and it obliterates the meal it’s supposed to enhance. Too little and the meal will be functional but bland. But in just the right amount it can make a dish sing. Provided the chef isn’t wearing a spinning bow tie.