Somewhere deep within the memory banks of every teacher there lies a recollection of their best lesson. A lesson where everything went right. A lesson where the traditional distinction between teacher and learner, between content and learning, and between time and space are somehow transcended by the shared experience. That recollection can be triggered by the strangest things and for me it happened on Saturday evening watching a documentary about Puccini’s opera, Tosca.
As a PE teacher, probably better know for my involvement in rugby and team sports, it might be something of a surprise that the memory of my best lesson is triggered by such an unlikely stimulus. The lesson itself took place in February 1994, in a gym at Earlston High School, where I was Principal Teacher of Physical Education. I had returned to the school three years earlier from a secondment to the Scottish Centre for Physical Education, Movement, Sport and Leisure. During that time I had decided that when I went back to school that I was going to try to teach and promote dance for all pupils in the school. Now this was going to be quite a challenge as I had no ability as a dancer, nor was the Scottish Borders the most obvious cultural context for teaching dance ,especially to boys. And so it was that we set about, with my colleagues at that time, attempting to create a culture in the school where dance was just something that everyone did and enjoyed.
Part of my logic had been to challenge the traditonal orthodoxy of rugby for boys and hockey for girls and the simple stereotypes that we as teachers fulfilled in the eyes of the students, i.e. I was a man, I was rugby player, I taught rugby, therefore I was only interested in teaching boys and rugby. The type of dance I’m referring to here is creative dance. What we would do was give the students a quality movement vocabulary, confidence to move in time with music and then use a dramatic theme to get them to create their own routines. As you can probably imagine it took a bit of doing but it was probably at this time that I came to understand the power of modelling behaviour, i.e. if I wasn’t prepared to do it (dance) then I couldn’t expect the students to do it. This led to me attempting to demonstrate, experiment, and in all honesty show myself up in front of the children. On reflection the very fact that I wasn’t an expert was probably in my favour as we learned together and this created an atmosphere where the learners seems to have much more power than in other areas where I was the assumed “expert”.
Anyway back to the lesson, some three years later. By that time we had established dance as an acceptable activity for boys and girls. We ran an annual school dance festival where over 300 students took part and at least 50% of the participants were boys. In Higher Physical Education we offered an option between dance and tennis and more boys opted for dance than tennis, three of whom also played rugby for Scottish Schools Under 18s. The class I remember was an S4 Standard Grade PE class who were taking their second unit of dance in a two year course. There were 25 in the class and more boys than girls. They were a great bunch of kids and I knew that if ever there was a group to try something different it would have to be them. With that in mind I had popped up to the music department to borrow some classical music. Ever helpful, my colleague suggested I try Puccini’s Tosca as it was full of “wonderful” themes. The series of lessons began with us listening to the recording and selecting a piece for us to create a dance. I stood back as they argued about which one would be the best and eventually settled upon”E Lucevan Le Stelle”. Over the next six weeks we created an incredible piece of work around the theme of the death of two lovers, ending in a funeral ceremony where they are carried and laid to rest by their peers. If you’ve never heard the music I can thoroughly recommend it but what was amazing how this group of young people came to love and understand the music for itself – despite having no understanding of the opera itself – in fact I deliberately didn’t explore the themes of the opera in case it compromised their own ideas.
What was so incredible was how the students came to care about the quality of the work, the quality of the movement and expression and their desire to ensure that everyone was included in the piece. Sure they looked to me for support and I’d occasionally steer them when required but to all intents and purposes the lesson became theirs, and they were proud of that fact.
The culmination came one day when they pulled all the various elements of the dance together. The two lovers coming together, their death and sense of loss, their friends finding them and expressing their collective grief, and the dignity of the funeral ceremony. I’m not afraid to admit that I wept – along with many of them – at that scene. In fact the music still lifts the hairs on the back of my neck even now.
My best lesson – but it belonged to them – perhaps this is what good teaching should always be?