A teacher’s words: Respecting students’ choices

As a teacher, you learn constantly from a lot of people about how to do your job but amongst the biggest inspirations regarding the Dos and Donts are your own teachers when you were younger. One thing I learnt from a PE teacher I had throughout my lycée years, so 16-18 years old, was to respect pupils/students’ choices when it comes to major decisions, even, and especially, when you would disagree with them.

I was 17 and that was the final year before university, the one that can only be cleared if you pass the Baccalauréat, which is terribly difficult and daunting in France. That was the first day of PE (or sports) for the senoir years – Terminales – and all of us were to be sorted in three groups so the on-going examination could start. You never sit a PE exam, what you do throughout the year will be your final grade.

So we were offered three options:
1. Swimming/Basketball/Athletics.
2. Gymnastics/Volley ball / Badminton.
3.Volley ball / Basketball / Swimming.

As I said, how you are going to fare during the three trimesters at each sport is going to determine your final mark and the extent to which the door to university is open. Having a terribly weak spot in Maths, I was not going to risk it so I put myself in Group 2 because I used to be a gymnast, I love volley ball and have a killing serve, and am unbeatable at badminton.

However, Group 2 found itself overflowing. The teachers needed an evenly spread number of students in each group, about 30, and we were 45 in Group 2. I guess the choices of sport were poor and, frankly, as teenagers, we pretty much all wanted to avoid the pool at all costs for it meant tiny speedos et al… So there we went for 20 minutes of three teachers standing in front of their seating groups, with Group 1 particularly empty, trying to convince almost a third of Group 2 to join the others.

Some are convinced, stand and go sit on the opposite corners. I don’t really pay attention that we are coming close to 30 in my group until my name echoes in the building and the PE teacher I had the past two years singles me out so I would switch. She knows I am obedient, quiet and would rather die than make a fuss but I refuse. She then proceeds to tell I am “too fat for gymnastics”…In front the whole year and I am “good at basketball”.

I am fuming. I have been struggling with my weight for over 7 years, secondary school was five years of endless bullying that drove close to suicide countless times and during my lycée years, I was stubbornly refusing to eat anything during the day and would only eat in the evening.

But I keep it down and refuse, again. She insists, piling up on the insults and spreading my whole performance sheet of the last two years for everyone to hear and which turns out to be highly erroneous. This goes for a couple of minutes until I stand up in front of the whole assembly, boiling, my hands shaking, clenched into fists so it doesn’t show and I tell her she is wrong.

I am 1m76 tall, I say, which doesn’t not bode well for basketball, a sport I absolutely loathe and being forced to play it every single year since primary school has not helped. I find the ball too big, too hard, the rules are inexplicably complicated and I have never managed to actually net a single ball in my life. As far athletics, I walk faster than I run. I need 20 minutes to walk my 3.2 km to school every day morning then evening but still require almost 50 minutes for the same distance when running.

She retaliates with javelin and discus in which I am indeed quite good but she can’t commit to them being as important as all the running we will have to do. As for swimming, I tell her she should know I can’t do it after teaching me for the past two years. Indeed, the chemical in the pool and the endless diving we have to do trigger debilitating ear infections and cause all the tiny blood vessels in eyes to burst. There is no discomfort in terms of vision but I do look like I am coming from the Village of the Damned. My eyes are entirely red with blood except for the iris and it takes weeks to recede. On other hand, she does know I was a gymnast and I have always been top of the class in volley ball and badminton.

She doesn’t give up so I go on the attack and tell her this is my exams, my future, my decision to take, not hers. She actually made those two first points very clear before presenting the groups. I know why I am being singled out, because she assumed I would bow and do as said but this is the most important exam of my life. Would she to overrule me, I will go the school authorities, if not enough the Rectorat de Versailles, which rules over every academic questions in the west of Paris, to get my way. It’s about me, not about the school’s poor decisions in setting up the options and limiting the numbers.

It’s been 16 years, half of my life ago, and I remember every word I said, the stunt silence in the room in the face of someone who has never caused any trouble and is now standing up to a his teacher. The silence felt endless.

We stare at each other. Like with my dogs, I will not let go until she lets go. She eventually does, looks at her two colleagues and signals for me to sit down in a resigned manner. Group 2 remained with 34. Come to think of it, there seemed to be a general feeling that I was talking sense and some would follow my lead so the case needed to be closed asap.

As a teacher today, I am still using that day to know how to behave when my students are facing my life-altering choices: GCSEs, A-Levels, university pick…even adults when deciding whether to sit an exam or not. Why? Because I am the one who makes the final call for I sign the papers or am the link between the hierarchy / exam boards and the student so I try to be everything that PE teacher wasn’t that day.

What I wanted from this teacher was for her to realise that my choice was not whimsical. I didn’t sit on the part of room assigned to Group 2 because I followed my friend or I wanted to avoid something. I chose because I listened to the options and I went for what I knew would benefit me the most. I chose excellence before anything else but she disputed that in the worst possible way. I would have accepted her trying to understand my motives behind my decision but she didn’t. Maybe because of my age or because she didn’t care about me, which is worst as a teacher, she just flatly countered me, called me fat in front of a room full of teenagers and relentlessly picked on me until I had to threaten her.

I also wanted her to realise there was a much bigger question behind getting an even number of students in each group: our future. At the end of the year, every single of the 14 or 15 subjects I had to sit for my Baccalauréat mattered towards the end grade and, as we were told constantly, this was our responsibility to ensure we succeeded. We were not children anymore, school was not compulsory anymore at our age so teachers were there simply to teach us and we were there to ensure to get and make the best out of it. All of that was irrelevant to her: she needed numbers to match her administrative expectations.  At the time, I felt she could have made the case for a bigger group because of badly chosen options and learn from it. Today, I am sure of it because I experienced it.

Nowadays, if there is a numerus closus or an obligation for me to ensure the best results and therefore the best candidates for any kind of selection process, and if I am in disagreement or have my doubts regarding the choice of X or Y: I ask questions about choices but never question them as such. I interview the ones I think would struggle considering the present data so I can give them the information I have, the conclusions I drew from them so I can assess their motivation for I know someone motivated and willing can achieve greater than someone who might be better to begin with but takes their talent for granted. And I do that privately, one to one or with parents and selected teachers because they lead in the subjects in questions, not name and shame in public.

At the end, I was vindicated with a reasonable 10/20 in gymnastics, a 16/20 in volley ball and a 18/20 in badminton. That’s a overall of 14.5/20 in PE.

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