Monday, June 08, 2009

Within these walls

After 2 decades of teaching almost exclusively in university environments to audiences of super-selected adults or near adults, I've just finished a 6 month stint teaching A level students in an FE College somewhere in the south of England.

I'm not a parent so my experience of teenagers until recently has been limited to Xmas visits at my sister's house when I'm usually the benign uncle handing out quirky but thoughtful gifts from across the Irish Sea. Apparently they like it when you give them shiny things or anything with an apple logo on it.

However, I digress. From a professional point of view the last 6 months has been pedagogic experience like none I've ever had before; exhausting, enervating, exasperating and occasionally exhilarating. I have never been so challenged as a teacher, nor have I ever found myself so emotionally engaged with the people making up my classes.

Anyway, just when I thought it was over, the local flea-pit decided to show this:

Teacher and novelist François Bégaudeau plays a version of himself in the Palme D'Or winning film of his own book which takes place over the course of a school year in the multi-ethnic 20th arrondissement in Paris.

This scene from near the beginning of the movie perfectly captures the reasons why teaching this age group evokes the 4 'E's mentioned above.

Take my word for it, Laurent Cantet has taken cinema verité to a new level. Two hours of this movie were as exhausting as a term at the chalk-face. Believe me, I've been there and survived to tell the tale. As the final credits rolled, a trickle of sweat was still running icy fingers down my spine.

What surprised me more than anything was how similar the Parisian teenagers in this film were to my charges in commuter belt Kent. They're smart and sassy and they know it all, but contradictions unsettle them, or at least they unsettle the ones who can see beyond the next text message or Facebook wall. Unlike the average university undergraduate, they are walking, talking bullshit detectors with a keen and oft-expressed sense of injustice, especially when it applies to them.

I hope they learned as much from me as I did from them and if they'll have me back,I'm going.

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