To Sir, with Love

to sir with love

To Sir, with Love‘ was perhaps the most watched and the most loved movie in my teenage years. The East London high school teacher who gave up on the school textbooks to teach his rowdy, disruptive students about life, was every teenage kid’s hero. I’ve just come across  the website below, which  offers a glimpse of some of the best inspirational teacher movies. Obviously, ‘To Sir, with Love‘ tops the list.

However, life is not that obvious. Neither are people. Students come in all shapes and sizes; as much as we welcome our students into our lives, it seems some are more welcome than others. Shouldn’t we feel ashamed of this? Are we not trying hard enough to turn our students into likeable people? I wonder what has happened with the truly passionate, dedicated heroes that magically reach their students.

More often than not, I see great teachers storm into the staffroom in disbelief when they haven’t been able to cope with a difficult group of students or a particular student. I have had my share of difficult students myself. I could write a book about some of the worst classes and students I’ve had along  my twenty-five plus years teaching children, teenagers, and adults. As a mentor, I’ve seen experienced teachers struggle with uncontrollable groups or students that would not respond to any of the strategies adopted.

The good news is that in her book “Classroom Dynamics,” Jill Hadfield offers some very good strategies to deal with difficult cases and also great activities to create a good atmosphere in the classroom.  Hadfield also gives us a very accurate account of some difficult groups she’s had to face along her career. Reading her book was profoundly liberating for me since I used to feel ashamed, guilty, or incompetent — to say the least, whenever I failed to reach a difficult student. Things changed when I realized that such an experienced teacher and materials writer had experienced the same as I had. Now I am able to accept the fact that, unlike in the movies, we are humans, too. We can’t always save the day no matter how hard we try.  As Hadfield puts it so well, teachers usually ‘blame themselves, admitting to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, unhappiness, or complete demoralization.” I saw myself feeling like  that countless times, and I bet both experienced and inexperienced teachers struggle with some students.   One case described in the book was ‘so extreme that neither reasoning nor confrontation worked.” In fact, there are some cases when it’s best to take it on the chin and only hope the semester will be over soon.

That said, the best piece of advice I can offer is, if worse comes to worst, don’t do or say the first thing that comes to your mind.  Next time a student gives you hell, count to ten. Do the second thing that comes to your mind instead. Act rather than react. Our actions are based on our choices while our reactions are based on someone else’s choices. Remember, we can’t always save the day.


Further reading:

Hadfield, Jill. Classroom Dynamics. OUP, 2013

Prodromou and Clandfield also give teachers great activities for difficult groups:

Clandfield, L. Prodromou, L. Dealing with Difficulties. Delta Publishing, 2007

Here’s the only self-help book that actually helps me when I’m a bit out of sorts:

Carlson, R. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all small stuff. Hyperion, 1997

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Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a Master's Degree in Language Studies from PUC-Rio, a B.A. in Linguistics from USP, and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 30 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in Systemic-Functional Linguistics, identity studies, visual literacy, and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language.

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