A Classroom's Focus


I remember when I was doing my third, four-week internship in Trois-Rivières, QC. One of the teachers in the school, a veteran of some 30-odd years of teaching, invited me to come observe one of his classes. I was learning how to teach math at the time, and he taught social studies, so I wasn't 100% sure that he would be able to mentor me on, but I went anyway. It certainly didn't occur to me that I would learn a lesson that would stick with me over a decade later. It was interesting, sitting in the small, teenage-sized chairs again as a twenty-something with a couple of years of university under my belt. The experience brought back memories of high school. It felt sort of meta, as if I was watching someone else take a class, which I guess I was.

The last of the students arrived in class, and the teacher (to save time, we'll call him Mentor) came through the door just as the bell rang. As soon as he shut the door, the students stopped talking and looked up at him. The only sounds were those of notebooks and writing tools coming out. The teacher looked around and greeted everyone (en français, bien sûr!). After a moment, when the room was completely silent, he looked at me and said, "The important thing in teaching," he paused, and looked around the class, "is that you have to be present." It was clear, by the way he said the word, that he meant more than just the opposite of being absent.

"When you're in the classroom," he said, "you need to be fully aware of everything that's going on. For example, those two kids in the back writing notes," he nodded his head, but didn't point, "As a teacher, you have to be aware that they're distracted. And that they're distracting the people around them." I glanced in the direction he was looking, but I couldn't tell who he was talking about. I guess that they had stopped immediately. I can't say that I blame them: I was almost ten years their senior, and I wouldn't have had the courage to stand up to this particular teacher.

I must confess that I'd had no idea that anyone was distracted. Everyone seemed focused on the teacher. I didn't want to move, out of fear of him further turning his attention on me. He wasn't physically threatening in any way, not by gesture, not by look, not by word. But he was already impressive enough without being upset; I knew didn't want to see him mad.

That was the end of his lesson for me. It took maybe two minutes. Then he started his actual lesson on some mixture of history and geography. I remember that I was interested in what he was teaching, to the point where I wanted to raise my hand and answer some of the questions he was asking. But I cannot recall any specifics of what he taught during the rest of those 75 minutes.

After the class, Mentor followed up with me in the staffroom to ask what I thought. I mentioned being impressed by how well the class responded to him, and how interested they were in what he was teaching. I taught math to the same group of kids, and while I poured all my energy into creating interesting, strong lessons for them, I spent most of the class just trying to make myself heard.

When he heard that, he told me a story about a teacher he knew once. At the time, I wasn't aware that Mentor was trying to teach me something; I just thought it was a story. But I still compare myself to the teacher in his story to see how I measure up. The teacher he told me of was an older gentleman. He would show up to school with a briefcase under his arm, wearing the same tweed jacket with elbow patches, walk into class, and start writing on the board. For narrative clarity, let's call him Tweed.

One day, as Mentor was walking by the class, he saw a student walking out. When the student saw Mentor in front of him, he stopped in his tracks, wide-eyed, clearly caught doing something he shouldn't be doing. When Mentor asked the student what he was doing, the student responded that he needed to go to the washroom. When Mentor asked whether the student had asked for permission, he sort of shook his head, but explained that he had tried. Apparently, he had raised his hand for a while, but having received no response, he finally just left. He even offered to show Mentor what he meant. When Mentor gave his approval, the student returned to his seat and raised his hand. Tweed kept writing on the board. He had noticed neither the raised hand, nor the conversation at the door. After a minute or so, the student left his seat and walked to the door, where Mentor saw no choice but to let the student go to the washroom.

Looking back at it now, I don't know if Tweed was literal character, or an amalgamation of the teachers that Mentor had observed over the years. I like to think Tweed was real, but I suppose it doesn't really matter. I don't know if Mentor told me that story because I was new to the profession, or if he had walked by my classroom and seen something similar in my approach to teaching.

What I do know is this: it took me a while before I was confident enough in my math/teaching skills to stop worrying about the curriculum, and start focusing on the students in front of me. While I still spend hours each week preparing new lessons, I no longer follow them as strictly once I'm in the classroom. There needs to be enough flexibility in a given lesson to allow students to focus on what they find most interesting. I still believe in the importance of planning, but I no longer believe that students will remember everything I taught in a given lesson.

And I think I know understand what Mentor was trying to tell me. What students will remember is how they felt when they were in the classroom. Sure, it's important to focus on the curriculum beforehand. But, in the classroom, the focus has to be on the kids.