Learning Curve

By Millward, Margaret | NATE Classroom, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Learning Curve


Millward, Margaret, NATE Classroom


I have always believed with passion that students learn best in an atmosphere of praise and encouragement. If you tell them repeatedly that you believe they can do it they come to believe it too. If you constantly criticise and denigrate them they don't flourish.

It was a student called Nadine who brought home to me the fact that teachers' words have an awesome power to wound, inflicting scars that can last for a very long time. Nadine, a quiet, diffident girl, was in my Year 13 A Level English Language and Literature group. We were preparing for the general essay paper by planning together a response to the question 'Is equality of opportunity in education just an impossible dream?'

'I think it is, Miss.' Nadine, red-faced, spoke up unexpectedly. 'Because it's all about people's attitudes, isn't it? Like--we had a science teacher in my last school who really hated the girls.' She cut short my protest by saying, 'He did, Miss, honestly! He thought they couldn't do science. I had him in Years 10 and 11, and he used to say things like: 'You girls ought to go off and do needlework instead of wasting my time.' One day in Year 10 we were doing a lesson about light and one of the boys said something about deep space, and before I thought I said, 'Sir, I don't understand what deep space is. Where is it?' and he said, quick as a flash, 'It's between your ears, Nadine,' and everybody laughed.'

She had to stop to control the tears that, three years on, threatened to flow. 'I've never forgotten it. I couldn't do a thing right in his lessons after that, and I ended up with two Ds in dual science.' She looked at me in appeal. 'I know I'm not as bright as some of the others, but I'm not stupid, Miss, am I?'

'No, Nadine,' I replied, 'you're not stupid. You're not stupid at all.'

I was so angry that I wanted to seek out that smug, cruel, travesty of a teacher and grind my heel into his instep. Did he know, I wondered, what damage he'd done? No wonder Nadine had so little confidence in herself and rarely spoke out in class! The only way to teach successfully, I thought, was by encouraging and praising your students.

It was some time later that two boys called Dylan and Gareth taught me the value of injecting just a tad more realism into the encouragement. In the Sixth Form College where I worked when I met the boys, we took in annually a small group of students who were doing a re-sit GCSE year before going on to take advanced courses. Dylan and Gareth were in my GCSE English group. Confidence-boosting is, of course, particularly important with a re-sit group who come to you feeling that they have failed once and will probably do so again. I made it very clear to this group that I believed they were capable of anything they really wanted to achieve. 'Come on, you can do this!' was my constant refrain.

Initially, Dylan and Gareth didn't help my crusade. They were great friends, having been together, they told me, through nursery, primary and secondary schools. In the course of their journey they had perfected a double act worthy of Laurel and Hardy in which Dylan was the wistful clown to Gareth's acerbic bully. …

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