30 October 2010

On credibility

One of the perils of being in the business of teaching teachers is that your credibility is on the line whenever you "perform"; if you don't show that you can actually walk the walk, no-one is going to listen to you talk the talk.

In one of my sessions on the post-compulsory education course earlier this year, one of the (mature--as are they all) students was a little late. This was a sanctioned irregularity, but it meant that when he came in, it was to a class in quite heated and I suppose rather unruly debate. People were arguing across the classroom, there were three different conversations going on at the same time, and they were cutting across each other. It was all "on task", though, and it was not difficult to restore order and carry on with the class. Afterwards, the late student came up to me and said he thought that the behaviour in the class was inappropriate and disrespectful, and he could not possibly have taught in such chaos. He said it with reference to the class, but it was clear that it was just as much about me, and my apparent inability to control their behaviour, with the sub-text of, "if you let that kind of behaviour occur in your own class, how do you have any right to tell us how to control our classes?"

Quite right, too. Up to a point; he teaches teenagers, and there was no way in which I would have been prepared to allow anarchy in such a group. And we had earlier discussed the issue of teaching styles appropriate to different groups of students, in the course of which I had drawn attention to the need for a different approach on this course from that which would be needed with their own students. Nevertheless, I had in his view failed to model the skills of classroom management which  the course would in time assess him on, and in that sense he was right.

With all classes, credibility is critical. I'm acutely aware of that, in that I spent twenty years teaching under false pretences. I taught social workers, and I was neither an experienced nor qualified social worker (but I did have quite good academic credentials, and in those days that counted more with appointment panels than proper experience; I didn't fake anything).

After a while, of course, I could have faked it. For the latter ten years of my involvement, a staple of our Centre's menu of courses was ASW (now AMHP) training under the Mental Health Act 1983*. After years of listening to experienced social workers telling the stories of their practice, I would certainly have fooled any lay-person, almost all non-specialist social workers and a good proportion of the real McCoy...

* The actual terms don't matter; the point is that they were about the use of legal powers to detain people with mental disorders. And for the record, out of the five of us who taught most of those courses, two were experienced ASWs, one was a legal specialist, the fourth a mental health specialist, and I was the charlatan!

In practice, I was up-front about my lack of experience. Not only did it preserve me from gaffs which would have severely undermined my (and indeed our) credibility, but it could also be used to subvert the agenda of resentment among many long-established Mental Welfare Officers who--by statute--had to be retrained. Sub-text; "I'm not here to tell you how to do your job (because I'm not an expert on that), just to work out how it has changed in a new legal context..."

However! I was reminded of all this, which re-surfaces at the start of each academic year as you consider how to establish--as quickly and easily as possible--the most appropriate relationship with each new class. (Incidentally, you can't get it right. It's not your fault. It's a feature of the system.) And I remembered...

In the dim and distant past (at the latest 1972) I was an assistant lecturer grade A (which for some reason was even lower down the pecking order than grade B) in "Liberal Studies" (a weirdly idealistic educational initiative of the late '60s onwards in the UK to 'liberalise' technical education by teaching students anything they did not want to know about...) (Sorry about all the parentheses, by the way).

Liberal Studies was a statutory requirement of vocational courses, but course managers rightly regarded these sessions as superfluous and pointless and so they competed to schedule them for the least desirable teaching slots. Such as 7-9 pm at the end of a full day-release programme. And Friday afternoons, of course...

So it was that I acquired a class of about 20 electrical technicians from 6.30 to 8 on a Thursday evening. They were there because, and only because, if they did not appear on the register they would be reported to their employers. They in their turn couldn't care less, but hey! Any excuse to dock wages is good for the bottom line, right?

The class was not assessed, other than by attendance, so there was no incentive for students to engage with what I was teaching. So baiting me was the most entertaining way of passing the time...

"Psychology of Personality" was one of my standard packages for such circumstances. Most people are interested in themselves, after all. So we started with the Maudsley/Eysenck Personality Inventory. I used to use it in the first session with minimal introduction, get the students to score it, and then wait for my cue. That was the "What's it all mean, then?" question. (I make no claims for this as a scheme of work. It was a means of survival, that's all. I might be more sophisticated nowadays... or maybe not...)

This time it wasn't enough. In the view of a vociferous minority of the group, administering someone else's questionnaire did nothing for my credibility. One of them challenged me; "If you're a psychologist--prove it! Psychoanalyse me!".

[Note: this is not a verbatim quote, although given that the incident is almost 40 years old, I have not had to delete any expletives---but he did use the word "psychoanalyse", which would probably not be in the vocabulary of his contemporary counterparts. Whether of course he had any idea of what it meant, I know not. I attach no significance to this; I am merely trying to establish his terms. And I'm not a psychologist.]

I was on the spot, so I rose to the challenge. (I should have risen above it, but that is easier said than done, even with more experience than I then had...) I burbled banalities worthy of a tabloid astrologer, about "liking to be liked" and "feeling misunderstood sometimes", and he seemed to be listening. But I realised I had to take a risk and be more specific. I thought of the way he had taken the lead in challenging me, and wondered whether his emotional investment suggested he felt a little threatened. So I suggested that he had a problem with anger (nowadays we would talk about "anger management").

I thought I had blown it. He denied it (angrily). But then his mates laughed and joined in--"Too true!", "You've nailed him", "Spot on!", and in the face of the onslaught he conceded that occasionally he got a little carried away.

And my credibility soared. I had passed the test! And I survived. (We did not do evaluations any more sophisticated than that in those days...)

How perspicacious was I? Not very. I didn't become aware of how it worked until twenty-odd years later, listening to Radio 4 while driving the Northampton ring-road (strange how locations stick in the mind...) I was, unknown to myself, making use of the Forer (or Barnum) effect, which does indeed underpin newspaper horoscopes.

The only value I added lay in my guess about anger issues, which required little more than observation and basic inference. "And that has made all the difference."

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