Pullman on Teaching

Award-winning author Philip Pullman used to be a teacher, I discovered in this interview. And he said something very interesting about classroom dynamics:

It took him a while to work out how to tame a class. ‘You mustn’t try to be the most popular. That’s not your role. The way to control a class is to get the chief girl, or chief boy, interested in what you’ve got to say. Everyone else will follow them.’

After a few years he begin to notice something. Though every child was different, each class was more or less the same, with roles to be filled. Boys’ groups are more casual: the smelly one with nits; the clown, who falls off his chair and gets covered with ink.

‘Then there are the girls, who operate on a very different level. There were two sorts of girls’ groups in every class. There was the smart, sophisticated café-society group, much more grown-up than the boys, interested in fashion and make-up. Then there were nice little girls who did their homework and brought you apples and sweets. But these roles were consistent, independent of the individuals.’

If the class clown left, within a week someone else would be in that role. There was an invisible template waiting for each new class in September. It could not be resisted.

Now, that is something I understood myself when I was younger, perhaps not as a child but as a teenager, definitely. What I find interesting is that, although the roles tend to be different, and it’s slightly less consistent, there’s something like this that operates even in a group of adult students. Among the males, there are the inquisitive ones, the ones who’d rather be elsewhere and make no secret of it, the ones who play dumb, the odd silverback who wants to vie for a role above the teacher’s authority. Then there are the young women who think that they’re above all this business, the other young women, who try really hard and usually manage to advance well, the few girls who can’t seem to get anything right, but seem also to have a good heart and a sweet disposition nonetheless.

And there are always the exceptions: the rare fellow who’s fluent, but tries to help anyone else he can. The young woman who dresses like a lady of the night, but actually turns out to be one of the best in the class. The shy kid who sits in the back but composes absolutely brilliant comparative essays, hampered not a bit by logic but only by bits of grammar. The married guy with kids who signs up for your class, never attends it, and then turns out to have attended someone else’s class all along. The boy who, recently released from the army, volunteers to do every possible extra assignment he can, and is terrible at card tricks but good at motivating others.

But the funny thing is that, really, those exceptions aside, the vast majority of adult students I’ve taught in the last couple of years — and even before then — assume a role in class. This also raises a question I’ll answer immediately: yes, the teacher plays a role in class, too. Every teacher plays a different one. It reminds me of the Medieval debates in Montpelier over how to cure a man of amor hereos, better know to us as lovesicknesse: some felt it was best to prod the ill man, as the books put it, “as if he were a boy, with apples and sweets”, while other doctors punished the man by beating him or showing him ugly womens’ faces. One doctor claimed the solution was delicious almond tortillas. Everyone has a different notion, everyone’s got some research to back them up. And the world just keeps on turning, turning, turning.

Why I’m researching Pullman, by the way, will be apparent in my next post.

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