Here is a problem: Few people like authority figures, while fewer still like to be controlled. No one likes to be told off or told what to do and authority figures are generally despised, especially by the young who see them as representative of the establishment and thus to be railed against.
That the police are authority figures is beyond dispute as no one has much trouble visualising the police exercising control. We see such images on the television, in films and in newspapers daily. Normally there are formidable numbers of them lined up against crowds of angry protesters. Rarely do we see solitary police officers controlling unruly groups, as very quickly backup will have arrived.
A lone police officer facing an unruly gang of a dozen angry strikers, football hooligans or disenfranchised youths seems to be in an unenviable position. Even armed with a stab- proof vest, helmet, side-handled baton, gas canister, handcuffs, Taser and the authority to use it all, few normal people would want to change places with an officer at that moment. Yet English teachers find themselves in similar situations on a daily basis.
It might be difficult to equate a class of children with an angry mob, and few classrooms ever resemble a picket line or the outpourings of a football stadium, but in the confined space of a classroom twelve noisy, disobedient teenagers can be just as threatening for a teacher armed with nothing more than a whiteboard rubber and a fistful of markers.
The majority of English language teachers lack the police officer’s extensive training in aggression management, non-verbal communication awareness and self-defence. Most English language teachers cannot rely on the arrival of backup and have to resolve situations of conflict themselves. For many, especially the teacher new to the profession, controlling a conflict situation can often be more stressful and difficult than for the well-trained police officer.
Consider that a police officer is not allowed on the streets alone until he has done many weeks of intensive training and role-plays designed to prepare him for what he will face. Self-defence is emphasised during initial training and at six-monthly intervals during operational service. Self-defence not only includes elements of martial arts and weapons training; it also places great emphasis on the need to be able to understand the mental state of a suspect through a deep understanding of non-verbal communication, of psychology, empathy and of self-awareness.
During the first months that the officer is allowed on the streets he will be accompanied by a tutor constable who will monitor his progress and assess when he is ready to undertake “independent patrol”. That day is one of the most stressful of the new officer’s career.
How different the English teacher’s preparation for their role as authority figure and controller. Teacher training is normally brief and prepares the teacher for the classroom environment in much the same way as a four week course on the theory of flight with a few brief minutes in the cockpit might prepare a pilot to begin commanding commercial jet flights.
While self-defence is rarely, but not never, needed in the English classroom, self-awareness, empathy and the ability to understand the students is vitally important. More important still is an understanding of how to recognise and deal with problems that may manifest as nothing more than an easily overlooked non-verbal communication. It seems fatuous to say that control techniques are needed if control is to be exercised, but most TEFL courses have no such content.
When a police officer deals with a difficult, stressful situation, such as a fatal car accident, they are immediately offered counselling. The police service recognises that traumatic events can have dramatic effects on their personnel’s mental wellbeing. A teacher walking out from a difficult and stressful class has no such support. The TEFL teacher feels that they must deal with their inner turmoil autonomously.
It is easy to see from what has been said why so many new teachers find their first, and often last, year of teaching to be the most stressful, disheartening experiences of their lives. I have witnessed many teachers, new and experienced alike, become stressed and disenchanted trying to deal with demands for which they lacked training. I have analysed my own teaching experiences since I began to apply the skills and training I received as a police officer to my life in the classroom.
Colleagues are always asking why I remain so calm and relaxed about teaching. They ask why my students are mostly content and cooperative. They have asked me to pass on some of my “secrets” to help them better enjoy their teaching experience. The result is this and many more articles.
The aim of these articles is to equip you with the skills you need to effectively assume the role of authority figure that being a teacher imposes upon you. I hope to give you an insight into yourself and others that will help you look differently at the situations of conflict you will doubtless find yourself in. I will help you deal not only with your students, but also with yourself. I will also help you to deal effectively with your peers, student’s often difficult and demanding parents, inflexible employers and an environment that is often not what you expected or want. I will persuade you to step back a little from problem you will encounter and put them in the correct perspective. I will encourage you to use your new-found skills and abilities to deal with problems or conflicts effectively, calmly and to the mutual satisfaction of yourself and others.