Image still from the movie Entre les murs
This weekend, I made the exceedingly long journey to Vancouver for the BC TEAL Lower Mainland Regional Conference. I had a great time and I will certainly blog about that soon, but that isn’t the purpose of my post today. On the plane back from the conference, I watched the movie Entre les murs, an intriguing movie about a teacher and his middle school class in Paris. Even though I am not a K-12 teacher, I found it to be a fascinating and quite convincingly realistic voyage through a typical school year. I think the thing that caught my attention the most was that I felt like it wasn’t contrived, a compelling story without the need of a storyline. Unlike many of films on schools put out by Hollywood, this story didn’t have a hero or villain, blatant agenda or mountain top experience. Instead, this story left me with more questions than answers. In the end, I didn’t find myself really liking or detesting either the teacher or the students. I felt a variety of emotions throughout the film, but none stayed consistent. Instead, it got me thinking about my classroom, my approaches to teaching and how I can learn from this situation. Here are my somewhat scattered thoughts:
- Students will deviate from your plan, so be prepared to follow along instead of punishing them for being creative. On the first day in the classroom, the students are asked to put their names on a folded piece of paper. Students start taking time to decorate their paper with drawings and other designs, while the teacher complains that it is taking too long and they should simply get it done. I believe there is a time to stop students from taking too long to get something done, but only if the students are deliberately doing it to waste time. In this situation, I think the creativity of the students added to the task.
- Don’t chastise students for questioning why you are asking them to do something. We want students to become more critical thinkers, so why are we getting angry at them if they are doing that with you? I get that it can be a bit annoying at times (who likes being questioned all of the time), so find ways to communicate this ahead of time so as to reduce this as much as possible. That way, you will only get questioned if they feel differently about it than you.
- Be balanced in your time with the students. In this situation, the teacher was calling certain students out more than others, causing them to fight back and feel attacked. If there is a real issue, find a way to deal with it directly outside of the view of the whole class.
- Don’t talk about the students with the new teachers before they have a chance to develop their own opinions first. In the movie, the teachers get together before the school year to get their class lists and then they sit down together and tell each other which students to avoid and which students are great. The problem with this is that teachers walk into the classroom already prepared for a fight, when the real issue might be something much deeper, possibly even related to the previous teacher.
- Remember, students are people as well. Treat each other with respect. In this movie, the teacher is always demanding respect from the students. The administrator makes students do things to teach them how to respect one another. Demonstrate it, talk about it, but don’t demand it.
- Be careful not to do things out of revenge. In the tense part of the movie, the teacher ends up insulting two of the girls in the class after they do something that hurts the teacher. Yes, I would be hurt as well, but revenge is a terrible way to handle it.
- Discuss things openly with your students. There is one part of the movie where the teacher storms into the playground to approach the students about something they (legitimately) complained about him to the administration. The dialogue that happens is refreshingly real and, while not ideal, is the only time in the movie that I feel the teacher treats the students as real people. The students respond by sharing openly about how they feel. It is a tense situation, but one that I feel leads to the biggest change in the teacher’s thinking about his students. I only hope my students feel as comfortable about sharing their thoughts with me without having to wait for the situation to come to a boiling point.
- Related to the previous point, students should feel comfortable to express their opinions about doing things a certain way. In many parts of the movie, students question the things the teacher is asking them to do and some even refuse to do them. While out and out refusal is not healthy (although, normal at this age), there is no need to make an example of them in front of the others. Find out why they don’t want to do something and work with them to find a way to get something done in the way they feel helps them. Sometimes, we need to do things we don’t like in order to complete a larger task, but this is about learning. If they are growing and it isn’t disrupting others in the classroom, go with it.
- There needs to be a more balanced approach to dealing with ‘problems’. In one part of the movie, the teachers are talking about a points based / demerit system for dealing with students who break the rules. The discussion quickly shows the reasons why this type of structure leads to more issues. They mention that it comes from a negative view of students and doesn’t support good students. Some of the parents mention that teachers are too negative with their students, criticizing them instead of building them up. One teacher responds by mentioning that they already get rewards such as grades(!), honour role, and moving up to the next grade. It made me realize how often we see the lack of punishment as a reward, when they are two different things. The lack of something is not the same as the opposite of something. You didn’t fail so that is a reward? Not buying that idea. The alternative idea that is mentioned is to give points for those who do good, but others in the group think that students who collect a pile of points might use them to buy them freedom to be bad later on. Again, we are viewing students from a negative view, always wanting to break rules instead of wanting to be a part of things. If this is how we start with students, isn’t that just going to cause them to be fatalistic and end up doing what we are trying to avoid? Why not assume they WANT to be good, WANT to help out, WANT to be part of the solution? There has to be a better way then points and awards.
- Support one another as teaching professionals. In one part of the movie, a teacher loses it in the staff room and the others are stunned as if they had no idea it was coming. In a supporting environment, this could be avoided, or at least minimized, by supporting one another instead of internalizing everything.
- There needs to be more training for teachers on how to deal with problems. In my field of adult language teaching, there is very, very little in regards to educating teachers on how to deal with issues that come up in the classroom. I don’t remember ANYTHING in my certificate program, although my MA did deal with this quite well. Without this, students and teachers are both going to end up getting hurt, and this could easily be avoided with proper training before going into and while in the classroom. In the movie, many of the things that led to problems started with the teacher not being able to respond well to what was happening in the classroom. Dealt with properly from the start, these issues may have never gotten to the point that they did.
I don’t want people thinking that I have all of the answers. There were many times in the movie that I wondered what in the world I would do in that situation. This film gave me a deeper appreciation for what K-12 teachers experience on a daily basis. It isn’t easy and I would never think for one moment that I would do any better in that situation. I haven’t been there, but it was just a way for me to reflect on similar things that arise in my area of work.