Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Doug Lemov and the art of gentleness

I found the BBC Radio 4 Programme broadcast yesterday ('The World's Best Teachers') captivating and inspiring. It was all about Doug Lemov's techniques for teaching, which focus on gentle, non-invasive interventions helping children and students to bring their attention back to the classroom. Teachers can stay in control of their own emotions, and children don't feel yelled at and coerced.

I found it inspiring for so many reasons.

When I was a university lecturer, we were never given any teacher training at all, which is why university lecturers are, on the whole, poor teachers. All my teaching was based on having done a load of acting and improv as an undergraduate – I acted my way through. On the whole that worked fine, unless I was in a sticky situation with one student, or wasn't as familiar with the material I was trying to teach.

I did have a year in the classroom, in France, in a Lycée Technique in the Vosges. I was 21, on a year abroad during my undergraduate degree, and really not very sure what to do. The classroom had a toilet in the corner, and one day a kid got up and used it. I think I struggled to stop myself crying in front of the others. Later on, one of the kids put a bottle through the back window of my car. I left that job and went to teach privately in Paris.

As a university teacher, I didn't have disruptive behaviour in the classroom until I was teaching in London. There the students were balancing travel, second jobs and study commitments, and were sullen, judgemental and unthinking. Or at least, that's how I found them, after the wonderland of Oxford and Cambridge.

I know now that I needed to up my game as a teacher, that I wasn't going far enough, and that I had never HAD to think about how to engage people, I'd simply relied on my own acting.

My second insight into bringing distracted students back to the fold wasn't in teaching at all, but in management consultancy. I was trained, in fact by an ex-actor, in how to facilitate. The methods he gave me weren't that different from what I'd instinctively gone for (smiling does help). But what was crucial in what he said was that everyone in the room is looking for a leader, and that it's not enough to be a passive facilitator, hoping everyone will make nice, even in a room of supposed adults. There will always be one participant trying to take over, bully others or bully you. You have to learn to address that person directly, for the sake of everyone else. You can explicitly park them and say you'll take their point later – but you have to name what they are doing, to them, in front of everyone. You cannot let the elephant remain in the room. After years and years of perfecting what I thought was a non-directive approach which would just let things happen in a natural and organic way – successful in a space in which everyone wants to play by the rules – I at last understood that you can certainly establish such a space (a performance space), but you have to do so in an active way, and sometimes name the rules out loud in the middle of the game.

My third insight has been in raising my own children. One of the tales on which Shakespeare bases The Taming of the Shrew is an old folk tale, in which a wild woman is 'tamed' by gradually learning that kindness and gentle words will win more than shouting. She defeats a goblin, by being so lovely to it that it explodes in its own frustration. Miss Honey, the improbably sweet teacher in Roald Dahl's Matilda, is another version of this.

I am more wild Katerina than sweet Miss Honey, but I understand, intellectually and emotionally, that kind words and gentleness win more than sharpness and shouting. It's just that it's VERY DIFFICULT to put into practice, perhaps especially with one's own children, when every single moment is a form of boundary-testing.

It is an inordinate challenge to remain silent under provocation, but it works.

It is exceptionally tricky not to shout when your kids get up from the table for the fifth time in a meal, but a quiet reminder will get them sitting down without even thinking about it.

It is deeply painful to be turned into a servant, and have no apparent authority, but a gentle touch and word will get those chores done. Here I was helped by How to Talk so Kids will Listen and How to Listen when Kids Talk – a wonderful book that's been on my bedside table for the past decade, like a Gideon Bible of parental encouragement.

My fourth insight comes from writing, yoga and mindfulness. As a writer, I have to tame my wild brain every time I want to write. I have to establish rituals, and banish distractions. I have to create the rules of engagement with myself, set myself goals and aim towards them. I must let my imagination go, and rein it in. Learning to sit with my feelings, and just experience them, rather than fight with them, to breathe, to hold poses longer than is comfortable, and realise I can stretch a little further, all this has taught me that I can achieve a writing frame of mind without doing violence to myself, as I learnt to do as a child and student. I do not have to force, but I do have to be actively gentle.

It is so easy to forget these methods of gentleness, pausing, silence, non-invasive intervention. They are incredibly hard to learn and deploy, but they are so powerful.

Here's to Doug Lemov, and the kid in the Vosges who peed in my classroom. Every little helps.

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