Frustration and stress – this needs a better title


… but it will do for now as it just sums up nicely what I am feeling.

My god I am frustrated, and angry, and stressed. I feel it in my legs. They are brittle and tense, and feel as though someone has punched them in a way that makes the muscles flare angrily.

I love my job, and I hate my job. Today I hate my job. Today when I am three days past the last interaction I had with a student, when all I have before me is paperwork, planning documents and a pile of books for a subject that is about to be disbanded… well, today, I hate it.

The work in these books does not show progress. The work in these books is patchy at best, sentences incomplete as evidence that the thoughts the students were attempting to record in writing were interrupted by the overwhelming passion of their arguments and their desire to share them with their peers, to verbalise them. To construct the argument the best way they know how – vociferously, aloud, transiently…

My students (in this class) do not relish the commitment of putting words on a page. They are fearful of the permanence of the written word. They revel in the flexibility to change their mind. They worry about their current, immediate opinion being “wrong” and are reluctant to specify a view because they are open to the idea that the opinion held right this minute might fluctuate in the next. And I love that.

Yes, of course, I would like to – over time – educate them and empower them, to instil in them the belief in their own convictions so that they have the confidence to put their own ideas onto the page, eschewing the whole concept of “right” answers, and accepting that there are myriad possible responses to the most important questions in life, and that Ethics lessons are the place where they can express uncertainty, develop their thoughts, try before they buy into one ideology or another. But I have only been teaching them for three weeks. Their previous teacher left the school and they were handed to me, for a total of 13 one-hour lessons, until the end of this school year when Ethics lessons will give way to make room in the timetable for “core” subjects, and the teaching of concepts of belief, empathy, open-mindedness and tolerance will be spread across the curriculum and into tutorial sessions.

Three weeks has been long enough for me to convince them that, actually, this subject can be engaging. I spent the first week repeating the mantra that no, it does not, in fact, matter that they do not believe in God; that their beliefs are important regardless of what they are (currently). The second week, when they were becoming more open to the idea that the purpose of our hour together was not for me to “tell” them things, but rather for me to ask them, to elicit their opinions, we introduced the idea of justifying those opinions.

Their eyes widened as I explained that they could think whatever they wanted, express whatever views they wished, as long as they adhered to two basic guidelines; firstly, that they were no offensive (and if in doubt, they could ask and we would put it to a group discussion, so that they gained a greater understanding of the concept of “offending” someone with your views, and realised that it was not as simple as just saying something that others might disagree with) and secondly, that they gave reasons for what they think. One student told me, whilst packing away at the end of the lesson, that “this made my head hurt, Miss. I thought I knew what I thought but now I don’t know”.

This is where we are currently at, and very much a work in progress. My year 8 students were full of opinion and dogma, full of clichéd statements that expressed a view that they had maybe heard a hundred times and begun to absorb unquestioningly, without ever considering its origins, or its ability to be challenged. They have begun to ask each other “why?” when hearing an idea from a peer. The phrase, “what do you mean by that?” is becoming part of their vocabulary. They are realising that questions are at least equal to answers, and may even surpass them in relative value. A good 90 percent of this is happening without a pen in their hands.

The books do not demonstrate this. As soon as I ask them to write down what they think, their minds appear to tunnel in onto themselves. They begin to ask “Can I put this…?”, forgetting all that we had just practised in our discussions, when they passionately defended their right to take such a stance. They write a sentence or two, conscious of the need to meet their target level, diligently adhering to the suggested sentence starters provided to ensure their work fits neatly into the prescribed boxes of how it should be done.

Classes with whom I have the privilege of spending more time than just one term, one hour per week, have become well-versed in the practice of “thinking out loud on the page”. My Philosophy A level class have books set aside for written thinking to which I am never privy. This liberates them to argue, deliberate, contradict themselves, question their own meanings, meander through the range of possible interpretations of an idea, a question, until they feel inclined towards a written response to submit for marking. Had I asked them to commit to something ready for handing in right from the moment the pen connects with the page, I would have robbed them of this journey, this opportunity to get lost in your thoughts and to return to the same place time and again until you can plan your route through.

Ask my class if they have enjoyed their lessons, if they have learnt something, if they have changed their way of thinking, even just a bit, as a result of our  – so far – three hours together, and I think they would tell you that they have.

How do I show this in my marking of their books? I have honestly no idea. And, worse, I am starting not to care!

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