I recently started teaching a children’s class with the help of a friend. There are 5 children in the class from our particular area in Perth, and we use material from the third book of the Ruhi Institute. So far we’ve had 2 lessons, covering these subjects: Purity of Heart and Justice.
I had been meaning to do this for some time, but I have to admit I was (and still am to some extent) nervous about the whole experience. Not only do I not frequently interact with children, the interaction that you might have with a child socially can be quite different to teacher/student interaction. Nevertheless I have been very excited about the learning opportunity. In these two sessions I have made a few observations I want to share. I’m hoping that I can also use this experience to improve Connectorium in one way or another.
Every Child is Unique
This is so obvious, but it’s funny how we can completely forget about it when we are not actually working with children. Every child has their uniqueness. Every child has weaknesses and strength, his/her own way of interacting with you and with other children, and his/her own ways of getting motivated and focusing on a task. One child might be extremely well mannered, but might have trouble following simple tasks. Another child might be very testy, but excels at drawing, and you can use that as a basis for encouraging them in other areas…
All of this makes it so important that a teacher is able to have enough room for attending to each child’s needs. I know next to nothing about the state of the education system in any of the countries I’ve lived in, but I now really understand why a teacher might be so frustrated about having to teach large classes. There is just no way to give enough attention to the needs of each individual child (Heck I already have trouble with 5!!). Really I feel that anyone who is making decisions about an educational system, must personally be working with children on a regular basis to understand the intricacies.
Children Interact Differently with Different Children
One thing I have noticed in both lessons is that children can act very differently depending on who they are sitting next to, or who they are working with on a task. It’s funny, because not only do I remember being the exact same way as a child, in some ways I think as an adult I still act this way. I think we all do. None of us are always consistently the same person. We don’t act the same way around our parents as we do around close friends. Of course as adults typically learn some personal boundaries.
At a simple and practical level, this means that seating arrangement in the class becomes important. But beyond that I think it means that teachers must remember that they are teaching a class, as a unit. Not a group of individuals. It becomes important to nurture bonds of friendship and cooperation amongst the students, rather than individual excellence and competition. I’m sure I’m opening a can of worms by mentioning competition as a negative, as most educational systems today are inherently centered around competition, and it is indeed a strong motivator. Still I believe collaboration is a more important value to be taught. In my last class I asked the children to do coloring in pairs, rather than their usual individual drawing/coloring. I felt that this stretched them, in a good way, to have to deal with sharing and being detached from having sole ownership of their work. This is just a small example.
To be a Teacher, or to be a Friend
Before I started the class, I had this sort of illusion that as long as I interacted with the children as a friend, they’d be completely well behaved, and they’d be keen to learn, and everything would be jolly good! Of course this is very naive, as I quickly found. Granted, I have hardly had a chance to become close friends with the children, but it is obvious to me that being a friend is not enough. As I have learnt from my friend who is helping me with this (she has a lot more experience with teaching children), there are moments when you need to stop, and be the teacher. If a child is being particularly disruptive, this might mean just a look, this might mean asking them to sit out from an activity for a minute and explaining to them exactly why, or it could mean a firm reminder that they are not exercising a particular virtue.
I think I still find it a bit hard to be firm in that way, but it is certainly needed.
Positive Reinforcement is King
To balance what I have talked about above, I believe positive reinforcement is a much stronger motivator in many ways. One personal example: I had asked one of the children to share a prayer with the class a couple of times, which he had accepted but backed out of at the very last minute. During our coloring time, myself and my friend noticed that he was doing a particularly good job. I encouraged him about his work and asked him if he could, as a special privilege, share a prayer at the end of the class. Sure enough he accepted, and said a beautiful prayer from memory.
Again this is a one off example, but I can see how encouragement can be a very powerful motivator if we are looking out for the right opportunities.
Anyway I’m learning a lot from this experience. If nothing else, I appreciate a lot more the hard work that every parent puts into raising a child!