I’m writing this on a sweltering day here in Italy, so I apologise in advance if any of this is going to sound a bit harsh. I also want to point out that most of the colleagues I met during the experience I am going to describe were great teachers and wonderful colleagues, to whom I wish best of luck in their teaching career.
Let’s get to the point. Around Christmas last year I was interviewed and offered a job as English Teacher for years 4 and 5 in a local primary school. Unfortunately all previous teachers had left and the school was desperate to find a good replacement. The children had already changed three teachers since September, furthermore the parents of year 5 pupils were very concerned that the children wouldn’t get a good education in English, resulting in a disadvantage in secondary school.
During my interview, both the headmaster and the teacher coordinator stressed the fact that there were strong classroom management issues with some of the classes and that good behaviour and discipline were of paramount importance. I had some previous experience with YLs, so I brushed up my skills, read some extra literature and prepared a set of activities and ideas for classroom management to contain disruptive behaviour and to engage learners.
Turns out nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. As usual, I entered the classroom speaking only or mainly English, using gesture and example to give instructions and trying to create communicative situations for the children to use the language. All of which led to complete disaster. I had children shout at me things like “tell us in Italian, we don’t understand you!” and parents complaining to myself and to the coordinator that my lessons were “too demanding” for the children.
I admit my errors and oversights, these children were probably not used to being spoken to in English (yet they have been studying it since nursery school!) or to working in groups in communicative activities. But I only had four months with them, and I was trying to get them to use the language in as real-life situations as possible. I tried different type of activities, I used the classroom as a map when we studied giving directions and I even got them to pick their favourite song to listen and learn in class. Still, all I got was chaos, boredom and angry parents and supervisors.
The experience has been a very bad one for me, therefore I’ve gone over and over it again trying to understand what went wrong. With hindsight, I think my main errors were:
- Approaching classes using my usual, “communicative” method to which the children were evidently not used; if I had first explored what other teachers did before and around me, I might have adapted my teaching style to the children’s habits.
- giving in to parents’ demands; it was my first time as a proper classroom teacher, so when I started getting complains from parents I decided to adapt to their requests (a lot of written work on the children’s notebooks, grammar rules, “making it easy” for the children and so on);
- not acting on my lack of motivation; when I started to see that my efforts were useless, I started to loose motivation and to kind of “cruise along” to get to the end of the school year. I am really sorry I did this, if I had sought advice or help from colleagues I might have found renewed enthusiasm on the job.
On the other had, what I think the school could have done to make things easier for me and to avoid disaster could have been:
- give me more details on the teaching methodology adopted by teachers in the school and situation of some classes and pupils — possibly fill me in on techniques and strategies used by other teachers for classroom management in these difficult classes;
- monitor my work and offer help with lesson planning, classroom management and other practical aspects of school life; I have to say I felt pretty letf on my own to deal with my own problems from the very beginning.
- reduce class numbers; I had as many as 26 pupils in one class, so I found it impossibly difficult to engage all pupils in the learning process (but this is my fault too, as I had no previous experience with large classes and I was quite unprepared for the task).
I’m sure many of you have had experience with primary school teaching: was your experience positive or negative? Did you receive any help/guidance from the school? How did you manage disruptive behaviour (I know, we would need a whole book to answer this one)?
Thanks for reading, and if you live on this side of the globe happy summer!